Navigating the DEI Landscape in APAC

Insights from Industry Leaders

In the rapidly evolving business landscape of the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) have emerged as not just ethical imperatives but strategic necessities. The discourse surrounding DEI is complex, influenced by a tapestry of cultural norms, regulatory frameworks, and shifting societal expectations.

This discussion draws on the insights of a diverse panel of experts:

These insights offer a comprehensive guide for executives committed to fostering inclusivity.

Leadership as the Cornerstone of DEI Initiatives

Sonal Agrawal underscores the pivotal role of the CEO and the board in spearheading the DEI agenda, setting a clear vision and desired outcomes. "Ownership of this agenda needs to come from the top," she asserts, highlighting the necessity of authenticity and alignment with the organisation's core values. “It's important to keep it authentic to who the organisation is and what the objectives are. Talk more about not just diversity in numbers, which a lot of people get lost in, but about inclusivity and making a space for initiatives to build out. Create a framework so people and teams will be able to implement or drive change.”

Raj Kumar Paramanathan builds on this, proposing DEI's integration into the broader Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) agenda, underscoring the significance of leadership in embodying and promoting DEI values. “We should start by having DEI at the heart of the ESG agenda. And following that, identify the purpose. A good way to start is also through an employee engagement survey, which helps to identify existing strengths and areas for improvement. It also allows leaders to make informed decisions about where to focus their efforts. In terms of leading and owning, the CEO should be leading DEI and walking the talk.”

The Path to Sustainable Change

"Sustained momentum" is crucial, according to Shoon Lim, who emphasises the difficulty of embedding DEI into the organisation's DNA. The process often begins with a reactive trigger but must evolve into a proactive, ingrained set of values and practices. “Sometimes it's triggered by a personality who is passionate about DE&I. You need to have a champion who takes that catalyst and builds DEI into the ways of the organisation, into the DNA and the culture so that you're able to sustain that momentum and keep that progress going—this is critical.”

Caroline Dever adds that the inclusion of diverse voices, and fostering a culture of continuous dialogue and storytelling is vital to maintaining momentum. “It's about how you include all parts of the organisation in your activities. We know that progress takes time, and the small steps keep momentum up. But they also enable conversations to take place that are important for people, to really share their experience as well as tell their own stories.”

Gabrielle Curtin recommends that leaders think about creating lasting change that is not dependent on one person. “If we start with the end in mind, then we're thinking 20 years out, at the same time as thinking about where the organisation sits within the particular ecosystem. Sustaining change becomes not about “me” as in the "Lead Executive." It’s something that has to be carried on by others in the organisation, well after people like me or the CEO have handed on the baton to our successors."

Communicating DEI Authentically

Effective DEI communication transcends mere policy announcements, necessitating relatable and engaging narratives that hopefully resonate across the organisation's demographic spectrum. Dever stresses the importance of creating coalitions and fostering cultural safety, enabling courageous conversations about diverse lived experiences. “We hear a lot about cultural safety, but really that's at the heart of the issue. It can allow organisations to start having more courageous conversations about the lived experience of diverse employees. And it's often when you hear those stories that you can empathise, which in turn helps drive cultural change at all levels of the organisation.”

Identifying Inclusive Leaders

How can the executive search profession assess a candidate's ability in this area? Dever emphasised looking for "demonstrable evidence of how leaders have driven performance through inclusive strategies" and how a leader "empowers others, the curiosity they bring to seeking diverse views, and how a leader holds others accountable for inclusive work practices."

Agrawal adds that assessing a candidate's emotional intelligence (EQ) and how they credit their team versus taking sole credit for successes provides insight into their inclusivity. She notes, "It is hard to quantify...but very simple things like when they communicate, when they talk about their achievements, is it always an 'I' or is it also ‘we'?" This perspective focuses on team acknowledgment and the candidate's problem-solving approach, including their tendency to include others in conversations and decision-making.”

Lim looks for indicators of self-awareness and empathy, particularly whether a leader is aware of their privilege, and conscious of their motivation and acumen to be inclusive, as this awareness is "hugely critical" in determining their ability to lead inclusively.

Together, these observations underline the multifaceted approach required to assess inclusive leadership, emphasising the importance of behaviours, mindsets, and the tangible impact of these qualities on team dynamics and performance.

Leveraging Influence Outside the Workplace

Leaders have an expanding role in driving DEI beyond the confines of the workplace to influence broader societal norms and reduce biases. Curtin emphasises the shift from a narrow shareholder focus to a broader stakeholder engagement mindset and obligation, stating, "The old model of only being accountable to your shareholders short-term is long gone." She highlighted the importance of aligning organisational values with those of employees, particularly for newer generations who prioritize authenticity and meaningful connections. "They operate in their community, and they operate in their marketplace," she notes, underlining the expectation for organisations to reflect their employees' values and contribute positively to society.

Kumar Paramanathan illustrates the personal motivations driving leaders to champion DEI initiatives, sharing that "male leaders, who have daughters, believe they should start paving the way to make it a more inclusive workplace for their daughters." This personal stake underscores a broader recognition of the importance of creating inclusive environments, not just for the immediate benefit of current employees but also for future generations entering the workforce.

