01/16/2014 02:11 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2014

How Can You Unlock the Diversity Dividend?

January 15, 2014 would have marked Martin Luther King Jr.'s 85th birthday. It's a reminder to us to see how far we've come in promoting equal opportunities no matter what one's race, ethnicity, gender or religion -- and how far we still have to go.

Those of us who lived through the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and early 1960s know just how difficult -- if not downright impossible -- it was for anyone who wasn't a white male of a certain educational and social background to move ahead in their profession of choice. Those who didn't experience those days first-hand need only watch an episode or two of Mad Men to see the barriers that confronted and constrained women and people of color, no matter how gifted or ambitious.

We can congratulate ourselves on how far we've progressed. We re-elected our first African-American President. A woman is about to take command of GM, a company that symbolizes conventional Corporate America. Demography is driving us towards realizing Martin Luther King Jr. 's dream of diversity: According to the most recent US census, Hispanic and Asian population growth is soaring, far outstripping the growth rate of the white population. Indeed, if current trends continue, the Pew Research Center estimates that by 2050, whites will be a minority.

But many of the issues that Martin Luther King Jr. fought for continue to be relevant today. The Equal Pay Act abolishing wage disparity based on sex was passed in 1963 -- yet women still earn less than men, especially if they take time out of the workforce for motherhood. The following year saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Yet while we see more women and people of color in the workplace, research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) shows that too many face lingering bias and entrenched ideals of white male leadership that stalls their careers several layers below the C-suite.

This has serious implications for our country -- not just from a moral standpoint but from our ability to compete in the global marketplace.

Recent CTI research shows that an inherently diverse workforce that "matches the market" can be a potent source of innovation, as diverse individuals are better attuned to the unmet needs of consumers or clients like themselves. But identifying, leveraging and developing diverse talent demands specific leadership skills and behaviors.

Do you -- and your organization -- have what it takes to unlock the diversity dividend?

To move innovation to implementation requires the buy-in and endorsement of decision-makers at every level. That's why acquired diversity is as important as inherent diversity. Acquired diversity is not who you are but how you act as a result of what you've experienced or learned. Living abroad, for instance, can lead you to appreciate other cultures; growing up with a gay sibling can increase your awareness of the opportunities as well as the challenges associated with an LGBT identity. Coming from a different socioeconomic background, following a divergent educational path, being part of a non-majority culture -- all of these elements enhance acquired diversity. And leaders who have acquired diversity -- whose background and experience has endowed them with an appreciation for difference -- are significantly more likely to behave inclusively than leaders who lack it.

When leadership lacks the background or behaviors to appreciate and endorse difference and fails to foster a speak-up culture, fewer ideas with market potential get implemented. Six behaviors help promote a "speak-up" culture, an organizational environment where everyone feels free to volunteer opinions, suggest unorthodox approaches, or propose solutions that fly in the face of established practice. These behaviors include:

• Ensuring that everyone speaks up and gets heard
• Making it safe to risk proposing novel ideas
• Empowering team members to make decisions
• Taking advice and implementing feedback
• Giving actionable feedback
• Sharing credit for team success

CTI research finds that leaders who exhibit at least three of these six behaviors are more likely to unlock innovative capacity by unlocking the full spectrum of perspectives, opinions and toolkits that diverse individuals bring to problem-solving.

According to CTI research, the vast majority of white-collar employees in the United States work for companies that fail to realize their full innovative potential because their leadership lacks the inclusive behaviors needed to effectively "unlock" the innovative potential of an inherently diverse workforce. Leaders who resolve to inculcate behaviors and disseminate practices that endorse, encourage and empower inherently diverse individuals are far more likely both to retain a broader spectrum of top talent as well as tap into an ever-replenishing well of innovation.

As the country becomes more inherently diverse, our organizations must better leverage its inherently diverse talent to maintain a competitive edge. This is the only way we can continue to advance as a nation and, perhaps, finally achieve Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream.