I asked the only woman to have made it to the senior ranks of a leading bank (that today scores high on diversity and inclusion) 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 minorities, women, members of the LGBT community, and people of diverse faiths and ethnicities, provided they think and act like white, Protestant males.
No corporation and very few leaders would acknowledge this. However, an organization's voice is not found in the words it or its leaders use, nor will it be found in its mission and values. An organization's voice is discerned in the unspoken undertones of its culture.
Many organizations struggling with diversity and inclusion (D&I) are trying to achieve results that their respective cultures preclude from happening. Without cultural transformation, the pursuit of D&I will be frustrating, expensive, unproductive, and distracting from core business. Organizations 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 constructive conflict amongst leaders and develops in them the capacity to engage in conflict without undermining respect, 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.
Transformation #2: Recalibrate Talent Value
The success of diversity lies in embracing the talents and capacities that diverse people bring to the table, but that may not be 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, 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. Surround yourself with people who see the world differently from you and nurture the curiosity to learn from others whose only advantage over you might be that they see the world differently.