Leveraging Diversity for Success : Just don’t make it a slogan

If the Covid-19 pandemic was not the front-page news story, issues of diversity, inclusion and empowerment would be receiving more attention. After the police killing of George Floyd and other high profile cases, companies began issuing statements condemning racism, stating they were committed to creating racially equitable organizations. Although this is laudable and long overdue, it does not really address the problem of creating and managing diversity in the workplace.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines diversity as “the fact of many different types of things or people being included in something; a range of different things or people”. 

This is the broader definition that I would like to explore. Diversity, in this context, is much broader than recognizing color, sex, or national origin. In order to leverage the benefits of diversity, one must look at all of the dimensions that make people unique: ethnicity, gender identity, upbringing, physical attributes, values, political beliefs, personal attributes, cultural background as well as religious beliefs. It is also not just recognizing this diversity but creating opportunities to leverage those strengths. A business will succeed and innovate when they learn to leverage the diversity present in their workforce.

Many organizations are now rushing to tout their commitment to diversity, but according to a 2020 survey by Mercer (as reported by NPR), only 42% of organizations have publicly committed to racial/ethnic equality efforts. Recently, a major global organization released a press release and made a splash with its implementation of a diversity program. When analyzed however critics charged that it was heavy on marketing and low on implementation. This organization’s U.S. based operation has fewer than 15% of minorities employed and fewer than 5% in leadership positions. In 2018, black employees at a major Silicon Valley high-tech company accounted for only 2.8% of the company’s technical roles, 3.6% of its leadership roles, and 4.8% of the company’s total workforce.

These statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest that most organizations treat diversity management as a program and not a process. As the figure shows, maturity in managing diversity is a step process and only time can determine where you are in the process. It requires a strong commitment to move forward and not slide backwards.


A Personal Experience

A long time ago (1980s) in one of my early leadership positions, I had an individual who was designated by his manager as a “non performer” and a “rebel”. He was labeled as someone who could not be a part of a project team (creating a sales support tool) because of his “weird thinking” and a physical disability . One day, he walked into my office and showed a tool he had created for helping sales people “close a deal”. It was a totally out of box thinking, and as it turned out, it was one of the best tools the sales force adopted.  He figured out that the best way to make a sale during lunch or dinner is to have a pre-printed “placemat” that can guide the discussion, rather than a booklet full of pages with configuration options.

Clearly, he was thinking “differently” and that diversity was not recognized as contributing to the team’s success.


Diversity Process vs. Program

A process is a series of actions and activities that assure the outcome is consistent with the goal. It is not driven by an end date but an end goal. A critical element of establishing the process is to define measurable goals – both the endpoint as well as interim. It also requires that the process is further broken down into sub-processes that interact to achieve results. These sub-processes also need to have specific sets of goals. For example, one of the sub-processes may be evaluating compensation differences among diverse sets of individuals to assure that there is equity. Another element that makes the process successful is “inspection”. A periodic assessment where you are against the goals and measurements will assure that you are remaining consistent with the sub-process objectives. It also allows for process improvement steps if it is determined that the sub-process is no longer capable of meeting results.

In order to assure that the designed process will achieve a result, the first step is analyzing the current state of diversity versus the organization’s mission and goals. It begins with defining what diversity means to the organization. Some aspects of diversity are rather obvious, such as ethnicity, color, sex but there are “hidden” diversity elements that need to be examined. This would include diversity in educational background, thought processes, ability to solve problems differently and even values or beliefs. There may be a need for an outside entity to perform this assessment as an organization’s culture and history may be deeply rooted and difficult to change.


Four key steps to leverage diversity


1. All for the commitment

Diversity, like quality, is a process that requires a total commitment throughout organization. The senior management team provides the leadership and directs the organizational policies, practices, and compliance. Most successful organizations, dedicated to assuring diversity appoint a “C” level person as the champion and leader of the process. This sends a strong message to the entire organization. Studies have shown that a truly diverse organization innovates and has a workforce that is more productive (see my experience above).

2.  Establish a baseline

An example of missed opportunity

I was working with a service provider who had opened a new headquarter office and wanted to decorate the office with paintings and murals depicting nature and wildlife. They went out to the market and sought artists who can be engaged to do that. They found a young artist and engaged her for the job. When she finished a part of the work, the management was very impressed with her work and congratulated her and asked where and how she trained to be such an artist. She mentioned that she attended classes offered by who she called a “guru” and named him. It turned out that the “guru” was an employee of the company and was offering art training in his spare time. A missed opportunity –only if they knew!

In order to alter the trajectory, you have to know where you are. The purpose of the baseline at the outset is to establish a point of reference and then use it periodically to measure progress against a target. Human resource software has fields available to establish criteria for identifying diversity characteristics. However, most often these are used to document basic criteria of diversity such as gender and racial identification. What is often missed are the soft characteristics that define a broader set of diversity dimensions such as experience, cultural background, and personal attributes.

3. Question every action

Managing diversity is a cultural change. It doesn’t happen without constant attention and a focused evaluation of all actions. It is human nature to slip into what is most comfortable and compatible to one’s own values and beliefs which negatively impacts diversity. As leaders and managers, one has to constantly evaluate actions. For example, when establishing a committee or a project team, create a profile of all selected and chart it to assure diversity – of all types. At times, this makes it difficult to manage projects and committees but it is the only way to prevent unconscious bias.

4. Review and react

Successful process management requires a disciplined review of results and analysis of the outcome. Corrective actions depend on a thorough analysis of deviation from the baseline that was established at the outset. Additional training, process modifications, decision-making steps are some of those actions that can get the process back on the track.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the workforce and the way we work together can dramatically change overnight. We must recognize that our future requires us to be more inclusive and that we must “work” at creating a diverse and equitable world. It is imperative that businesses take managing diversity seriously, or we risk greater social unrest and those who will challenge all aspects of our society and organizations.

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