Friday, August 17, 2012

Are you Embracing Diversity?

In May of this year I was the keynote speaker for the Wichita, Kansas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's 10th year annual awards dinner.

 Despite my many years of domestic travel, this was my first time in Kansas. For me Kansas has always conjured up film memories of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz saying "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore", thanks to a twister. Because of the famed movie, it's also common to associate Kansas with tornadoes, which is also apparent from all of the tornado memorabilia available at the airport.

But, Hispanics in Kansas?

You bet. But it's not the usual place we associate for Hispanics to live. But like in the rest of the USA, this demographic has a growing social and economic presence in Wichita and in Kansas overall.

In preparation for my speech, I thought about wearing ruby red shoes and clicking my heels three times while reciting "there's no place like home." But then I realized this would not be very novel or funny. It would be like the joke I've heard my entire life when I've told people I grew up in Long Island. People would always respond by saying "you mean 'Lawnge Island' as they stress the "g" and laugh out loud.

I guess these jokes are only funny if you don't live there and hear it all the time. So I passed on the idea of pretending to be Dorotea (that's Dorothy in Spanish). The theme of the evening was "embracing diversity" and somehow I knew that they didn't mean the tin man, the lion, or the scarecrow.

I am not a diversity speaker, but I am a leadership speaker and one thing is clear: Great leaders know how to embrace and leverage diversity around them. It is a crucial leadership ability. Yet, the reality is that diversity is no longer just about race or ethnicity; it is about age, introversion/extroversion, geography, experience, religion, gender, political affiliation, sexual orientation, and more.

Embracing diversity in the 21st century is as basic to business as understanding and managing a P+L. 

Technology has fast-forwarded us into a world where business is beyond global; it is borderless where knowledge and ideas are the currency that matter regardless of who you are, where you live, or if you have years of experience or not. Just think about Mark Zuckerberg. You no longer have to be 50 years old with 30 years of corporate experience to be a CEO of a public company.

In essence, the elements that used to define diversity in the past are no longer the only elements at play in the 21st century. "Embracing diversity" doesn't simply mean that because you have a boomer, a gen-exer, a Hispanic, and an African-American on one team that you are guaranteed the best, diverse and innovative thinking. "Embracing diversity" means when you have a team of diverse players, do you and your team have the right leadership skills and abilities to draw out the best thoughts and ideas from every single person in your organization regardless of their background, orientation or make-up?

After all, diversity of thought is the most important in this knowledge economy and seeking out the brilliance of all of those around you is the greatest of leadership challenges.

I think the most common "embracing diversity" example can be best personified by a parent and teenager relationship. Whether you have or have had the responsibility for a teen, or not, we all recognize that this prototypical relationship (when gone wrong) is fraught with misunderstanding, mistrust and angst. There is a fundamental breakdown in communication and connection. Each party can regard the other as a complete stranger or foreigner.

This scenario is not far off from what occurs in the workplace when two people with seemingly different agendas and values come together. A leader faced with a younger employee with a different mindset about "face time" in the office may mistakenly believe that hard work is not valued by this youngster. Oftentimes, these conclusions can be very far off from the truth. But unfortunately, these conclusions are made and the result is that neither player is embraced or understood for their uniqueness and perspective.

If parents of teens, like those leaders faced with diversity challenges, can ask more questions and judge less, the health of the relationship can flourish to benefit both parties. The leader, like the parent, can also learn and adjust... just as the teen or subordinate are expected. Both sides need to stretch their bandwidth to have a meeting of the minds. These leadership skills are not reserved to those in leading roles, but to all involved. 

In this tech-driven, ever-changing and diverse 21st century world we live in requires new leadership skills and abilities from all levels of an organization. After all, embracing diversity is something that needs to happen at the top, middle and bottom of any organization.

Here a few tips to ensure you are doing your part as a leader at any level to embrace and leverage diversity around you:

Be curious and remain open. Be sure to ask more questions and suspend premature judgments and conclusions. Steven Covey told us a long time ago in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to "seek first to understand." Assumptions and presumptions are dangerous in a diverse world.

Be receptive and yield. Challenge yourself to be receptive to ideas and opinions that you do not share. It is easy to be receptive to others when you agree, but the true test of receptivity is when you don't.

Learn to step aside. Leaders that can embrace diversity in the 21st century know that they don't have to be in the driver's seat to lead. In a knowledge-based economy, the old model of leadership where "telling", "directing", and "controlling" characteristics ruled will only lead to adversity and counter-productivity. Instead seek to guide and inspire through a shared base of understanding and connection. This is the kind of leadership that will prevail in this ever-changing, diverse world.