Getting The Mix Right


Thursday, 9.28pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Diversity: the art of thinking independently together. – Malcolm Forbes

What do you really think? What is it that you believe? Have you even stopped to wonder why you believe the things you believe? Surely everyone thinks like you and has a similar view on life? After all, thinking in any other way must be unnatural, because you don’t do that.

You really have to build up an exposure to the unfamiliar if you want to appreciate it. And that makes it a little tricky because being comfortable with diversity is not something we’re born with. It’s something we pick up if we have a diverse environment around us.

Of course, when it comes to organizations and institutions there’s something you can do about the environment. And it makes good business sense to be diverse. Research from McKinsey suggests that companies that have high levels of gender and racial diversity perform better than average while those that are less diverse tend to be laggards. The reasons for this are complex, but probably come down to the fact that diverse companies also have forward thinking policies that attract and retain better talent and that leads to a “virtuous cycle” of increasing returns.

So diversity is a good thing but how do you go about increasing it at your organization? Well, a little like action on your climate impact it’s a top down thing – action from the top is needed if you really want things to change.

I’ve summarized my understanding of McKinsey’s recommendations in the diagram below.


You need to start with data, and see what the current situation looks like. It’s unreasonable these days to have the top leadership of a company all look the same. But it’s the same thing at every level of society. If you have a panel at a conference where there is no diversity, it’s something that gets noticed now, commented upon. It’s hard to argue that there is no one other than the people on there that’s qualified to go on as well.

The thing, however, is that leadership in these issues comes from the top. There has to be buy in from the Chief Executive down otherwise nothing is going to happen. But when the executive team decide that they want to make a change and when they are visible and vocal in telling you what they want then the machinery of the organization starts to grind.

The next step is to set targets, clear ones, logical ones. And this is where we run into a conundrum. Top down targets are almost always a bad thing. If they could be met, then why haven’t they been met already? If they can’t be met, will people game the system, let in poor quality people because they need to hit their targets?

Well, the only way to deal with that is to understand how to manage variation, how to measure and monitor and understand the difference between doing things because they improve the situation and will therefore show up in the results, and doing things because they let you show that you’ve got the results. The difference is between making the numbers and making up the numbers and it’s very easy to get confused about the difference between the two things.

We might need to come back to targets another time, but it’s time to think about what you’re going to do differently. And it can’t be one thing done the same everywhere – that’s the whole point of diversity, you have to look at things differently. You need to go and talk to the kind of people you don’t see in your organization and understand why they don’t make it there and what you need to do to make a difference. You need ambassadors, interpreters, translators – because until you have people like that in your organization it’s a foreign language to you. So you probably need some help from people who’ve been there and done it before.

You need to be able to watch what’s going on, make sure there is activity of the right kind happening, because it’s only by doing stuff that you’re going to change anything. And if the data tells you that things aren’t changing that’s probably because there are barriers inside your organization, not visible ones necessarily, but the ones in people’s minds, the kind of things that slow down change, hinder movement, get in the way. Blockers.

If you do all these things, will things change? Well, it’s hard to say but it seems quite likely that if you don’t address these issues then you won’t change. And that could be a problem, it probably will be a problem – not one that you will see straight away but if change is being stopped in your organization rather than just not being actioned, then that’s a corrosive thing. You have people actively working to do the wrong thing and that’s not right – it’s more than not right, it’s tending towards being evil and that sort of thing eventually rots you from the inside.

That doesn’t mean you can’t go a long way by having no scruples and doing everything you can to maintain your power. History has shown many examples of people who have done just that. But the good news from history is that such regimes eventually end – not because great forces are arrayed against them but because small voices speak the truth and the truth can only be ignored for so long.

In our personal lives and communities there are no such top down mandates, nothing pushing us to do anything differently than we do now. So, it comes down to us to learn about these things for ourselves. We’ll be exposed to it one way or the other, through the news, the media and through increasingly diverse stories for children and adults. We can see that happening and it’s a good thing.

But some people are going to be scared by the changes and they are going to lash out and try and get things to be like they were before.

But that’s not going to happen.

Perhaps because as you get to know other people better you might even become friends. So how might that work in this day and age? What’s the difference between then and now?

Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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