Why You Need Diversity of Thought

As a diversity executive tasked with creating and sustaining a multicultural workforce, it is one thing to have workplace diversity, and it is another to do diversity. With so much focus on attracting, hiring and retaining multi-dimensional talent, diversity executives could lose sight of the full spectrum of diversity available to their organizations — including diversity of thought, age and experience — and fail to translate that diversity into action.

According to IBM’s 2012 CEO study, “Leading Through Connections,” 75 percent of the more than 1,700 CEOs and senior public-sector leaders from around the globe said that leveraging diversity through collaboration is critical to organizational success. It is the No. 1 trait CEOs seek in their employees. As Kenichiro Yamanishi, president and CEO of Mitsubishi Electric Corp., said in the report, “To innovate, we need to take in insights accumulated across various industries and knowledge generated by many different people.”

Given how important this topic is for CEOs, diversity executives should ensure their roles and work are strategically aligned here and with other top objectives of concern to the C-suite.

Defining vs. Doing Diversity
Modern day workplace diversity means including different types of people in the day-to-day and strategic operations. In a diversity executive’s role the need to be fair and inclusive arose from issues that plagued the workplace years ago, and the need to include a mixture of talent continues to challenge some organizations, particularly those with locations dispersed throughout different regions.

While important work is being done and needs to continue, diversity executives shouldn’t limit their definition of diversity to including different kinds of people. They should expand it to include different dimensions of diversity, such as diversity of thought, age and experience. This second expanded definition is as paramount as the first in the eyes of CEOs and, according to the C-suite, should be taken just as seriously.

Jose Perez Torrealba, oncology senior director and clinical resident physician at Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., said he understands at ground level how mission-critical blending and leveraging both definitions of diversity is to his organization. “As part of a global team in a global organization, we live inside a world of diversity. It is part of our daily lives, and we have to think diverse anytime we make a decision,” he said.

When defining or considering how best to execute organizational diversity management or strategy, the question is not if an organization needs to leverage diversity of thought, but how that should be done. Assuming one subscribes to the notion that diversity of thought — whether it stems from a generational, operational, cultural, ethnic, experiential, departmental or other viewpoint — is valuable, particularly to improve decision making, there are some best practices associated with executing this kind of diversity.

Evaluate the opportunity. Not every decision requires multiple, diverse perspectives to ensure that it’s solid. In the wrong circumstances that kind of process could quickly bog an organization down. However, high-stakes decisions such as an opportunity to evaluate a new market, design a new strategy, launch a product idea, find a solution to a recurring issue or any decision that impacts more than one function all can be earmarked as decisions that would benefit from diverse input.

When Darla Balzer, senior training specialist, leadership development at Starbucks, was tasked with applying executive-level training to the company’s directors, she said she knew right away that other perspectives would be critical to her success. “The key goals of the work were for it to apply globally, position relevant, to corporate and retail audiences, and success hinged on whether or not the intended audience could personalize and own the concepts presented to them. For us to achieve this goal, we had to include outside input rather than rely on the internal ‘best guess.’”

Determine the perspectives needed. Formally deciding that diversity of thought would be beneficial to the organization is key. Without the perspectives that could improve on the desired outcome, an organization could easily miss a critical component and waste time and money chasing down a solution that has no real relevance. When considering whom to invite to exploratory meetings, include those who will be impacted by the decision or who have pertinent knowledge. In practice, diversity leaders might invite at least one customer when considering new product development, or in-the-field representatives when assessing geographic implications.

For example, Novartis’ Torrealba’s responsibilities include many deliverables within a clinical program. In other words, there are a lot of moving parts in a field where human lives are at stake. Because his work reaches beyond all borders, Torrealba knows he can’t rely on his knowledge alone. “Implementing a program in many countries requires more than the key decision makers. Local regulations vary from country to country, and the feasibility and probability of success will be impacted by these regulatory differences and whether or not they are fully understood. This is the reason why we look beyond our immediate horizon.”

Identify information-gathering mechanisms. How an organization gathers diverse perspectives will depend on who the audience is and how far and wide it is dispersed. Diversity executives can leverage multiple tools from free online survey products, to intranets, to email systems and video conferencing capabilities to gather and deliver information. When the number of participants is small, real-time conversations are ideal. But leaders shouldn’t automatically rely on meetings when other methods can be more efficient and just as effective.

“We use multiple vehicles to hear what we need to hear,” said Jeanne Knutzen, founder and CEO of Pace Staffing Network. “On big things involving our employees’ perspectives, like benefit decisions, we use structured surveys,” she said. “For management decisions, we expect our managers to have polled their team before they come to a meeting so they can represent a fully thought-out perspective. As CEO, I pay attention to the methods for gathering feedback based on how open I think my managers are to input. The more closed I experience them, the more I insist on structured surveys. Not always popular, but necessary when diversity is one of your core values.”

While the idea of deeply engaging the workforce and evolving the definition of diversity to be wholly inclusive has established benefits, it can pose some challenges for a diversity executive tasked with shifting organizational behavior. This is especially true in fast-paced cultures or organizations that still operate in a top-down, decision-making paradigm.

For instance, one obvious but understated challenge may be getting the leader to admit that he or she doesn’t hold all the answers. According to IBM’s “Leading Through Connections” study, more CEOs rely on their workforces to provide the full picture. In the meantime, the workforce is hungry for more ways to fully collaborate with their organizations; they want to have a real stake in the company’s success.

“I would encourage all leaders to consider diverse perspectives as the best way to land at the best decisions,” said Suzi Kalsow, associate vice president of academic affairs and dean of graduate and professional studies at Buena Vista University.The other challenge diversity executives may hear from leaders is the amount of time required to conduct due diligence on an issue or topic that would benefit from diversity. It takes time to assemble diverse players, solicit their input and then collate and appropriately use the data collected. But slowing down to execute this process can translate to increased speed tactically and strategically at the organizational level in the long term. “An invaluable benefit of taking the time to hear from others is found not only in improved decision making, but in more rapid implementations or discovering you were about to go down the wrong road,” said Knutzen of Pace Staffing.

“Also, it keeps people informed so that everyone can make their own decisions in alignment with the core, which keeps our organization lean and efficient,” said Starbucks’ Balzer. “Even when it slows down the process, gathering feedback that is a different perspective from your own can increase the value of the end result, and in some cases, save you time in the long run.”

Being diverse is paramount to build a competitive organization. Leveraging diversity determines whether or not an organization can sustain a competitive edge in an evolving, complex business environment. CEOs worldwide have said that tapping into their workforce is a No. 1 priority, and it is the diversity executive who can put rubber to the road to ensure this happens.

The optimal strategy to ensure there are benefits from diversity of thought is to organize an exercise, a test to not only understand the needs and ideas that exist within an organization, but to “practice what you preach.” The broader the perspective, the better the outcome and the faster the implementation.

Halley Bock is the CEO of Seattle-based Fierce Inc., a global leadership development and training company. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.

How can you drive a diverse team to action? To see what Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, has to say, visit here.