I asked the only woman to have made it to the senior ranks of a leading bank to what she attributed her success. “I was fortunate,” she said. “The bank hired a coach to teach me how to act and react like a man. I was even taught techniques to stop tears when I felt emotional.”
Today this practice would be unacceptable, but the attitude still manifests in other ways. To many corporations, diversity still means employing those previously discriminated against such as women, members of the LGBT community, and people of diverse faiths and ethnicities, provided they think and act like white males.
I liken this to what I call The Jacuzzi Effect! A jacuzzi creates an illusion of movement in water. Instead of your body swimming through the water, in a jacuzzi you sit stationary while the water swirls about you. A D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) strategy that does not entail cultural revolution is a mere illusion of transformation. In these cases, the corporation changes the complexion of the employee population while the corporate body remains stationary in its rigid assumptions of the status quo.
An organisation’s true voice is not found in the words it or its leaders use, nor in its mission and values. An organisation’s voice is discerned in the unspoken undertones of its culture.
Many organisations struggling with diversity and inclusion are trying to achieve results that their corporate cultures preclude. Without cultural transformation, the pursuit of D&I will be frustrating, expensive, unproductive, and distracting from core business. Organisations that are serious about D&I need to audit the undertones of their cultures and transform in three critical areas.
Transformation #1: Foster Constructive Conflict
Most companies I know value both authenticity and diversity. Many of them, however, have cultures that are conflict-aversive.
It is not possible for diverse people to express themselves authentically without conflict resulting at times. Therefore, the culture should be one that fosters honest, respectful and constructive conflict amongst leaders creating an environment in which diverse people can be intellectually and emotionally authentic without fear of isolation.
The culture needs to welcome the challenge and embrace the tensions of diverse opinions diversity and inclusion training that is real, skills based and meaningful.
Transformation #2: Recalibrate Talent Value
The success of diversity lies in embracing the talents and capacities that diverse people bring to the table, even if these were not traditionally valued.
Technical skills are important, and excellence should never be compromised. But skills can be learned, and the definition of excellence can be expanded. Just as we now value the EQ that women in leadership have introduced into business over and above their functional competence, we need to value, for example, the tenacity and grit which many underprivileged people and minorities bring to the table, that many privileged people lack.
For D&I initiatives to succeed, the culture must develop the humility to identify, recognize, and value the contributions that only diverse people can make.
Transformation #3: See Beyond the Look
Satya Nadella, an Indian immigrant to the USA, was told early in his management career at Microsoft that he would never make it to senior level ‘because of the way you talk’, referring to his accent. Today he is CEO of Microsoft and oversees one of the most exciting cultural and strategic corporate transformations of our time.
Diversity is not about how different people look (or sound) to the world. It is about how different people see the world. I try to surround myself with people who see the world differently from me and I try to nurture the curiosity to learn from those whose only advantage over me might be that they see the world differently. This is enough of an advantage to command my respect and to learn from.