TRUCKEE, CALIF. —  For Valerie Oswalt, chief executive officer of Commerce, Calif.-based Century Snacks, the data speaks for itself.

“There are endless studies that show that when there is more gender diversification and diversity inclusion on your executive leadership teams that your business performance is better,” she told attendees during SNAC International’s Executive Leadership Forum (ELF), held recently near Lake Tahoe, Calif.

Speaking during the Women in Snacks (WinS) panel on “Empowering Women to Fuel Growth,” Ms. Oswalt cited McKenzie & Co. research that indicates that the top companies for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability. That 2018 report also noted that companies in the top-fourth for ethnic and cultural diversity on executive teams were also more likely to have higher financial performance.

Such indicators, Ms. Oswalt said, should encourage more companies to develop pools of top talent and programs for the highest positions regardless of their gender, ethnic or cultural background.

“It’s hard to debate with the statistics,” she said.

While several companies have taken steps toward greater diversity in top management and executive positions, the overall move forward is still a work in progress for business as a whole, according to the WinS panel, which tackled the wide-ranging dynamics of diversity in leadership roles.

Monica Cole, executive vice-president, national food, beverage and agribusiness leader, Wells Fargo, pointed out the San Francisco-based financial institution has made significant advancements toward diversity so far. However, the company also realizes it needs to do more to mirror not only the communities but also the customers and prospects it serves in the future.

“What we’re starting to learn is the way we think about recruiting team members, the way we think about building a team has to reflect what this country is going to look like 10 to 15 years from now and not what it is today,” she said.

A 24-year veteran at Wells Fargo, Ms. Cole told snack manufacturers to “level the playing field” by busting up assumptions about who is qualified for advancement in their companies. Recalling how she was often the only woman in meetings, Ms. Cole encouraged attendees not only to pursue diversity but also to create an environment of inclusion where men, women and people of color are comfortable exchanging ideas and bringing their skills to the table.

“Diversity is the easy part,” she said. “Inclusion is the difficult part.”

Gregg Roden, senior vice-president, supply chain for Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay North America, noted that businesses need to do a better job of creating opportunities and communicating those leadership position openings to a broader audience of candidates.

Moreover, leadership sponsors and mentors need to clearly communicate with their candidates to ensure they’re appropriately placed in the most qualified position as they advance in the company. Ms. Oswalt stressed that companies need a greater number of female, ethnic and traditional white male advocates to continue advancing diversity, especially at the executive leadership level.

Several panelists and audience members shared anecdotal information about the many challenges in the workplace, including unconscious or overt bias among peers as well as balancing family life against business requirements for travel and relocation for career advancement.

They also discussed with the audience how women are often assigned “administrative” work, such as organizing meetings at the executive level, which tends to portray them as a “doer” instead of a “visionary or strategist” that may pave the road to career advancement.

Additionally, Ms. Oswalt listed another challenge, citing statistics that indicate a greater number of women than men are “opting out” of the c-suite. To reduce the turnover rate, she encouraged businesses to provide more role models, sponsors and transitional support as candidates enter the top levels at their companies.

The WinS panel was part of a broader agenda by the ELF committee to address critical workplace issues facing the snack industry, including recruiting and retaining frontline employees.

Speaking about solutions for managing what many describe as the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years, Eric Chester, author and founder of the Center for Work Ethic Development, noted that businesses assume they are struggling with a skills gap, but it’s really a “core value” gap.

Today, he said, most companies are actually searching for workers who demonstrate personal traits that show they are positive, reliable, professional, take initiative, respect the company culture and demonstrate gratitude for working at the business. The technical skills for many positions, he added, can be taught to those individuals who demonstrate these fundamental attributes.

“We’re tired of people who brighten up our workplace when they go home,” he said.

Mr. Chester suggested that fostering an environment of trust at the workplace sows the seeds of these core values and pays off dividends in the long run.

“Business moves at the speed of trust,” he said. “If we trust each other, we can move very quickly.”