Disruption is the new normal. Today’s world economy stands out for its complexity, uncertainty and the breathtaking pace of technological change. Keeping abreast requires extraordinary understanding and agility. Both can be enhanced, in business or government, by promoting diversity and inclusion.

But diversity is one of those tricky concepts that is easy to misunderstand. Once, it principally signified compliance. Then it began to be promoted as a tool to match the different strata of societies in which companies operated in order to better understand and predict stakeholders’ needs. Over time, diversity has come to be acknowledged as an essential enhancer of corporate productivity, performance and talent engagement.

Look at the evidence

While recruiting the best talent remains essential, diversity trumps talent. Different studies show cognitively diverse teams regularly outperform counterparts comprising “just” highly gifted people. Diverse groups do best at complex problems and innovation when the facts aren’t clear: each individual’s perspective allows him or her to tackle challenges differently, and, when stuck, rely on others’ differing points of views to progress.

Unfortunately, it is hard to find a single model to promote diversity. Revealingly, this year’s Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI), the annual study by INSEAD, the Adecco Group and Tata Communications that analyses what influences nations’ and cities’ talent competitiveness, shows that top talent-champion countries are not consistently successful when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

The fact is that, beyond all the bombast, diversity is hard, and no country or company has completely cracked it yet. Combing the GTCI reveals that top-ranking Switzerland, for all its strengths across all six pillars of the model, ranks only 21st in leadership opportunities for women; Nordic countries rank very highly for social mobility and gender parity, but lag in attracting foreign talent and developing multicultural societies. Finland is only 35th for external openness, for example.

Image: GTCI Index 2018

The same is true for companies, and we in the Adecco Group are no exception. Although 61% of our 33,000 global staff are women, doing skilled and amazing work, that percentage drops at executive level.

Of course we are working on it – but change won’t come overnight. And, of course, it is not only about gender: from age to different abilities, ‘identity diversity’ permits the ‘cognitive diversity’ needed to tackle today’s challenges and unpredictability. This is where we are making an effort: by bringing young people into the workplace, by helping organisations integrate people with different abilities, including elite athletes, into the labour market.

Diversity requires commitment. Achieving the superior performance diversity can produce needs further action - most notably, a commitment to develop a culture of inclusion. People do not just need to be different, they need to be fully involved and feel their voices are heard.

We must start young

That’s easier said than done, as the approach does not come naturally, and it requires social skills and collective intelligence. It is paramount start early.

I try to see the process as a life cycle. Nurturing an inclusive culture begins in the family. Home is the first place to foster openness and a culture of inclusion. That means assigning the same tasks and expecting the same results from sons and daughters – a gender neutral and collaborative approach that can nip stereotypes and unconscious bias in the bud.

Similar efforts should be formalised at school. Education from kindergarten is the place to shape a culture of inclusion, combat stereotypes and unleash people’s potential. This is where we develop our social and collaborative skills, embrace differences and celebrate their richness. So our schools should deepen training in appreciating diversity and in collaboration.

University often provides a first real opportunity for international exchange and multicultural training. Programmes like Europe’s Erasmus project, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2017, are particularly welcome. It’s worth remembering that academic research teams nowadays are, by default, always extremely cognitively diverse to foster innovation, lateral thinking and problem solving.

Talent mobility is crucial here. ‘Brain circulation’ – the buzzword used to denote open environments and international exposure - boosts diverse personal experience and cognitive diversity in its wake. Learning through exposure to different cultures and being challenged by different systems stimulates deeper and more complex thinking, problem solving, flexibility and creativity. Finally, role models are particularly apt at smashing gender preconceptions, starting with the potential for boosting girl’s participation in STEM studies.

A common place for role models is the workplace. But for diversity to be effective, it must be managed properly. Recruiters can implement inclusive approaches throughout people’s careers. In the hiring process, beyond fighting bias, recruiters must think proactively about the differences in culture, mindset, and leadership styles in their teams.

Setting the right tone from the top is essen­tial, but not sufficient. Organisations also need to ‘operationalise’ diversity and inclusion by embedding such concepts into every­day business practice. That means, for example, redefining the way managers hire, run teams, assign targets, and promote and remunerate individuals. Diversity training, and training in collaborative skills are key tools here.

Governments and employers must act

Achieving these aims requires action.

· Political leaders must focus on innovative education policies and on stimulating openness.

· The same applies locally and regionally. Zurich, which leads the cities section of GTCI 2018, stands out for its openness, alongside business-government relations and international relations.

· Employers must prioritize diversity and inclusion from the top and operationalize such policies across their organisations.

· They should foster cultures of inclusion beyond superficial ‘identity diversity’ by concentrating on training and by creating environments in which everyone feels respected and heard.

The journey to excellence via diversity and inclusion is a challenging one, but the promise of a shared future, overcoming the fractures of our age, is worth it.

The Global Talent Competitiveness Index 2018 is available here.