Audio Quick Take: ABB’s Heidi Robertson on Diversity and Inclusion


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Julie Devoll, HBR: Welcome to the HBR Audio Quick Take. I’m Julie Devoll, Editor for Special Projects and Webinars at HBR. And today I am joined by Heidi Robertson, Corporate Head of Diversity and Inclusion and Employer Branding at ABB. ABB is a leading Global 500 technology company driving digital transformation through industrial automation, robotics and electrification. The company has recently launched its new ten-year diversity and inclusion strategy. Heidi, thanks so much for joining us today.

Heidi Robertson, ABB: Thank you for having me.

Julie Devoll, HBR: ABB has recently announced its new diversity and inclusion strategy, with some ambitious targets. Can you talk about the story behind the strategy, what it entails and how it came to be?

Heidi Robertson, ABB: Absolutely. So historically, our D&I initiatives have been focused on gender. And as our current D&I strategy was coming to an end, we started crafting the new strategy. It was clear that we needed to expand the scope. And with the full support and even push I would say from our CEO, the executive committee and our colleagues around the world, we signed off and launched the D&I Strategy 2030 last month, covering diversity of all dimensions. We have built this strategy on three pillars – inclusive culture and leadership, governance, and partnerships – with six distinct focus areas. One of our targets is to double the share of women in management positions. So exciting times ahead indeed.

Julie Devoll, HBR: You mentioned one of the key pillars is inclusive leadership and culture. And a lot of organizations are finding inclusiveness is less a tactical or policy matter and has more to do with how such an inclusive culture is framed and nurtured. Can you talk a little bit about how you see that in ABB?

Heidi Robertson, ABB: Yes, so an inclusive culture I would say is the foundation for our people to be able to be themselves, to be respected and to also be able to thrive. There is a particular responsibility on the shoulders of our leaders to role model the behavior we want to see, and hence set the standard for our culture. We are training our leaders on inclusive leadership matters, and also on how to interrupt unconscious bias. That is one example. Our culture is also driven by our values and how well those are lived by all our employees. I think we’re really heading in the right direction right now. But obviously, there is still a way to go.

Julie Devoll, HBR: How can organizations at the executive, middle manager or individual contributor level ensure there is shared accountability for diversity and inclusion outcomes? And how will ABB measure and manage to its goals?

Heidi Robertson, ABB: I always say that diversity and inclusion is the responsibility of each and every one of us, every day. Who are you as a colleague, who are you as a leader? And how do you contribute to driving this agenda forward within your perimeter? That said, I believe also that there is a particular responsibility, as I already mentioned, on the leaders. They set the standard by their role modeling, and they influence the decisions in all matters of the employment cycle – for example, hiring, nomination, promotion.

And I also believe that this is a CEO responsibility, to make sure that this topic is considered a business imperative and hence visible in structures as well as behaviors. For ABB, this is clear. Our CEO and Executive Committee are active sponsors, visible role models and active contributors. And on the ground, we have so many dedicated and passionate people who drive awareness and progress forward every day.

When it comes to the measurement, we are clear. What’s measured gets done. We are holding ourselves accountable, and we have established a dashboard to monitor our KPIs on a quarterly basis. We also recently joined the Gender and Diversity KPI Alliance, together with 50+ large companies supporting the use of a common set of key performance indicators to accelerate diversity in corporations.

Julie Devoll, HBR: ABB is a big and very global company with upward of 100,000 employees and operating in over 100 countries. So how do you do diversity and inclusion “at scale”? And how can leaders strike an optimal balance between global goals and programs and local empowerment?

Heidi Robertson, ABB: I think this is a very important point, and for sure “one fits all” is not applicable in this case. In our decentralized model, empowerment as well as accountability are also sitting with our divisions, providing the freedom to adapt the initiatives to the various needs in the different markets. That said, we also have both global targets and initiatives that are applicable for all and which are of universal nature, independent of the different levels of maturity and progress.

