Yup. It’s happening.

A white (middle-aged) dude from rural Canada is going to saddle up and champion a conversation on diversity.

Actually, a topic like this coming from someone with my profile may not be a bad thing. More people who are not visible minorities need to take up the cause – and not just because it’s the right thing to do in general but because it’s also right for business. More on that later.

It’s ironic to me that necessity has not bred much invention in the realm of org talent development. I mean, on one hand we have managers and execs at all levels bemoaning the dearth of talent in business. Yet, on the other hand we have insisted on profiling what we think is great talent in much the same way as we always have…and with great rigidity. We have failed to recognize that there are unnecessary table stakes to get through the hiring phase or to be considered as exceptional once on board. And no, those stakes are not just about results, or productivity or something quantifiable; it’s a byproduct of our innate desire for sameness….with ourselves as the reference point. And that’s a dangerous, not to mention tragic model.

This post is not just about the opportunities presented by a diverse workforce but also the need to foster inclusion, the process of incorporating diversity seamlessly and effectively into our work culture. For if we can do that, we will become more contemporary not to mention widely-respected leaders. We will be able to cast a broader net over the universe of talent out there that may be less obvious to our eyes, and scoop up a number of bona-fide game changers that no one is considering. A good leader can nurture and harvest talent, which involves more than just collecting the low-hanging fruit.

There is a mindset required to be just that sort of leader and I’d like to share an initial profile of what such a leader should be. The fodder for this article is coming from two places – first my own experiences leading diversity initiatives corporately, but the other comes from my own experiences as a diverse employee. Yes, even with my profile I have some distinctly diverse elements; and I have them in common with many others. People like me often have to work around org tradition and inflexibility to succeed…..and not all of us have the stomach for it in the way I do. Net net, what wisdom I have in this piece does come from some authentic places.

I believe most of us who see ourselves as strong leaders feel that we are great at the diversity thing. If you are one such person, you would share in these common practices and beliefs:

You just know it’s the right thing to do.

One of the tremendous challenges of mandating and effecting a diverse work force is managing the ‘why’, because not everyone is on board. For now, diversity initiatives live within the political domain, meaning it’s done more for optics than good business sense.

I met a founder working on a digital hiring platform to help connect companies with diverse candidates. For a second I’ll put aside the challenges of labeling people publicly based on their diversity dimensions (oi vey, good luck with that one) but the big issue to scaling up on the B2B side is providing a compelling rationale beyond politics to go all in. That’s how you get tons of companies on board.

For now, there is no obvious, measurable ROI metrics out there to gain momentum in this area. But I have no doubt it’s there. This sort of problem for you should be seen as instead an opportunity to be ahead of the curve. Let your passion and self-assuredness lead the way and you can prove it out on the back end.

You dislike status quo.

It all starts there. You need to have a hunger for change. And not just the type that leaders constantly demand – so-called ‘transformational’ ideas that are low risk and easy to implement – you want to do the tough stuff because you believe in the outcomes. You’re willing to invest time, money and sweat to do what no others have done.

This mindset must stretch way beyond growth initiatives and into the way you work. It should be exhausting to live in your own mind by how much change you crave for the sake of betterment. You have legitimate desire to fix work hours, you want to re-engineer how your team communicates and how you use and run meetings – the things employees complain about the most. You want happier employees, enviable productivity, better outcomes – at practically all costs.

And you know the seeds of the thinking to get there can come from many different types of people.

You love to be challenged and proven wrong.

Read comments on posts in social media and you’ll understand why I’m not optimistic on this one. We live in an age of anger and offense, particularly in situations when someone tries to hold a mirror up to our faces. If we don’t like what we see, we lash out. We don’t seem to like what we see very much…..

To go well beyond the status quo requires you to incorporate thinking that is not your own. It takes a special type of leader to have the strength to enjoy being challenged. In fairness though, it takes a special type of employee to exercise good judgment on when and how to challenge, because constant change (or demand for change) can sometimes impede progress. It takes skill and experience to find that balance.

I worked for five years in a Caribbean office of a Canadian bank as my first job after university. I had 90 people reporting to me, but as an outsider I had little ingoing credibility. In interviews I often characterized my position as one of great authority but little power. The people working for me were intensely pragmatic, almost to a fault. If they saw the sense in your ideas they were 100% with you; if not, you had no hope. They also valued the authentic self. Especially as someone coming from another country, I had to become someone my team could know and trust to build leadership momentum. Character and good sense consistently trumped the need to keep a job, which made for an interesting backdrop for someone honing his management chops.

What I learned, though, was that I did a lot of things for political reasons and less for the benefit of the team. I also learned that given my more introverted nature I held a lot of myself back. I got a LOT of push back, and I had to solve it. The short story is that through this experience I learned to adeptly balance the interests of those both above and below me. I learned to think through my decisions and as I result I implemented better processes. And more importantly, I learned to share both the best and worst parts of myself as a tool to build strong connections. I could write books about my experiences in those early years, as I am still reaping benefits today of the great and challenging start I had to my career.

I have been similarly lucky to work with exceptional leaders who are at the same time confident and humble. One in particular taught me to regularly seek feedback from my team, which I talk about in this post on becoming a great boss. One of my techniques is to use the annual review process as a mutual feedback session. I inform (warn!) my direct reports that they need to review me in this session as a way to level the playing field in the meeting. It teaches them about managing up while I derive an amazing benefit of improving myself as leader by getting a first-hand account of what my style and practices look like from below. Every. Single. Person. Who. Manages. People. Should do this. Don’t wait for feedback, ask for it. Speaks volumes about your openness if you do.

