These days it seems like you can't go a week without reading another article or being invited to another company meeting extolling the virtues of diversity. And can we just decide once and for all, whether it’s Diversity & Inclusion or Inclusion & Diversity? You have probably heard at least one of these statistics that are supposed to convince you that diversity is a magical elixir for all that ails corporate America.
Companies that have more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenue
Source: Boston Consulting Group (BCG)
Inclusive companies are 1.7 times more likely to be innovation leaders in their market
Source: Josh Bersin research
Racially and ethnically diverse companies outperform industry norms by 35%
Well gosh golly, if BCG, McKinsey and Bersin are all making the case, it must be a slam dunk, right?
Don't get me wrong, I'm a poster child for diversity. While still in my 20’s I was having some coverage problems, but refused to join the Hair Club for Men. Instead, I opted for the full Shaolin monk treatment. This was before shaved heads were relatively normal to see in the office. I still remember the look of distress on the face of the VP of Employment Law as he said, "There's something . . . different . . . about you today," just as he realized what it was. I let him off pretty gently. If this doctored photo of me is any indication, I think we can all agree that shaving my head was the right decision. Alas, my K-pop boy band destiny was never meant to be.
Still, sometimes I can't shake the feeling that there is something missing in the diversity discussion. Maybe you feel it, too. It's okay to admit it. The bald guy feels it, too. Maybe you feel like you have only been told the shiny parts of the story. It's like getting engaged to a charming someone with a high-paying job only to find out after the wedding that you are now drowning in debt. Or maybe there is a disconnect between the sexy statistics being thrown around and your own, less than glamorous experiences.
Enter Chris Jean-Charles - veteran of the United States Marine Corps, KPMG alum and former pet project of mine. My mission, as I jokingly told him, was to take this fit, disciplined, highly trained soldier and turn him into a soft, corporate marshmallow. There were some bright moments along the way (free pizza always helps and truffle fries might as well be kryptonite), but in the end I failed and for totally unrelated reasons, Chris moved on to follow his entrepreneurial pursuits. While we worked together, we talked a lot about how many of the leadership principles he learned in the Marines were applicable to corporate America.
This got me wondering, how does diversity work in the military, where collaborating effectively can be a matter of life and death? Chris and I met over lunch at a local pizzeria (see what I did there?) to discuss. I wanted to get his perspective on what works and what doesn't. Below is a summary of what I learned.
"When does diversity have a negative impact?"
Having a diversity of ideas about how to do things is just the starting point. In order to take advantage you also need a mechanism to decide what ideas to keep and what ideas to discard. Otherwise, you have chaos as arguments about whose idea is best go round and round. So let's say you have that mechanism and a decision has been made. Guess what? We're still not done! You also need buy-in from everyone. Justin Bariso during the Why It Works podcast on EQ, discussed the concept of "Disagree and Commit," often attributed to Intel. You don’t have to agree, but once the decision is made, the entire team needs to execute fully in good faith. In other words, when people aggressively or passive-aggressively sabotage the implementation, you're going to have a problem. So there is a people management aspect that cannot be overlooked.
"What types of leaders leverage diversity positively?"
The strength of diversity is also its weakness. More viewpoints equal more points of friction. Some managers don't want to deal with challenges to their world view. In extreme cases, they just want yes-men/women or clones. This makes for less friction, but are they really getting the best results? We shouldn't overlook the way that diversity challenges your ego. The likely result, maybe even the point of diversity is to directly challenge what you, as a person, truly believe is the best way forward.
The best leaders realize they don't know everything. They realize that there is usually someone around who knows more than they do on a given issue. And guess what, this doesn’t intimidate them. They relish the access to this information. Even though the leader is responsible for making the final decision and is accountable for the results, that doesn't mean they must decide without input from others.
Another weakness of diversity is that more viewpoints can make decision-making less efficient because analyzing the additional options will require more time. It's important to recognize that not all decisions carry the same time-sensitivity. Good leaders know which decisions need to be made swiftly vs. which ones can benefit from further discussion, and they communicate this clearly to their teams.
"How can leaders effectively lead a diverse team?"
Three insights here. The first one surprised me, in a good way.
1. Make sure the team meets its goals. Excellence and success breed connection and collaboration. Mediocrity and failure invite blame and divisiveness.
2. Encourage healthy conflict and lead by example. Make sure people are not afraid to disagree with you or speak up. This will encourage them to disagree with their teammates as well. There is a great discussion of this in the business book, Radical Candor.
3. Set the rules of engagement for healthy conflict. While you want people to be passionate and to give voice to their disagreement, they should always be respectful. Fight over whether an idea is stupid, but don’t call others stupid for having an idea that is different.
I hope this has given you some additional, real-world perspective on diversity and if you are like me (the conflicted about diversity part, not the bald part), informed your thinking about how we can better navigate these complex waters.
Please share your own experiences with diversity (or lack thereof) in the comments below.
And if you'd like to discuss further how your diverse teams can best leverage the principles of the Connection Code to achieve the best results, reach out to me on LinkedIn. I'm happy to discuss!
Special thanks to Chris Jean-Charles for taking the time to chat with me on the very important topic of diversity. To find out more about Chris or to connect with him and learn more about his latest adventures, find him on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrisjean-charles/