Julie Devoll, HBR: Driving improvements in diversity and inclusion within the walls of a large enterprise is tough enough. But for a company like ABB that has a large, complex ecosystem of stakeholders, how can it galvanize positive change across the ecosystem, and up and down the value chain?

Heidi Robertson, ABB: We are seeing more and more an expectation from investors, customers, and both the current and future workforce that we have an inclusive and sustainable approach to the workplace, marketplace and community. Supplier diversity is an important topic, as is how we are influencing positive change in the local communities. Our Code of Conduct gives strong guidance on this matter, as D&I is part of our Code of Conduct.

Also, through our community engagement programs locally in over 40 countries, our employees support and learn on the ground about different aspects of D&I. Some examples would be Special Olympics and the Jürgen Dormann Foundation; we are also Nobel International partners. We also recently signed the Standards of Conduct for antidiscrimination of people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, taking a clear stand on these matters. And we expect our partners and suppliers to adhere to the same standards as we have at ABB.

Julie Devoll, HBR: Of course diversity and inclusion is a highly contemporary topic, but so too is sustainability. And a lot of business leaders are grappling with both of these issues in parallel. So I found it interesting that ABB sees its diversity and inclusion and sustainability strategies as intrinsically linked. Can you share some thoughts about the relationship between the two?

Heidi Robertson, ABB: The Sustainable Development Goals are, as we know, the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future. And goal number five is gender equality. For us, there is a natural link to the Sustainable Development Goals. And we are aiming to progress in all dimensions by pushing the boundaries of technology and energizing the transformation of society and industry.

Julie Devoll, HBR: Heidi, 2020 has been a strange and challenging year for leaders and their teams. How have the pandemic and some of the new concerns that have surfaced, like remote work, organizational resilience, and the role of collaborative tools and digital technologies, affected how ABB approaches diversity and inclusion?

Heidi Robertson, ABB: We have seen that our people have been able to adapt overnight to remote working, with a focus on safety at all levels and management of the running business operations. This sudden shift has required a strengthening in trust-based leaderships where empathy, transparency and communication are critical components. I believe that company values and culture have become increasingly important. They’re kind of the glue that ties the employees together when the working models are changing and when the environment is in constant change and of unstable character.

My observation is that the crisis has led to a stronger unity and feeling of belonging, as a sense of urgency has been pulling the workforce in the same direction. So, we see people mobilizing, we see new ERGs being established, mentor programs growing and panels being set up across regions and timelines. The resilience shown under these circumstances has been truly impressive.

Julie Devoll, HBR: What are some of the best practices—even the next practices—you’ve seen in other organizations that have guided ABB’s approach to diversity and inclusion? And what do highly diverse and really inclusive organizations look like today?

Heidi Robertson, ABB: The optimal state, I would say, is when we do not need the structures and measures anymore, as diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity in the workplace, marketplace and community have become a natural way of doing business. Yet to come, but I’m very encouraged by the movement and the engagement we are currently seeing. And who knows, maybe the predictions of this taking hundreds of years can be proven wrong. Let us at least make sure we do everything in our power to influence the agenda.

Julie Devoll, HBR: Heidi, reflecting on ABB’s journey and what lies ahead, what are some of the key lessons you can impart to other leaders in terms of critical success factors and pitfalls?

Heidi Robertson, ABB: Yes, I would say this is absolutely a continuous journey, and we learn every day. And I think we have learnt a lot also up until now. And maybe the key lessons are the importance of top management commitment and ownership, authentic leadership and role modeling, which are really the bases of our culture. Furthermore, it’s critical that there are structures in place to ensure D&I is embedded in all processes and also becomes a standard part of the business agenda. And of course, what would we be without the incredible engagement of our people? So really we need to empower them to connect and drive the agenda forward on the ground.

Last but not least, never rely solely on a hope of progress. Make sure you get the facts straight, because that is typically a pitfall to be aware of.

Julie Devoll, HBR: Thank you, Heidi for sharing these insights with us today.

Heidi Robertson, ABB: Thank you very much for having me.

Julie Devoll, HBR: If you’d like to learn more about ABB and its vision for diversity and inclusion, please visit ABB.com.



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