Three Keys to Leveraging Diversity in Your Organization

One of the great advantages of having a diverse population is that you can tackle a problem from a rich variety of viewpoints. But to make the most of this opportunity, leaders have to encourage participation and really listen to what people have to say. The greater the diversity of the workplace, the more leaders have to communicate in a way that allows everyone to participate and be heard. Three focus areas — creating a clear inclusive vision, increasing the quality of conversations and turning the organizational hierarchy upside down — can help leaders at all levels foster a wholly participatory environment.

Creating a Clear, Inclusive Vision

Diversity begins with an organization’s vision. A clear vision assures that everybody knows what business they are in — their purpose; where they're going — their picture of the future; and what will guide their journey — their values.

At the Venetian and Palazzo resorts in Las Vegas, the executive team has applied a mindful approach to inclusive wording in creating their organizational vision. As Brian O’Neill, director of operational excellence, said, “We don't ask our leaders to create a vision of the future. Instead, we ask our leaders to engage the teamin a positive and ambitious vision of the future. By making this minor change in the wording, the obvious implication is OK, if I'm going to engage the team in this vision, I’m going to have to talk to them and find out what they see as the vision. It’s a reminder to our leaders to make sure we reach consensus and agreement.”

Increasing the Quantity and Quality of Conversations

Another way to leverage diversity is to increase the quantity and quality of conversations. Management consultant Peter Drucker once said that nothing good in organizations happens by accident. This is especially true in today’s busy work environment. Limited resources and increased workloads have made time a precious commodity. This is why a standard leadership practice we recommend to all clients is the implementation of a short 15- to 20-minute meeting every other week between managers and each of their direct reports — but with an important distinction that separates these meetings from typical manager-led progress checks.

In these meetings, the manager sets the appointment, but the direct report sets the agenda. The team member is encouraged to talk about anything on his or her mind. It can range from a sick child at home — a situation that might require some flexibility in the work schedule — to a specific goal he or she is working on where the employee needs extra help.

These one-on-one meetings provide the structure to help leaders engage in the conversations and provide the support people need. They also create that all-important personal connection. But this approach takes persistence and practice. At first, if people aren’t used to being asked how things are going, or if their experience is that their feedback is never acted on, the most common answer a leader will hear in response to the question, “How is everything going?” is “Fine.”

But feedback is critical. Leaders need to model this behavior and keep asking the question, or a slightly different one. In O’Neill’s experience over the years, one question has proven to be especially successful in generating feedback: “If there was one thing you'd like me to do differently, what would it be?”

“You have to be courageous enough and self-confident enough to be able to ask that question and hear the answer,” O’Neill said. “You have to truly listen to the answers because they will run the gamut — especially at first. You will certainly hear ‘fine’ a lot. But if you stay at it and build trust, people will learn it’s OK to give you feedback. Then one day someone will say, ‘Well, it's minor, but there's this one thing you do, or this one thing that happened.’ Respond well to that feedback and eventually team members will start asking the question back at you so that you can provide feedback to them. It's amazing how little things like this can really change the dynamic.”

Upside Down Hierarchy

To take advantage of an organization’s diversity, leaders must empower people at all levels. This requires turning the traditional hierarchy upside down.

There are two parts to leadership. The first is vision and direction, which is what we are trying to accomplish and where we’re going as an organization. That has to be the responsibility of the senior leadership. But once the vision and direction are set, now you have to turn the hierarchy upside down so that the top management is working for everybody else and, ultimately, for the customer.

The biggest challenge for leaders everywhere is to check their ego at the door and stop thinking all the brains are located exclusively in their office. If you as a leader open yourself up to new ideas from your people, they will appreciate that you are giving their opinion some thought. This doesn't mean you’ll accept every idea, but it means you’ll listen, reserve judgment and talk to others before you decide whether to go forward.

An organization that exemplifies this is WestJet Airlines, one of Canada’s largest air carriers. When leaders in the organization were considering the launch of a regional airline, WestJet Encore, they put it to a vote of the entire 9,600-person organization.

As WestJet’s manager of talent Abby Thorsell and organizational development specialist Pam August explained it, if people in the organization had said they didn’t think the move was a good idea for WestJet moving forward, the company wouldn’t have done it. 

“People outside our organization in the industry said no other airline would ever do anything like that,” Thorsell and August said. “It’s not like we put everything to a vote, but whenever possible, we give people a voice.”

Drawing out the best from everyone is part of WestJet’s corporate culture. In this case, the vote had a 69 percent participation rate and carried with a 91 percent majority for “Let's do it.”

Another area where WestJet’s leaders tapped into the experience of their people was in addressing challenges in their on-time performance of the first flight of the day, an important flight that sets the tone for the day.

Working across their network of flight attendants, ground operations and customer service agents, a series of recommendations is being implemented to improve the situation. One of the big wins was how clear the leadership team was in their role of setting parameters, providing support and then getting out of the way.

“The team was able to come up with some really great solutions for implementation because of that approach,” Thorsell and August said. “We are always looking at doing things better and continually improving. We are going to the people who know the work best — the people who do the job.”

Walking the Talk

Today’s workforce, especially millennials, are looking for congruent leaders — leaders who do what they say they will do. For example, a leader might say, “My door is always open,” but direct reports may find they have to go through three administrative assistants to get to that door. What message does this send?

In The Ken Blanchard Cos.’ teams program, co-authors Don Carew and Eunice Parisi-Carew always say to participants, “Why do you want to have diversity? Why do you want to work on a team? You have to believe that no one of us is as smart as all of us. Otherwise, why would you involve other people? If you believe all the brains are in your office, why invite others?”

For leaders who are up to the challenge of getting the most they can out of a diverse workplace population, here are a few reminders and action steps.

  • Set a clear, inclusive vision. This consists of identifying your organizational purpose, picture of the future, operating values and action steps. As a practicing manager, you have the interesting challenge of letting people be themselves while inviting them to be part of a larger vision.
  • Remember, the initial vision is just the first draft.Once an initial vision is crafted, say to others, “Here's our first draft of what we think is a compelling vision. What’s missing? What do you like about it? Would you like to work for an organization with this vision?” This gives people a chance to become a part of the vision.
  • Be easy to talk to. When people share ideas or feedback, your response initially should be, “Tell me more,” or, “Thank you.” But don't feel you always have to respond right away. Instead, you can say, “Let me think about that.” Share the feedback with others and get back to the person at a later time.
  • Consider the whole person.The new generation entering the workplace today doesn’t want to leave their brains at the door. They also don't want to leave their personal lives at the door. They want their managers to get to know them.

Making the most of people’s individual strengths and creativity can really make a difference. When people feel they are being heard by their leaders, they are going to do their best thinking and work with those leaders to achieve the best results for the company. That’s when a leader truly multiplies himself or herself by maximizing the capabilities of each person in their organization.