Whitbread boss and Veuve Clicquot businesswoman of the year Alison Brittain has drawn the media spotlight back on to the question of how diversity should be achieved within the UK private sector. As one of only seven female chief executives in the FTSE 100, Brittain told the press upon receiving the Veuve Clicquot award that her organisation’s success had stemmed directly from its emphasis on diversity.

In terms of how businesses should nurture that quality, Brittain said: “I’m not a great fan of quotas, but I am a great fan of targets, and there’s a subtle difference. For everything we do running a business we set goals and targets … if you don’t measure it, there’s a sense that it’s not important. Setting a target [to improve diversity] is sending a really important signal that the issue is being taken seriously.”

The key difference to which Brittain refers is that quotas are imposed from outside organisations, while targets emerge from within. But with the UK lagging behind other countries on a whole series of diversity benchmarks, is allowing companies to set their own goals enough? And could quotas provide some valuable encouragement in the right direction?

“We wouldn’t need quotas if leaders routinely set and met targets with long-term aims in mind,” says The Institute of Leadership and Management's CEO Phil James. “In some firms, targets have been replaced by talk of ‘ambitions’ – but that conveys a feeling of ‘Nice to have’, rather than ‘Must have’. Quotas are obviously more compelling – but only in the sense that you have to meet them, rather than in a more interesting and engaging sense that chimes with your business objectives.”

James adds: “set targets, by all means – but where you really guarantee their importance and clout is by embedding them in appraisal systems. This will ensure that they’re not merely regarded as hopeful goals for the organisation, but directly inform the recruitment and promotion of managers. This means that, whenever senior managers are revisiting their objectives during annual appraisals, diversity can be addressed head-on. If one of those objectives was to boost diversity in your team, and the senior manager hasn’t done it, then there’s an opportunity to force some critical reflection – and in doing so, change behaviour.

“Embedding targets in individual managers’ performance objectives may present difficulties at first, but that’s because it’s all the more important that they are achieved.”

For further thoughts on using constructive feedback as material for critical self-reflection, check out this learning item from the Institute