Together, these perspectives showcase a comprehensive view of DEI as not just a corporate policy but a societal imperative. Leaders are increasingly seen as pivotal figures in challenging and reshaping societal norms, motivated by a blend of personal values, generational demands for authenticity, and a broader understanding of their role within the community.

Global Perspectives and Local Contexts

The panel acknowledges the importance of adapting DEI strategies to the rich cultural tapestry of the APAC region. Initiatives must respect cultural differences and respond to local challenges, avoiding the imposition of Western-centric models where they simply do not fit. This nuanced approach ensures that DEI efforts are relevant, respectful, and effective across diverse APAC contexts.

Consider the vast diversity within APAC. For example, Kumar Paramanathan says “In any one workplace in Asia, you have a plethora of different nationalities, gender, and a multi-generational workforce. We need to be mindful of cultural nuances when communicating. Most often, the way a Malaysian speaks and the way a European speaks are different. If you don't understand their responses, there will be potential conflict, and this has to be addressed.”

For Lim, “The reality of infrastructure” is another area where local understanding is key. “For example, homes in urban environments are smaller. This creates unique challenges specific to Asia, which is home to some of the largest megacities in the world. We do not have a separate home office. The home office is often, for many parts of Asia, the dining room table in the middle of the house.”

Agrawal describes a unique policy from a client organisation in India. “When a woman comes back from maternity, that's when they often drop out. Many organisations have a creche/crib in the office, but they took it one step further – when the new mother must travel for work, they sponsor travel of the baby and nanny as well. This simple provision has moved the needle in terms of women stepping up, of continuing to perform their roles (which include travel), because they have the support.”

Measuring DEI's Impact Strategically

Lim advocates for intentionality in measuring DEI's impact, linking initiatives to specific business outcomes such as innovation, safety, or customer satisfaction. This approach requires a clear understanding of the organisation's purpose and relevance, strategic objectives, and the alignment of DEI metrics with those goals. Lim explains that the pitfall is the reverse. “When everybody just looks left and right and says, we want to do diversity, we want to follow everyone else and come up with a goal like, 50% women by 2050 or something similar, but have not really sat down and thought about what that means. When they do that then, they disenfranchise everyone in the organisation that isn't in that metric as well as those that are.”

Agrawal shares an example of a company that measures DEI success not just by diversity metrics but by its overall retention rates, indicating a truly inclusive environment. She poses a challenging question: “Is our retention overall better, not just for women? This is working in a truly inclusive way, not just for a part of our community.”

Navigating DEI Backlash

In addressing DEI backlash, Devers points to the need for substantive, measurable DEI initiatives that are directly linked to business objectives. This approach counters criticism by demonstrating the tangible benefits of diversity and inclusion, beyond mere virtue signaling. “A lot of time and resources can be spent on diversity initiatives, and in some cases, there hasn't been the diagnostic on where an organisation is at, and what the critical business case is.” She adds, “It's really about a measurable program of activities and assessing those regularly for effectiveness.”

Curtin emphasises the long-term nature of DEI efforts, advocating for persistence and resilience in the face of resistance. “Most change is iterative and certainly with DEI I've found it's two steps forward, one step back. You have to make sure that as you keep moving (sometimes forwards sometimes back) that you don't lose heart. When I was thinking about this question I thought about Newton's law, as in for every action or force in nature there's an equal and opposite reaction.”

Expert Tips for DEI Success

The panelists conclude with actionable advice for leaders embarking on the DEI journey.

Shoon Lim: "Oftentimes I tell leaders that if you are not intentionally inclusive you will unintentionally exclude. It's important to pause and be intentional in your DEI efforts. And then the second thing I often tell them, because that seems really daunting, is that if you give me effort, I will give you grace. And that's also very, very important for them to remember so that it doesn't paralyze them into inaction."

Caroline Devers: “Building a coalition of people in your organisation at all levels can really push the agenda forward, and it's about being consistent. It's about staying true to the cause. And at every level of the organisation, you should be holding yourselves and your leaders to account around the outcomes you seek.”

Gabrielle Curtin: “You’ve got to make it mainstream. If at the front end, it’s owned by HR or a task force, it’s going to fail. DEI has to be mainstream and ultimately, I think it is about managing risk to leverage strategy. And it’s a long game. You’ve got to take your narcissistic 'self' / 'I can be the hero in this change' out of it and think that what you’re doing is building the foundation for those that come after you. That’s called building a legacy”

Sonal Agrawal: “It's about authenticity and consistency. Pick your vectors. Do the right thing.”

Raj Kumar Paramanathan: “For those of you who don't know where to start, start with DEI in the heart of your ESG agenda, that's more long term and not 'tick the box.' Every other decision follows an impact. Next advice will be don't go out and hire for diversity until you build an inclusive workplace with what you have, right now.”


The journey toward effective DEI in the APAC region is marked by a complex interplay of leadership commitment, cultural sensitivity, strategic communication, and measurable outcomes. By drawing on the diverse experiences and insights of our panel, corporate executives can navigate the challenges of implementing DEI initiatives that are not only compliant with global best practices but also deeply respectful of local nuances. As the corporate world continues to evolve, the imperatives of diversity, equity, and inclusion remain constant, guiding organisations toward a more inclusive, equitable, and dynamic future.