In globalized, multicultural organizations, leaders need to learn to create value out of diversity. Five experts discuss what it takes to make this happen.

What do business leaders need to understand about diversity?

The first thing is that the companies that do it most effectively don’t have a separate program. What they do is integrate diversity into all of the processes of their organization. Diversity becomes a lens for looking at, identifying, developing, and advancing talent. So when they think about recruitment, they don’t only have a minority recruiter. They educate all of their recruiters about how to relate to the diversity of the population that they recruit from. 

Leaders need to know that they have to build accountability into their systems with regard to their managers taking responsibility for creating a diverse and inclusive work environment. We often see the people at the very top saying all the right things relative to diversity, but their middle management, who really run the organization and create the experience of people who work there, don’t understand and don’t feel accountable for diversity and inclusion.

You can cut diversity across a lot of different dimensions—what’s important for each organization is to identify the relevant dimensions, measure them, and make that part of how managers are evaluated. It’s not a matter of inventing new measures as much as it is using diversity as a lens to look at the measures that we have. And diversity, in my view, should also be one of the lenses through which we look at customers and community stakeholders.

There is a cosmetic diversity that can come when an organization decides they need internal diversity when they meet external stakeholders who are diverse. Those stakeholders need to be interacted with by someone like them, so African-Americans need to be interacted with by African-Americans. I think the danger there is that it pigeonholes people. 

The way I look at it is, if our customer base is diverse, we need diversity in our workforce so that we can learn from our own diversity to make ourselves more effective at meeting the needs of our clients. I, as an African-American male, will never be Asian, but if I’m in a diverse work group where we can actually talk about cultural differences, I can become much more effective relating to that Asian client. But if we’re homogeneous inside, then we’re likely to make all kinds of mistakes in the way we think about diversity. 

The most effective organizations, in my view, are organizations that don’t simply use their diversity in order to have legitimacy with clients, but use their diversity to increase the cultural competence of their workforce, writ large. 

I think that identity will increasingly be part of the conversation. What it means to be a diverse and inclusive place is not simply that you have people who look different, but that you have created an environment where people feel like, at the end of the day, they are who they are, uniquely, and in a way that integrates them, and that they’re not trapped in a box. We’re going to have to find a way to talk about diversity that isn’t just about categories, but it’s about the kind of organizations we want to create for people to be able to bring their identities to work and to be, if you will, whole people. And that’s really what I think is the future of the work around diversity.

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