Twenty years of democracy have resulted in some momentous changes within the socio-economic and political landscape, not least in the sphere of employment and labour legislation. This was taken a step further earlier this year with amendments to the Employment Equity Act.

While the amendments gazetted have prompted a mixed reaction, the government noted recent findings that suggest transformation at a senior level is still far from what is required, and qualified and experienced people who were previously disadvantaged should be provided with greater opportunities.

The 14th Commission for Employment Equity report found that last year only 19.8 percent of workers at top management level were black, down from 20.3 percent in 2009. It also showed that white people continued to dominate top management positions at 62.7 percent, while Indians accounted for 8.3 percent, coloured people 5.1 percent and foreign nationals 4.1 percent. Looking along gender and disability lines, the same issues remain with 79.4 percent of top management posts held by men and only 1.5 percent of positions held by people with disabilities.

Yes, this is a stark reminder that we still have some way to go in truly achieving transformation from a senior perspective, but it also shows that existing legislation is not yielding the desired results.

There are no quick wins to achieving true transformation, particularly in the corporate space. Do we want a lot of black people in senior positions quickly, or do we want to create a diverse pool of leaders across all management levels to ensure sustainable transformation? The question of quantity and speed versus quality and sustainability is an interesting one and requires more discussion and consensus.

It is important to remember that transformation should transcend compliance targets and that all efforts should provide effective and long-term objectives.

Transformation is a key focus area within Nedbank’s strategy to ensure that we exceed compliance targets and, more importantly, we are able to identify and reap the resultant economic and cultural benefits of being a bank for all. This is reflected across various indicators, including 54 percent of the board representation being black, of which 24 percent are black women. In fact, Africans, and particularly African women, management representation across the various levels has been steadily improving over the years – with 79 percent of training spend being allocated to black employees.

In addition, Nedbank has an internal awareness campaign for People With Disabilities (PWD). The campaign is aptly themed, ‘My disability has little to do with my ability’, and it celebrates PWD by telling their stories, while demonstrating how Nedbank supports them. The campaign continues to be a success as it raises awareness of different types of disabilities and encourages others to declare their disability status in order to ensure that Nedbank is able to provide the necessary support.

More important is creating an inclusive and sustainable environment. Targets are very important as many would argue that “only what gets measured gets done”. If that is the case, then targets should also have a key measurement that looks at the “how” as much as these look at the “what”. The substitution of one gender or race group from the boardroom table does not solve any problem. It is what individuals bring to the table that provides solutions.

It is important to understand what drives individuals’ thinking and behaviour. This could include a number of factors such as education, gender, race, religion, culture, socio-economic background, as well as the age and era in which a person grew up. When we understand this about others and ourselves, we begin to appreciate that others do not have to be like us, yet if we have a common vision, respect each other and our differences, we are able to benefit from the diversity.

Maximising the power of diversity is also about creating an inclusive environment where everyone feels they have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential regardless of where they come from.

We can no longer downplay the underlying risks associated with diversity mismanagement and exclusionary practices, such as intolerance, stereotyping, misunderstanding and segregation. As we shape the next decades, we should seek to create a more inclusive nation where everyone feels valued, respected and recognised for their contribution. We must also ensure that we seek a common purpose in order to embrace individual and collective roles in creating an inclusive environment for all.

Within Nedbank, we’ve made it our mission to ignite real passion among our workforce, through creating an environment where they feel that they are valued, respected and recognised. Nedbank employees understand that their efforts can and do make a difference in changing people’s lives for the better. There’s so much gratification in knowing that you’ve helped a young employee finance their first car.

Leadership is crucial in creating and championing an inclusive nation. It’s essential that leadership demonstrates a great deal of integrity, transparency, understanding and an intercultural moral point of view that is necessary in promoting inclusiveness.

As a collective, we must create an inclusive environment where unique talents and backgrounds are embraced as key components to positive outcomes. A great deal of value could be derived in recognising, embracing, understanding and celebrating differences among people.

* Abe Thebyane is the group executive of Human Resources at Nedbank. This article is based on a discussion on leadership co-hosted on SAfm yesterday by Nedbank and Business Report as part of the Transformation Dialogues series.