The Cardinal Health CEO makes promoting gender equity a company priority—and a personal mission.

When I was researching my January cover story (“Women and Power,” available on newsstands on Dec. 31), there was a common refrain among interviewees: “Talk to Mike Kaufmann.” The CEO of Cardinal Health, I was told, is so focused on gender and racial equity that he has stopped accepting speaking engagements on any other topic. “He is a huge champion of diversity and inclusion,” says Nancy Kramer, founder of Resource/Ammirati, now at IBM iX. “Huge. And he's very passionate about it.”

So I talked to Kaufmann. He told me that around 2008, when he was running the pharmaceutical division of the Dublin-based Cardinal Health, he asked to oversee the companywide Women’s Initiative Network. It was an employee resource group aimed at helping women develop their careers within the company, and he thought leading that group would be an opportunity to learn.

Kaufmann’s boss, he says, “thought it was a little odd that a man was asking to run our women’s initiative. But he agreed to let me do it. And I completely underestimated how powerful it would be.”

The following years were filled with “aha” moments for Kaufmann as he learned about the forces that can interfere with women’s rise to leadership. Now 10 years later, Kaufmann is CEO of Cardinal, the 14th largest company in the U.S. by revenue, with 50,000 employees worldwide, and he has made promoting gender equity a personal mission, both through Cardinal’s policies and through his interactions with other corporate leaders. In 2014, the California-based Institute for Women’s Leadership gave him their first Guy Who Gets It award.

Earlier this fall, when the Columbus Partnership had its annual retreat at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, Kaufmann was asked to introduce the keynote speaker, an expert on diversity and social justice. With 60 or more Columbus power players in the audience, Kaufmann shared a personal story about one of his “aha” moments that caused those in the room to sit up and take notice, says Alex Fischer, the Partnership’s President and CEO.

“That set us up,” recalls Fischer. “If the guy running one of the biggest companies in Columbus is going to be that vulnerable, then maybe the rest of us can get in the mood and be vulnerable. … Every now and then, magic happens. That was one of those times.”

Kaufmann shared some of what he tells Cardinal executives and others about how they need to change in order to support gender diversity at all levels. Spoiler alert: It involves men.

Kaufmann tells male managers, he says, to stop treating women differently. No more informal golf outings with male colleagues that don’t include women. No more casual drinks with the guys unless women are included. “It seems natural: You’re going out, you ask your guy friends. But what happens though is none of the women ever get a chance to be in any of the informal settings. So you never get comfortable with them. You never get to know them. And the next time something opens up, you promote the guy—because you're comfortable with him.”

Kaufmann learned about research that shows that while men will seek a promotion if they have only half the posted qualifications, women won’t raise their hand unless they meet all the qualifications. So he requires managers to seek out a slate of candidates for any job or promotion that includes women and minorities—with bonuses tied to succeeding at this directive. And managers need to be honest with women, Kaufmann says. He has found that male supervisors sometimes hold back from delivering needed criticism to women in review sessions because they are afraid they will cry. “Well, tough,” he says. “You’re not helping them out when you don't give them good feedback. They continue with the bad behaviors, and it hurts their careers.”

Kaufmann talks about gender and diversity every time he has the chance to address employees, and he reminds them to keep their eye on the ball. “Every single day, as a leader or a manager, … you have to have this on your mind because if you don't, things just tend to revert back to the mean.”

Is Kaufmann’s work on gender equity at Cardinal paying off? One of the company’s three highest paid execs is a woman, 40 percent of its executive management team are women, and a third of its board is female—which is well above average for a large public company. As for how this gender diversity is affecting the bottom line, Kaufmann says that’s hard to trace. But he’s sure it makes the company better. “In my heart of hearts, I know 100 percent for sure that what we're doing is attracting talent.”