'The secret is to talent-spot and invest in your people'

Earlier this year, BBC directors waived their 2007/08 bonuses after confirming that this year's diversity targets, including a pledge to increase the proportion of black and minority ethnic (BME) staff in senior management positions to 7 per cent, would not be met.

The Metropolitan Police meanwhile, which had set itself a quota of 25 per cent BME officers by 2009, but has so far reached just 8 per cent, believes this is now "unachievable." It continues to operate a voluntary monitoring process on other diversity targets.

While the Met believes that the "perception of careers in the police service is now dramatically improved in ethnic minority communities" - who now account for 40 per cent of applications - some senior officers believe that the trumpeting of ambitious quotas, while laudable, makes the service little more than a hostage to fortune.

The Civil Service meanwhile has fared better. With 26.8 per cent of its top management posts already filled by women, the 2008 target of 30 per cent is already within reach.

Sir Suma Chakrabarti is permanent secretary at the Department for International Development (DfID). As the most senior non-white civil servant in the country, with 25 years' worth of experience, he believes it is the job of leaders to "instil more confidence" in talented staff who do not fit white or male stereotypes.

In local government, the position is more sketchy, says Martin Horton, director of services at the Improvement and Development Agency for local government.

"Despite the many efforts made over many years now, there are still barriers to entry in both the public and private sector's top tier positions and I do not accept that it is lack of talent that is the problem.

"Our own research suggests that when it comes to rating themselves against their contemporaries, middle-aged, white males - who make up the vast majority of local authority leaders - consistently rate themselves as being above their peers, while women tend to downplay their talents."

If the public sector's record on broadening access to leadership positions is patchy, private sector firms insist that any pressure to be more representative at the top is a turn off.

"The practice of what I would call 'setting the police on' organisations that don't achieve diversity targets would be totally counter-productive in a private setting and would be a disincentive both for existing staff and for new recruits," says Peter Cheese, the global managing director of human performance practice at Accenture, (11,500 UK employees) whose 15-strong UK leadership team includes five women and ethnic minority members.

"Threats around diversity won't work for existing staff and it certainly won't work for the new recruits," he says. "But if an organisation has a genuinely diverse culture and mindset, it is possible to go beyond the platitudes."

If leadership diversity once meant the battle for more female representation on all-male boards, then the diversity landscape, along with discrimination legislation, has become more diverse, and complex, than ever before.

From age, disability and sexual orientation to dress, educational background, political, religious and geographical diversity, the attempt to both reflect society in the workforce and give all candidates an equal chance at the plum jobs has become a pressing issue across industry.

With recent National Office of Statistics figures suggesting that by 2011 only 20 per cent of the available workforce will be white, able-bodied and under 45, and that as many as 50 per cent of the total workforce in metropolitan areas will be non-white by the same year, diversity at all levels of an organisation is no longer a nice-to-do, but a business imperative.

Dr Val Singh, senior research fellow at Cranfield School of Management and co-author of the annual Female FTSE Index and the biennial Ethnicity Index, believes that "many chief executives and chairman have decided to embrace diversity and there is now a lot of goodwill surrounding the issue."

Yet she notes that any question of firms being coerced into having a more representative board of directors merely raises hackles.

"CEO's may now have accepted the need to look more broadly for senior candidates, and in many cases, they have broken out of the male, pale and privately-educated stereotypes," she says.

"But the number one priority among all top firms is always to find the best candidate for the job, not to fill quotas."

Although it has long been suggested that the arguments surrounding gender diversity in the boardroom have long been won, this is not the case, says Singh, whose research concludes that ethnic minority candidates are making faster inroads into UK boardrooms than women.

"Women are half the population, yet command only 10 per cent of senior posts, while ethnic minorities, who represent around 8 or 9 per cent of the population, are already occupying 2.5 per cent of top FTSE jobs."

