How This Company Is Encouraging Diversity At Every Level — Starting With The Board Room

This article is part of a series of op-eds by CEO signatories who are part of CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, the largest CEO-led business coalition focused on advancing diversity and inclusion in the U.S. 

By Joe Almeida, chairman, president and CEO, Baxter International 

These days, it’s common for leaders to advocate for board diversity. What’s not common is to engage in these discussions while being one of the only men at the table.

This was my reality during a recent not-for-profit board appointment. It gave me a fresh perspective on board dynamics, leadership styles and the power of diversity when an ambitious agenda is in play.

Not that I needed further convincing. In a professional life spanning three-plus decades, I’ve seen countless examples of diversity and inclusion driving superior results. And as the father of two daughters, now both in college pursuing their own career ambitions, I have a very personal stake in gender balance in the workplace.

My experiences have informed my approach to advancing D&I. So has the simple and obvious observation that it’s the right thing to do. 

When I arrived at Baxter over three years ago as incoming chairman and CEO, the company had just spun off its thriving bioscience business as a new company, shedding a formidable proportion of annual net sales and profitability in the process. My mandate was to reinvigorate the remaining business, comprising a wide range of products that are indispensable to modern health care, from IV solutions to generic injectable pharmaceuticals to renal care and ICU technologies and much more.

Several dovetailing priorities rapidly emerged. We had to spark leading-edge innovation across our remaining businesses and key adjacencies. We had to usher in a heightened emphasis on operational excellence. We had to reframe cultural expectations in line with our new reality, and reassert our status as a great place to work for top-tier talent. 

It was an ambitious agenda on multiple fronts, demanding diversity of thought, expertise and insight, but, at the same time, unity around Baxter’s fundamental values, starting with our mission to save and sustain lives. 

Upping the board’s gender and ethnic diversity would not in itself advance this agenda. But demographic diversity is an active ingredient across all these measures. We needed broad social awareness and understanding the same way we needed expertise in areas like research and development, mergers and acquisitions and information technology, all in service of achieving our full potential in a complex worldwide marketplace.

This did not call for a complete reconstitution of Baxter’s board. It did, however, mean taking full advantage of the diverse perspectives embedded in the existing board, as well as welcoming new voices and expertise through strategic board refreshment. Today, ethnic minorities and women make up 50% of our board, and our last three director appointments have been women. Every new recruit brings specialized knowledge in priority areas vital to accelerating performance. And the board is highly engaged in how we advance D&I throughout the company. 

Even as the board set the tone, we needed to work in parallel to drive transformation throughout our worldwide operations. Diversity and inclusion efforts help fuel innovative thinking, while also helping to support a culture in which our employees can be their authentic selves. We’ve supported this through recruiting policies, manager effectiveness training, employee resource groups, a senior leadership global inclusion council and more, ramping up existing practices and policies, and initiating others. 

So, have these efforts made a difference? 

Baxter’s transformation has achieved traction and continues to build momentum across multiple measures, including pace of innovation, customer satisfaction, employee engagement and financial performance. 

We’re also advancing in areas that are easy to observe but tougher to measure, for instance, by instilling a sense of renewed energy across the enterprise, or my own recent experience of attending more and more meetings where diverse voices are driving the narrative, evoking my engagement on that not-for-profit board.

There is no doubt in my mind that D&I has contributed to our momentum. 

I must be careful not to overstate our progress. We still have a long path ahead to achieve our ultimate D&I goals, as well as the full opportunity of our transformation. But our progress so far is real and measurable, and it points the way to our future potential. 

It’s all been made possible by 50,000 diverse, hardworking Baxter employees globally who share a unifying passion for our mission. And our board is helping lead the way to a strong, sustainable future benefiting our many stakeholders.

Together we’re redefining Baxter for its next generation of impact, and I’m excited to see what we can accomplish next… together.