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Beyond Benetton

Why diversity is about more than a pretty picture

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business writer. She can be reached at strategy@albertaventure.com

Jun 1, 2013

by Marzena Czarnecka

You work in a global industry. You don’t need someone like Vinay Thanawala, president of Calgary-based ESL4WORK, to remind you that by the year 2020, all of the growth in Canada’s labour force will be via immigration. You see this in the field, in the office, in the zeros at the end of the cheques you cut to your business immigration lawyers. You’re all for diversity: you send your talent scouts everywhere, and you do not, ever, discriminate against potential candidates because of skin colour, accent, religious headgear, reproductive organs, sexual orientation or anything else. You are evolved, enlightened, and, let’s face it, hard-nosed. That consultant you had in a few years ago who made the pitch for the business case for diversity? Smart cookie, and he was dead-on. If your workplace doesn’t leverage the talents of the best and the brightest, you’re going to be roadkill on the globalization highway. You bought the argument. Case closed. You are flying the diversity flag.

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Illustration Pete Ryan

And so, you’re doing what, exactly? Oh. You hire purely on merit, as you have always done, and you ensure you have a fair, non-discriminatory workplace, as you’ve always done, and so, well, you haven’t actually changed or implemented anything. Because, you know, this is Alberta, and we’re a meritocracy – heck, we even hire people from Toronto if they’re qualified.

“The true test of diversity is to be comfortable with the uncomfortable and to be uncomfortable with the comfortable.” – Errol Mendes

Oh, baby. I hate to break this to you, but if that’s how you’re cultivating diversity in your workplace – by doing nothing, because you think you’re so merit-based you’re clearly in the clear – you are going to be that roadkill. And you know why? Because the people across the street, in that tower? They’ve really figured out how to do it.

But have no fear. We’re here to help. And, best news: We’re not going to take you through a financial wringer. That’s right, boys and, um – girl? You do have a woman on your C-suite team? No? On your board? Not a one, eh? OK then – that’s right, boys, cultivating diversity does not have to be a “huge expense,” says Michael Bach, founder and chief executive officer of the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion. “The big banks spend millions of dollars on this and the smaller employers say ‘We can’t do this, we don’t have the resources.’ ” Not true, he says. You don’t have to do it on their scale, after all. And the most basic things you can do – how you lay a foundation for really cultivating diversity in your organization and leveraging it into making a real difference to your economic bottom line – they’re not big spend items.

First, do not send your HR team, your C-suite team or that crotchety mail room guy who speaks slowly and condescendingly to co-workers with accents to a full-day workshop on Valuing Diversity™. Let’s cross that off the list right now. Not that education is a bad thing, but the kind of education you need to really be a diverse workplace isn’t of the Kumbaya-Everyone’s-a-Unique-Snowflake sort. And a one-off full-day seminar, no matter how good, isn’t going to effect institutional change. So, save that moolah right now.

Next, do this: Look at your leadership team. Your middle management. Your board. You value diversity, you say? How diverse are you? Are you all white, baby boomer-era boys who root for the same sports teams and patronize the same golf club? Chill, chill – we’re not blaming. It’s not your fault if you are, either – demographics, history, they all play a part. As does, most of all, the old school management trend of “cultural fit.” Which means, essentially, hiring people who “fit” a.k.a. people you feel comfortable with a.k.a. little clones of you.

And yes, that is bad, because if you bought the business case for diversity, then you know this intimately: Hiring little clones of you is bad for business. When everyone thinks the same, reacts the same and plots the same, not a one of you is going to see that iceberg. That opportunity. That unique way of turning disaster into a money-maker. Right? You know this. So does University of Ottawa law professor and diversity researcher Errol Mendes, who has a patented one-line test of how you know you’re doing it right. “The true test of diversity is to be comfortable with the uncomfortable and to be uncomfortable with the comfortable,” he says.

So here’s your task for tomorrow: Recruit someone who makes you uncomfortable.

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Can you, as a leader, do that? Sure you can. That’s the characteristic that’s made you the maverick, risk-taking entrepreneur who’s taken your company this far. Applying that characteristic to the makeup of your workforce will take you even further. See, cultivating diversity – it’s not about taking a nice multicultural photo for the annual report. It’s about pursuing and leveraging what Mendes calls “diversity of the mind.” That means getting people around the decision-making table and in the leadership pipeline who bring different strengths and views to the task at hand. People who challenge you. If you don’t have people like that around you, you have no workplace diversity. No matter how rainbow-coloured the photo on your “wanted” ads is.

Here comes the most important part, though. What are you going to do with these people – who challenge you, make you uncomfortable, stretch your notion of “cultural fit” – once you bring them onboard? If you pride yourself on being a meritocracy, the odds are good that you’re going to do this: let ’em swim. And possibly sink. That’s what you do with everyone, after all. Even the people from Toronto.

That isn’t how you cultivate diversity, though– that’s how you kill it. Thanawala is full of rather appalling stories from the field in which companies shunt extremely skilled foreign workers, who may be lacking in language or soft business culture skills, into what are effectively technical ghettos. And there, everyone loses. The employee’s facing not just a glass ceiling but a padlocked door. And the employer is getting a mere fraction of what it could out of the employee if it bothered to make a pretty minor investment post-hiring. Thanawala works with clients who get it, who realize that cultivating diversity doesn’t just mean hiring the rainbow, but making sure your hires have the skills and tools, be it language, an understanding of the local business culture, or a revealed road map to success for your organization. And, baby, they will make you successful, because they will be more productive, more efficient – all that.

But you’re getting tense. No, I see it – and your right eye is twitching. Now, that’s good, in a way, because you’re uncomfortable, and we want you to step out of your comfort zone. But we’re all Albertans here and I know what’s really making you shake. Training. Money. More investment in transient employees. How many more cheques are you going to have to cut? Full stop. Remember what Bach said? It doesn’t have to be expensive. Don’t want to hire a consultant, send people to workshops or offer on-site classes? Fine. You don’t have to do that today. Instead, do this: Pair up each of your new hires with a kick-ass, successful old one. Yeah, that old mentor-mentee thing. Nothing revolutionary here, nothing expensive. Just an experienced, successful employee showing the new employee, be she Canadian-born or from the Sudan, the ropes.

There’s a little twist. See, you’re in a global industry, friend, and if you think you’re not, well, wake up. You’re still part of a global economy, and you’re living and working and building in a place that’s going to be a global hub. That is, unless your timidity and inability to work globally mucks it up. So when you pair up your star with your out-of-the-box newbie, take the extra step. Tell the mentor that his job is to educate the mentee in the things that make him successful – the ins and outs of the company, culture, communications and anything else they need to know. And tell the mentee that while her job is to learn, it’s also to educate the mentor on what it’s like to be a trainee and to navigate this new world. Because if your global agenda proceeds apace, one day, that mentor is going to be a manager in Nigeria, Mongolia or Papua New Guinea. One day, that mentor is going to be the minority. “That’s diversity,” Mendes says. “Where you’re learning from each other.”

So. Ready? You step out of your comfort zone all the time. That’s why you’re successful. The dudes who keep on hiring little clones of themselves? They’re going to be roadkill. You? You’re going to kick ass. Step one: start recruiting people– for your board, your management team, your mail room – who make you feel uncomfortable. What are you waiting for?

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One Response to Beyond Benetton

  1. Pingback: Strategy Session: Beyond Benetton | Marzena Czarnecka, Writer

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