The issue of gender diversity deservedly gets a great deal of attention, but when it comes to openly gay people making it to the senior ranks of British business, the number of examples - including Russell Martin, HR director of the country's largest insurance firm, Norwich Union, and enthusiastic sponsor of its own networking body for gay, bisexual and transgender staff - is still miniscule.

Simon Hargraves is the commercial director of Pret a Manger; the food chain, which in 21 years has grown from a small, kitchen table business to an employer of 4,000 people.

Since joining the firm in a shop floor position 10 years ago and working his way up through posts in IT and marketing, Hargraves has, he says, "been totally open" about his sexuality.

"At Pret a Manger, we are able to live and breathe diversity without needing hundreds of policies around it. My sexuality has never been an issue at Pret, nor was it an issue for the gay operations director we had here a while back.

"People who need heavy corporate structures in order to do well or who are perhaps rather closed-minded about sexuality, race or gender will not necessarily thrive here or may feel uncomfortable.

"We are a very open firm and our people need to be the same in order to do well in this sort of environment."

'Diversity can genuinely breed innovation in an ideas company such as ours'

IT director Ismail Amla, 42, is one of the 15-strong team that runs the professional services firm Accenture. Born in the UK to Indian parents, he is also human capital lead for the company.

"I believe the business case for diversity is a compelling one, but business in general has not grasped the opportunity yet for a variety of reasons.

Successful organisations have the ability to work with different genders, generations and ethnic origins and all the evidence suggests that diversity can genuinely breed innovation in an ideas company such as ours.

Our clients expect us to reflect their own diverse mix and to understand that a business leader coming from a private school in Hampshire is going to be very different to one living and working in Bangalore.

We do have targets, though not quotas as such, and in some areas - including women returners - we are already meeting them. Speaking for myself though, I would be very disheartened if I thought I was simply a quota.

Accenture doesn't like positive discrimination, but it does recognise that there isn't a level playing field out there. Minorities may need help in networking and they may need additional mentoring and counselling support.

In a sense, my face fits in this role because I am Indian, rather than despite it, and this may well be the case for other firms where offshoring is a vital component of the job."

The secret is to talent-spot and invest in your people

Sir Suma Chakrabarti, 48, was born in India and had an Oxbridge education. He says he has never encountered racism in the Civil Service, but agrees that his own department - DfID - tends to attract "people who care about changing society for the better".

"I'm not a member of any sort of gentleman's club and I'm not sure how many permanent secretaries would be nowadays. The service is very different today from how it was when I joined up and while to the outsider, most of us are involved in preserving the status quo, that really isn't the case anymore. The whole culture here is one of improving society for everyone.

I've mentored a lot of people over the years - many of them ethnic minorities and women - and I have come to the conclusion that the secret to leadership diversity is to talent-spot at an early age and to consistently invest in the people you have.

The Civil Service is a very good career choice, whatever your background, and more young people need to be made aware of this."

'Everyone is aware of our policy and the need to treat people with dignity'

Sangita Katyal, 42, is head of Careers Advice at the Metropolitan Police, where she leads a department of 25 and sees one her prime jobs as encouraging applications form a wider range of recruits. She joined the Met 22 years ago as a non-graduate and has worked her way up via posts with the Stolen Vehicles Squad and New Scotland Yard.

"I was a very naive 20-year -old when I came in as an administrative assistant and I remember not thinking it at all strange that a good deal of my interview was spent discussing my then new-husband and his job prospects.

In the early years, I was the butt of a fair amount of sexist ribbing - much of which went straight over my head because of my strict upbringing.

The Met today is a very different place and treating anybody with less than respect is seen as utterly unacceptable. Everyone is made fully aware of our policies on diversity and the need to treat people with dignity. Diversity runs through everything I do here and I have had no hesitation in recommending a career with the Met to friends and family as well as to clients.

There is no doubt that some Hindus have come across barriers, but I have been lucky. I wouldn't have thought a few years back that I would have been able to achieve this rank, but I have and I love it.

We have never had so many BME officers before and although we are all impatient to see those jobs translated into senior posts at the Met, we recognise that it will still take more time."