An unsung, diverse index that just beat the Dow

For large companies that compete with $100 billion market-cap competitors that weren't even publicly traded five years ago, being nimble is essential. It's the quality of talent that's going to make the difference between companies that are successful and those that are on the downside of the ever-increasing turnover in the Fortune 500.

The companies that made the 2014 edition of the annual DiversityInc Top 50 list aren't just good at public relations: Expressed as a stock market index, they beat the Dow Jones Industrial Average on a one-, three- and five-year basis. (Companies must have at least 1,000 employees to be included. The methodology for the list is explained here.)

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I think a dramatic indication of the value of diversity management can be seen in mergers and acquisitions. A recent study from Deloitte showed that 50 percent of company failures are attributable to poor M&A, with 80 percent of those failures subsequently disposing of the business they acquired. However, AT&T, Wells Fargo and Johnson & Johnson are three companies on the DiversityInc Top 50 who have repeatedly turned one plus one into three in their M&A work. If you ask the people in the companies that were acquired, they'll tell you that they felt respected and valued—and that the clear standards set for how people were to be treated were key.

The DiversityInc Top 50 maintain a significant edge on the broader set of U.S. corporations when it comes to management, senior management and board diversity.

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Considering there are now more nonwhite births than white births in the U.S.—and considering the dramatically changing diversity of people earning college degrees—there's a logical connection between the ability to recruit and retain talent in all of its diversity.

From the survey of 400-plus questions that must be submitted to compete for a spot on the DiversityInc Top 50, I see four lessons business leaders can learn from the data we collect:

1. CEO commitment and senior leader accountability are essential.

The No. 1 company on our list, Novartis, has risen steadily through the ranks from being in the middle of the pack five years ago, certainly a team effort, but led from the front by its president, Andre Wyss. Women are now more than 50 percent of his direct reports, in scientific functions. We see a very strong statistical connection between diversity management success and structure, reporting and accountability.

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2. Create and maintain clearly established values.

Johnson & Johnson, a Top 10 company four of the past five years, has the best statement of values I've ever seen, and it fits on less than one page. Alex Gorsky had a floor-to-ceiling panel with the credo installed opposite his desk when he became CEO last year.

3. Diversity best practices are business-driven best practices.

Although the value of employee resource groups and formal mentoring programs are sometimes illusive to men in the majority, people who have formerly been excluded from corporate opportunities—women and people of color—thrive when these best practices are put to business-driven use. Recruitment and retention increases, and regrettable loss decreases.

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All four of the big four accounting firms have 100 percent of their management in structured, disciplined mentoring. We see a direct correlation between employee resource groups with formal charters tied to business goals and increases in diversity in the workforce and management. If you think about a country club being a traditional resource group for wealthy white people, you can understand how this works.

4. If you want to do business with these companies, you need to understand their values.

According to the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, the average company donates 0.14 percent of their gross revenue. The DiversityInc Top 50 average 1.5 percent (DiversityInc has averaged 3.5 percent every year through the recession).

On a pragmatic note, if your sales team is mostly white men and they go to a meeting and ignore the women in the room at a Top 50 company (this happens regularly even in our office), they're very likely to be ignoring the decision maker. They're certainly going to offend everyone.

There's a reason why George Chavel, CEO of Sodexo—No. 2 on this year's list—said at one of our events, "All else being equal, we will win an RFP based on diversity."