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Diversity: How do the top 50 companies harness it?

When I think about diversity, I don’t think about colour, gender or ethnicity first. I think about my beautiful daughters. My youngest has moderate deafness, and upon being told, most family members were distraught and anxious. I wasn’t. For me it was a gift. A mysterious and challenging one, to be sure, but a gift that opened up aspects of human experience and the capacity to communicate with a part of our own humanity, that others might miss out on or find harder to tap into.

I knew she was a girl full of immense potential, and her deafness was a context, not a definition. Some adaptations were necessary. She wears hearing aids, and at school tends to sit in the front. Her early years benefited greatly from good teachers and wonderful speech therapists, and of course from her parents’ creative efforts to understand and respond to her needs so as to release her potential. But none of the family’s fears materialised. In the family, she is probably the most socially and emotionally balanced of us all. At 11, her linguistic age is 14, and she is part bilingual, her other subjects are likewise excellent, she will be attending the national fencing championships and enjoys team sports, has a number of intimate friends, and is well loved by peers and teachers at school. She is a happy girl, and an asset to every environment she forms part of.Her elder sister is 14, and has Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism, hard to diagnose in girls, it was not until last year that we had a diagnosis. Before that her schooling was fraught and immensely challenging, to the point of several times being unsustainable, and she received years of homeschooling. And then, after immense hard work and deep learning, we hit upon the diagnosis. The result was revolutionary. Once we understood better, and she understood better, her cognitive diversity, we were able to establish an ecosystem that could adapt and harness her diversity for her benefit and the benefit of the whole. The school innovated some wonderful accommodations, placed the right support, and within weeks, the immense challenges were transformed into outstanding strengths. School became among the most enjoyable parts of her life. Her gifts for maths, English, history and science have her teachers vying with each other trying to get her to take up their subject as her future path, she has built intimate relationships with peers, her teachers love her, and she has found a new grounding and inner balance at home.Neither of my daughters have suddenly become “typical”, and I am convinced more and more that when you scratch beyond the surface, there is really no such thing as a typical human being. But as together we have discovered and applied the accommodations that without constraining the whole, allow the part to yield it’s innate gifts, far from dealing with a problem, or experiencing a limitation in order to accommodate their diversity, the family and the schools have come to see diversity as an asset waiting for the right insight and the right environment to reveal it’s value, and not a constraint, but an enabler, for increasing our own capacity, effectiveness and insight, in all aspects of our lives and work, beyond the specific needs of our children. I believe what is true in our family, what is true in the schools, may be true in the workplace.This month, DiveristyInc published its top 50 list for diversity management in major companies around the world. Headline findings are still being released as I write this. 535 companies with a minimum of 1000 employees participated in the survey this year (the list reads like a who’s who of major multinationals across all sectors – PricewaterhouseCoopers, IBM, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft, Mastercard, Marriot Hotels, etc), who volunteered to fill in a 300 question survey, sharing extensive confidential information about their inner workings in their hope of making it to the top 50 – and letting the world know how important diversity is to major players, representing an investment well beyond publicity makeovers.

The survey rigorously measured the dynamics of diversity around CEO Commitment, Human Capital, Corporate and Organizational Communications and Supplier Diversity. It was a trenchant analysis, comparing for example ratios such as demographics of managers compared with managers who received promotions and demographics of the workforce compared with people promoted into their first management positions.

The strategic significance of an effective approach to diversity is becoming increasingly more obvious, more inescapable, not only to the major corporations, but to every single business or organization of whatever size, indeed, to every single one of us. Because the trends accelerating population flows and their intergenerational impacts are only intensifying, as economically, politically, environmentally and lifestyle driven migration continues to increase. I recall the old lady in a remote village of the Canary Islands, who had never left the island, much less the country, and only ventured to the island’s other coast a dozen times in her long life: the wide world came to her instead, as English, German and Scandinavian immigrants sought sunshine and escape from Northern stress in the warm climes of her island. Everyone of us could find an example of the exponential growth of diversity closer to home.

There are of course many other types of diversity. There is also cognitive diversity, diversity in views, thoughts, learning styles, values, attitudes, access to information and resources. Beyond innate differences, the possibilities and challenges of the information age, and the exponential rise in access to education, are making such dimensions of diversity both more evident and more pronounced.

So, diversity is here to stay. Or rather, for the foreseeable future and in all corners of the planet, it’s here to grow and grow. Is this a good thing, a cause for hope and anticipation? Or is worry a more accurate response? Advocates of diversity promote the idea that diversity can be very helpful to groups and organizations because it will help in their creative responses, deter cliques, stimulate collaboration, maximise adaptability, expand and power valuable social networks. Detractors of diversity warn that diversity is on the contrary something quite negative for groups, something that hampers their activity, their interactions, precisely because we often struggle with what is new or alien to us, and easily flow with what is familiar or akin to us.

