Making diversity part of a company’s business strategy, with the goal of broadening customer, employee, or supplier bases, is probably the most effective solution, says Dobbin, but few finance chiefs approach diversity in that way, at least according to CFO’s survey. The vast majority said diversity efforts were not a high priority; even more troubling, many respondents (20 percent) at companies with $1 billion or less in revenues said diversity efforts were not a priority at all. Few finance chiefs participate in corporate efforts to improve diversity; up to 15 percent of respondents don’t know if their companies even have such efforts in place. “Too many CFOs leave diversity to HR,” says Steve Ehrenhalt, a principal in Deloitte’s finance consulting practice.
Lawsuits, of course, can prove galvanizing. Coca-Cola recently spent six years implementing and measuring various diversity efforts after African-American employees charged the beverage giant with discrimination. As a result, the percentage of women executives increased by 60 percent between 2000 and 2006, and the percentage of minority executives increased 250 percent in that same period. The morale of minority employees improved as well.
Companies that have made strides in fostering diversity often find they can leverage minority employees to learn more about customers and gain a recruiting advantage. Wal-Mart, for example, has encouraged Fung to get involved in a nascent scholarship fund that the company is co-sponsoring for Asian and Pacific Islander students, speak to chapters of the National Asian American Society of Accountants, and mentor eight employees (some of whom are white males). In fact, he says that 15 percent of his bonus rides on his efforts to help bring diversity into finance. Ironically, that has meant getting reconnected to a part of his identity that he had put away for many years. “It may seem odd,” he says, “but I’m much more attuned to my heritage now because of Wal-Mart’s desire to understand more about different groups.”
That strategy can pay off, says Dobbin. “We’re finding that having just one woman or minority among the top 10 managers is very effective in bringing others into management,” he says. Good for the company, but it can pose a burden to the employee. “I want to be considered based on my skill set as a financial professional, not as an Asian,” says Fung. “If I ever felt that I was in a role because I am Asian, I — and I daresay almost any other Asian — would quit.”
All the executives interviewed for this article were quick to downplay the impact that being a minority or a woman has had on their careers. All point to substantial track records of hard work and opportunities seized. But even as they frame their own achievements in strictly personal terms, many female and minority CFOs feel an obligation to help others rise to the top. Toben tries to help women who report to her change jobs every two to three years to give them the same opportunities for promotion that she had. Verizon’s head of internal audit and treasurer are both women, as are several key executives who report to them. Bell, who admits that “we don’t have enough Black representation throughout finance or other areas of the organization,” makes a concerted effort to create a diverse slate of candidates for all executive-level assignments. That “helps the finance leadership team [about a dozen of the company's most senior finance executives] know about more people, and it helps me know we have a level playing field.”