You seek fewer commonalities….

I need a more dramatic sub-header here because this one is massive.

There is one word in business that both excites me and scares me at the same time: TEAM. For the sake of this article, it bothers me although collaboration is a tool to achieve many great results.

This could be a much longer section but I’ll contain my main observation to this: we create far too many unhealthy norms or expectations under the guise of fostering a ‘team’ atmosphere. Take a look at your own office situation and if you can’t immediately think of things you will start to observe many senseless practices that encourage sameness for the sake of creating a cohesive team. All because I pointed it out.

The things that unify a team live at a high level: passion for what the company does, common desire to hit a goal, respect for others, ethics…that kind of stuff. The deeper you drill, the more off track you become as you focus your definition of a team at the exclusion of others.

What it shouldn’t include is the necessity to talk about sports at work or go out drinking with the team (PS, huge sports fan here…and have you seen my bar at home?? I’m not being self-serving here). At one company I worked for the team was mostly women, so most meetings started with a comparative conversation about shoes.

It’s one thing to have interests in common and that shouldn’t be discouraged. The trouble starts in how you treat those that don’t share those interests; if they are made to feel less of a part of the team….AND….if their interests or appearance is not tolerated or respected, you are headed down a dangerous path.

I share my own experience with diversity intolerance in this post about three strategies to transform your org culture. I myself got poked at for little things based on how I dressed. Apparently I didn’t observe the ‘team’ uniform. And while I’m a rather resilient type, there is a lesson to be learned on how pushing people into the margins can hurt your business.

…while we expand our view of diversity.

So we need to not only tolerate the outliers, we need to embrace them. I guess the process starts by seeing few people as outliers because diversity is so ingrained in our mindset we hardly recognize norms. That would be Utopian, wouldn’t it?

I’d like us to widen our definition of diversity well past the dimensions of race, religion, nationality, sexuality and gender. I’m passionate about incorporating diversity of work styles, productivity zones, space, communication styles, physical appearance, hobbies, health habits and socio-economics.

This perspective is also important to me because this is where a lot of my diversity lives. I gave one example above. Another is that I lead a very healthy lifestyle, the effects of which I explain as I have wondered out loud how to politely refuse the office cupcakes. Through my experiences I have learned that it’s socially acceptable to body shame people with a lean physique…but I digress. The bigger picture is that we are much more intolerant than we think; it’s just that when there are diverse dimensions about ourselves that are not policed (such as race, religion, etc) we let our intolerance show. I have seen it in the faces of all the innocent victims we work with, and we are all the worse for it in the workplace.

I’m going to zero in on one group that represents untapped potential: my friends and my people – the introverts.

Work and especially marketing has evolved into a highly social pursuit. And, yes, we introverts are social, but we are much more the type to think and observe. You know how the people who talk the most usually have the least to say? Well, look to us as the new model.

Our minds are powerful and we manage complexity better than average because we have the ability to reconcile and process heaps of environmental data, often because our mouths are not constantly engaged J. We aren’t always the most passionate speakers and we tend to talk less in environments where are a lot of people…like…big meetings. We do our best work on our own and our creativity flourishes in more subdued environments. But we have horsepower, and few leaders have the real capacity to tap into our talent. I have seen almost no one who is good at it, yet I would consider introverts (many of whom are social, they just work and think differently) as the lowest hanging fruit to upgrade your talent.

And all you need to do is make them (us) feel relevant. I tell the story of Wayne, the cashier at my nearby grocer. I’m an observer and I like to get in and get out quick, so I have surveyed the landscape for just how to do that. Wayne is diminutive, unassuming, doesn’t look up much but is polite and highly efficient. Few step into his line, but he blasts through customers at a faster rate than the express line. So I go to Wayne.

One day, I chose to compliment him on how quickly he works. He sheeplishly made a crack about the relevancy of his gaming habit playing Tetris. I was like “Sweet. My last job (at the time) was managing the video games business at Warner Bros.” At that moment my whole grocery shopping experience changed. Big smile, looks me in the eye, dials his speed up to 10 and I swear, any time I’m in the store and approaching the lines he appears out of nowhere to open up a cash and call me over.

Yes, I experienced some personal ROI on this relationship but that’s not the point. Wayne is the type of guy that based on appearance could easily be overlooked for many opportunities. We as leaders would never hire them or see their potential because they don’t force their talents on us while they have probably suffered many tiny cuts to their super-ego along the way given how they are treated. Yet all we have to do is very little to let them feel they are on the same level as us and we can unleash everything they can be. Which is a lot. But we choose not to.

I miss Wayne. I’d hire 20 like him if I could.

We believe participation > consensus.

As mentioned earlier, there is a danger point with diversity in that the scope of opinions, ideas and approaches can create situations that slow you down.

I recommend an approach that keeps you productive and agile but makes all feel valued and important. Foster strong participation and let all voices be heard, but maintain a lean decision-making infrastructure.

I’m Canadian and I can tell you having worked for big American companies that consensus building is a counter-productive business approach. This is especially important as your culture becomes more diverse because common ground is tougher to find. But also in my experience, I have found that not being heard is much more soul-crushing than not always getting your way; so aim for the lesser of two evils.

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Being a leader of a diverse workforce requires a mindset that must eventually become natural. If you catch yourself being conscious of being a diversity champion or you find yourself uploading ‘diversity initiatives’, it’s a signal that you have a ways to go. Think broadly about what diversity really is and believe in it at your core, and you’ll be on your way to being a forward-thinking developer of a brand new generation of exceptional talent.

 

Additional Reading:

Jan 2017: Forbes/Deloitte article on how to get real diversity at the top

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