There is abundant empirical evidence for both effects of diversity. It must be admitted that interaction might potentially be easier, if also more boring, if in general we all were very homogenous in our values, ideas, backgrounds, attitudes and temperaments. The fact that we naturally tend to seek similarity and flow toward it, instinctively avoiding what we perceive as different and other, forms the underpinning of both social categorization theory and social identity theory in psychology , and makes our experience of diversity potentially difficult to assimilate both cognitively and socially. On the other hand, studies also suggest that diversity can enrich our resources, our creativity, and our thought processes, and leave us better placed to face challenges and actualise our potential.

Research suggests that in managing diversity, there is an optimum level of diversity, unique to each organization, that must carefully be sought: Too much diversity and cohesion becomes unwieldy, whilst too little diversity, and homogeneity impoverishes the group. So achieving that balance is important. The empirical consensus is that where diversity is coupled with group cohesion, that is, when a group is at once diverse and united, then all kinds of advantages accrue to it compared to a group that is also united, but not diverse. Group cohesion is a key mediating factor in the impact of diversity on group performance and effectiveness, for instance. On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that the more diverse a group is, the more challenging it is to arrive at unity, so that the potential benefits of diversity can be offset by the potential hard work of making a diverse group gel, and a homogenous group can consequently perform better than a diverse one.

To put it a different way, unity without diversity is better than diversity without unity. But unity and diversity together trump the advantages of homogeneity. In other words, less diversity can be good for a company, but more diversity well managed is best. It is therefore no surprise that in their pursuit of strategic excellence the world’s most competitive companies are vying with each other to achieve maximum unity amidst maximum diversity. It is also no surprise against this backdrop that making the top 50 list is hard, and even harder staying there, so that we see variations year on year. Diversity is not a panacea or a curse, but a context, with both negative and positive potentials, depending on how it is managed. Diversity management, on the other hand, is not a formula, but a constant journey of interaction, structuring, learning, and adjusting.

What does this look like in practice? What kind of specific actions distinguish, for instance, the top five companies in the diversity management rankings?

Here are some I picked out:

The top company for diversity was healthcare company Kaiser Permanente, which had the most diverse board of directors and management, especially the top three levels of management, and exceptionally strong diversity leadership from George Halvorson, its chairman and CEO.

Sodexo, the number two ranked company “continues to set the bar on diversity management through its highly developed metrics, insistence on holding executives accountable for diversity results, and extremely strong diversity leadership.” Diversity and inclusion is one of the company’s six strategic imperatives, with 25 percent of executive bonuses linked to diversity objectives. Those scorecard bonuses are paid regardless of the financial performance of the company.

The number three company was PricewaterhouseCoopers, which has trendsetting work/life policies, including the Mentor Moms initiative, and a high profile program to encourage its employees to volunteer for nonprofits (which, it demonstrates, improves employee engagement)

At number four was AT&T, which has strong mentoring programs involving managers from the highest level of the organization on down, diversity training is integrated into the entire workforce, including a new online training program, 59 percent of its philanthropy is directed at multicultural organizations and 49 percent of its senior executives sit on boards of multicultural nonprofits. It is also a supplier-diversity leader

Number five, Ernst & Young, aligns its executives’ goals with its own global strategy, with each executive developing a personal scorecard that has inclusiveness as one of two global transformational priorities. Compensation is also affected by the Ethnicity and Gender Inclusiveness Snapshots, which track more than 20 metrics on the progress of women, and different ethnicities. Metrics include headcount, retention, promotions, partner pipeline, recruiting, flexible work arrangements, participation in high-potential development programs, survey scores and client assignments. It provides generous domestic-partner benefits, such as weekend travel expenses for partners for out-of-town multiweek assignments, and six weeks of paid parental leave for primary-care providers, including men and adoptive parents.

A key, essential factor that has been demonstrated to facilitate, although not by itself determine, the process of liberating the positive effects of diversity, is having a positive outlook on diversity, an attitude that embraces diversity. Likewise, actual positive experiences of diversity in the individuals within a group can help liberate the potential benefits of diversity in the functioning of the group as a whole. This is perhaps the beginning of the journey. Policies, management strategies, organizational adjustments, all may be discovered once we take the step of embracing diversity as a benefit, an optimal context, awaiting our hard work to discover and release.

Once we recognise that diversity is the context most likely to benefit our organizations, if we put in the hard work to make it work, the process of learning what is out there to make it happen can begin. And the best way to believe in the positive power of diversity, not just intellectually but in the deeper wellsprings of our motivations, is to experience it. ebbf events and virtual networks are one space where such diversity may be experienced in a transformative way, as we walk away with contacts in spheres apart, who prove practically or conceptually helpful to our own work; ideas we would never have encountered in our work-place, that change for the better the way we look at our work; friendships that we carry across careers and across continents.

Today’s column is therefore not an advertisement for diversity, nor a cautionary note, but an invitation to take the first step, and discover, in practice, why the most effective organizations have placed the well managed promotion of diversity at their strategic heart. What diversity policies have you implemented that have had a positive impact on your organization? What problems has diversity created and how did you solve them? Perhaps your successful experiences of diversity will help others to embrace its true potential.

Keep daring.

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