Barking Up the Right Tree: Manage Strengths to Boost Change

Throughout my 30 years as an executive and consultant in the diversity and inclusion field, the calling card for diversity has been relabeled many times: equal employment opportunity, upward mobility for women and people of color, managing a global workforce, managing diversity for competitive advantage, cultural competency, or how to capitalize on marketplace and workforce change. But the goals of what we do have remained consistent: to help organizations and individuals succeed by embracing differences, and to approach change with a positive, strategic focus.

When writing RUFF: A Lost Dog Tale, branding expert Penelope Wong, my co-author, and I decided that sometimes a simple story is the best way to take a bite out of a tough topic, so we decided to convey diversity lessons learned from working with companies such as Nike, GE, Disney, McDonald’s and Cisco Systems through the adventures of three shipwrecked dogs. As dog lovers, we thought canines could populate a parable in which radically dissimilar personalities figure out how to use their different strengths to help each other survive and succeed on a mysterious island.

The book positions diversity as part of a larger context: managing change. Winston, J.D. and Sheba, our adventuresome pooches, show how a diverse group can develop a shared commitment, leverage unique strengths, collaborate, take risks and achieve a successful outcome. Here’s a quick synopsis of how their five strategies demonstrate the value organizations can reap from an effective diversity and inclusion strategy.

Sniff out the situation: Dogs use their extraordinary sense of smell to get an overview of what and whom they’re dealing with before they pursue a situation further. You might call this market research, needs analysis, due diligence, baseline assessment, an environmental scan or the reconnaissance phase — diversity executives need solid data on both their workforce and marketplace, now and going forward. Disney, for example, is adept at analyzing market penetration among diverse audience segments, which has enabled it to attract African-American and mature demographic groups to its theme parks, resorts and cruises.

Perk up your ears: Dog ears operate on a different, more sensitive wavelength than our own. But humans can home in on what’s being said by those truly in the know. McDonald’s has used a surround sound approach to infuse diversity into all its operations. A “Just ask!” communication tool has made it easy for the company to collect and implement cost-effective ideas from diverse employee segments and geographic regions, which has led to gains in productivity and morale.

Take a bite: In a shrinking world, how do you ever get an organization to learn enough to be culturally competent when working with people who speak more than 20 different languages? The strategy at The University of Chicago Hospitals and Health System is not just to work blindly with constituents but instead to compile basic, useful information about cultural differences. This aggregation has enhanced patient relations and aided the targeted delivery of quality health care services to the large variety of ethnic groups that constitute the company’s patient base.

Bark smart: Perfecting your pitch for the best possible outcome with diverse audiences is both critical and complicated. ITW is a master of this strategy. This Fortune 200 company has 825 diversified business units around the world. It finds ways to be clear on the core business practices and still shape messages to its many diverse audiences in ways that respect different cultures and address unique business environments.

Focus on mutual success: The canine characters in RUFF show how to leverage diversity by using their unique strengths to contribute to a successful outcome. This strategy has paid off for ArcelorMittal, an international steel company. ArcelorMittal selects intentionally diverse management teams to develop joint ventures around the world. Knowledge of cultural differences and respect for local customs have led to successful operations and partnerships in 60 countries.

As we say in RUFF, “We’ll do it together … or not at all. Our mission is to get us all home.”

Suzanne Peck is author of RUFF: A Lost Dog Tale. She can be reached at