There's good news and bad news for business leaders as 2015 unfolds. The good news is that the U.S. economy is projected to continue to strengthen, leading to expanded business opportunities in the coming year. The downside is an evolving talent shortage: Factoring in retiring baby boomers and rapid job growth in specific industries and occupations, companies will find it that much more difficult to attract and retain top talent.

Hiring qualified workers will become much more difficult. Retention rates are likely to drop. Compensation growth will accelerate. The need to maintain workforce quality without significantly hurting the bottom line will become a top challenge for many employers. Preparing for this challenge in advance should be a top priority for executives....

In fact, a solution is hiding in plain sight: a rich well of diverse talent. Leaders have long recognized that an inherently diverse workforce--one that's inclusive of women, people of color, and gay individuals, as well as people of different ages, education and socio-economic background--confers a competitive edge in selling products and services to diverse end users.

Recent research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) 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 different leadership skills and behaviors.

CTI research spotlights five ways in which leaders can tap this resource:

  • Be a more inclusive leader. CTI research shows that companies whose leaders manifest both inherent and acquired diversity--in other words, whose background and experience has conferred on them an appreciation for difference, whether that difference is rooted in gender, age, culture, socioeconomic background, nationality, or sexual orientation--are measurably more innovative: Employees at these firms are 60 percent more likely than their counterparts at non-diverse organizations to see their ideas prototyped or developed, and 75 percent more likely to see their innovation actually deployed or implemented.

What drives the diversity dividend? Inclusive leadership. Leaders who behave inclusively foster a speak-up culture, one in which inherently diverse members feel welcome, feel free to express their views and opinions, and are confident that their ideas are heard, respected, and recognized.

Bottom line: Work to encourage inclusive behaviors among leaders at all levels.

  • Nurture sponsor networks. How can companies develop diverse leaders who "match the market"? Through sponsorship--a strategic workplace partnership between those with power and those with potential.

Unlike mentors, who act as sympathetic sounding boards, sponsors are people in positions of power who work on their protege's behalf to clear obstacles, foster connections, assign higher-profile work to ease the move up the ranks, and provide air cover and support in case of stumbles. Sponsors have a significant impact on the career traction of their female and multicultural proteges: 68% of women with sponsors say they are satisfied with their rate of advancement, compared with 57% of those without sponsors; 53% of sponsored African-Americans and 55% of Asians are satisfied with their career progress, compared with, respectively, 35% and 30%. Those numbers add up to employees who are more committed, more engaged, and more likely to attract similar talent.

Bottom line: Formal sponsorship programs are a good way to start nurturing sponsor networks.

  • Leverage the potential of proteges. Sponsors and mentors may be obvious career accelerators but don't ignore the power of proteges. Building a loyal cadre of effective performers can extend your reach, realize your vision, build your legacy, and burnish your reputation. In today's complex organizational matrix, no one person can maintain both breadth and depth of knowledge across fields and functions. But you can put together a loyal and dedicated posse whose expertise is a quick IM away.

Bottom line: How to build a strong bench of supporters and maximize protege power? Be an inclusive leader.

  • Crack the code of executive presence. Performance, hard work, and sponsors get top talent recognized and promoted, but "leadership potential" isn't enough to lever men and women into the executive suite. Leadership roles are given to those who also look and act the part, who manifest "executive presence" (EP). According to CTI research, EP constitutes 26% of what senior leaders say it takes to get the next promotion. EP rests on three pillars: gravitas (the core characteristic, according to 67% of the 268 senior executives surveyed), communication skills (according to 28%), and appearance (the filter through which communication skills and gravitas become more apparent). Yet because senior leaders are overwhelmingly Caucasian and male--among Fortune 500 CEOs, only 6 are black, 8 are Asian, 8 are Latino, and 22 are female--women and multicultural professionals find themselves at an immediate disadvantage in trying to look, sound, and act like a leader.

And they're not getting the guidance they need to learn. CTI research found thatEP feedback is either absent, overly vague or contradictory: More than three-quarters (79%) of people of color surveyed say that when they get feedback, they are unclear how to act on it, with Asians (84%) and Hispanics (80%) particularly confused about how to course-correct.

Bottom line: Give more frequent--and clearer--feedback to help your reports understand, acquire, and eventually ace EP.

  • Fulfill women's value proposition. Although societal norms have shifted as more women assume positions of power, the prevalent narrative is still one of sacrifice: the toll career ambitions take on one's personal life. Consequently, too many talented women step off the fast track because they see an executive role delivering a hefty salary but little else that they value. In fact, CTI's latest research reveals that power is what allows women to thrive. The key is linking the opportunities that a powerful position provides with women's five-point value proposition: the ability to flourish, to excel, to reach for meaning and purpose, to be empowered and to empower others, and to earn well.

To ensure that talented women stay on track for leadership roles, companies must work to change women's perceptions of what powerful positions entail. They must provide role models who give voice to the substantial joys and rewards of leadership, thus inspiring more qualified women to stay connected through the difficult mid-career years.

Bottom line: Companies must sustain women's ambition, both by meeting their needs as they progress toward leadership and by ensuring that leadership actually delivers on women's value proposition.

Companies with a diverse workforce have the means at hand to grow and sustain innovation--and in today's fiercely competitive global economy, it is serial innovation that drives and maintains growth.

But CTI research reveals a disturbing fact: The majority of white-collar employees we surveyed in the United States work for companies without inherent and acquired diversity in leadership needed to effectively "unlock" the innovative potential of an inherently diverse workforce.

The bottom line for the New Year: Leaders who inculcate behaviors and disseminate practices that endorse, encourage and empower women, people of color, LGBTs, and employees of different ages and backgrounds are far more likely both to retain a broader spectrum of top talent as well as reap the rewards of an ongoing diversity dividend.