With Martin G. Moore

Episode #113

Unlocking Diversity: The Power of Difference

In the last couple of decades, we’ve seen an increasing focus on embracing diversity. The emphasis on this is often limited to gender diversity, as we look to achieve increased representation of women in senior leadership positions. But even though gender is clearly a priority area, diversity needs to go way further if we truly want to achieve better outcomes.

There are two distinct steps to harnessing the power of diversity. The first is to select and retain the right people in your team, and the second is to tap into the diverse capability that you’ve assembled.

In this episode, we look at what really constitutes diversity, and provide some tips and suggestions for unlocking it. There’s not much point in having a diverse team unless you can liberate people’s unique perspectives, experiences, and insights to improve organisational outcomes, and ultimately deliver greater value.

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Episode #113 Unlocking Diversity: The Power of Difference

Hey there, and welcome to Episode #113 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode, Unlocking Diversity: The Power of Difference. In the last couple of decades, we’ve seen an increasing focus on embracing diversity. And the emphasis on this is often limited to gender diversity, as we look to achieve increased representation of women in senior leadership positions. But even though gender is clearly a priority area, diversity needs to go way further, if we truly want to achieve better outcomes. As a leader, being able to unlock diversity is a prerequisite for building high performance into your team. Having the benefit of different experiences, viewpoints and insights serves to strengthen the team dynamic and allows you to access a wide range of inputs to inform any decision you might be grappling with. As a leader, there are many things you do, often unwittingly, to either increase or decrease the likelihood of getting the best possible information into the decision making process. Knowing how to access the best possible information quickly needs to become a core capability.

There are two distinct steps to harnessing the power of diversity. The first of course is the actual selection retention of people into your team. And the second is, once you have that team, how do you tap into the diverse capability that you have assembled? Today, we’re going to focus on the second component. So we’ll start with a look at what really constitutes diversity. I’ll then take a look at the core concept of being open to new ideas, because this is a critical building block for unlocking the talent you have. And then I’ll finish with some tips for unlocking diversity to create value. So let’s get into it.

Let me just start with a little disclaimer. To make sense of this topic and to fit it in with the time constraints of a No Bullshit Leadership podcast, I’ll need to make some rash generalisations. Now as always, I’ll try to be as balanced and impartial as I possibly can be, but at times you might have to just suppress your righteous indignation in order to connect with the point I’m making. Having said that I’m going to tee off with one straight away. We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve built diversity if we can simply look at the gender balance in our team and see an equal representation of males and females. Well look that’s a good start, but it’s pretty rudimentary in terms of the leader’s primary objective, which is to create value.

What if those women that represent the 50% of our team members are all of similar ages and cultural heritage? What if they were brought up in similar socioeconomic conditions? What if they all have a comparable level of education? And what if they all followed the traditional progression path through the same industry? Are you going to get a big uplift in team results? Well, you know, it’s pretty unlikely. Sure. It’s true that females and males think differently and they approach problems differently, but what other types of diversity can really stretch our minds to a greater understanding and therefore better outcomes? How about age? Now I don’t think there’s much disagreement that millennials are quite a different beast from Baby Boomers. Each has a huge amount to offer. So what if you were able to harness their differences in perspective to make better decisions? My daughter and I work so well in Your CEO Mentor specifically because of these differences. We listen to each other’s views on virtually everything, but there are really clear accountabilities.

For example, we’re currently hiring a Marketing Manager. We’re tapping into a lot of my experience in how to recruit, because I’ve done this dozens and dozens of times over my career at all different levels, but guess what? It’s still Emma’s accountability. She knows the role. She knows the value opportunities and she knows the capabilities required. So it’s her call absolutely and I won’t interfere with that. But between the two of us, we’re pretty confident we’re going to get the best person we can possibly get for the salary we’re offering in the Sydney market.

How about the value that comes from diversity in industry experience? I’ve spoken before about the value of bringing people in with diverse industry experience. Over time, any company can become set in its ways and complacent. So for example, bringing in people from the oil and gas sector or the mining industry into electricity generation was one of the key things to take advantage of greater maturity in processes and the experiences that come with a safety discipline that can bring an uplifting performance into your organisation.

What about cultural diversity? There’s a big difference between, for example, an Australian and a Japanese leader. And it’s incredible their difference in the basic approach to problems. Australians will seem almost impulsive in the way they react to problems. Whereas the Japanese are a lot more considered. They’ll look like they aren’t actually doing anything, but they’re thinking deeply about the context of the problem. We have so much to learn from each other, and this is incredibly useful in getting better team outcomes. So when I was at CS Energy, we ran a project called the Callide Oxyfuel Project, which is a demonstration project in carbon capture and storage. And we had many Japanese partners who were associated with this project. The reason it was so successful and the results were so impressive was because we worked together with people with completely different cultures and drivers to get an outcome. And the value of that can’t be underestimated.

How about diversity that comes from different functional expertise? If you’ve got a room full of engineers or lawyers or insurance underwriters or anything, they’ll always come up with a very predictable approach to any problem. And it’s not their fault, it’s just simply how they’ve been trained. Add a commercial analyst into the mix, and the tone changes quite markedly. This is why multidisciplinary teams are so powerful. You just need to be careful of the need for clear accountability, so these teams don’t spend their lives in an intractable impasse.

How about the diversity that comes from intellectual disabilities? I was working with a wonderful client only yesterday, and she was telling me the story of one of her employees who has Down Syndrome. He put forward a view on a topic in a meeting that was so far out of left field that no one had thought of it. But it completely changed every person’s perspective on what that problem meant, and it changed the way they approached the solutions.

How about the diversity that comes from different levels of education? We’ve been conditioned to think that the better educated a person is the better they’ll perform. Now I can say confidently from my experience that this is absolutely not the case. I’ve had incredible performers who have very little formal education to speak of. And I’ve also had PhDs who are almost useless in any practical sense of being able to deliver value. And I’ve had everything in between. So look, this is just a few examples of the type of diversity you should be looking to build into your team. Why? Because the object of the exercise is to get better outcomes by having greater access to different perspectives, experiences, and insights.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of the Great Gatsby among other works, said that “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” We appear to be losing the art of challenging our own thinking. We look for confirmation of our existing views and this just serves to make us more set in our ways. Intellectual curiosity seems to be on the decline, which is incredibly dangerous. As a leader, being able to genuinely assess information and insights that don’t align with our own and to challenge ourselves to change our beliefs on any given topic is crucial to excellence in performance. But social media feeds us a steady stream of what we tell it our preferences are. It’s designed to reinforce, to make us feel comfortable and to service more of what we already like.

Now this is deadly. We’re suffering from a subtle push towards our confirmation biases. There’s a staple diet of conspiracy theories and fake news, and we can easily fall into the pattern of ignoring anything that doesn’t reconfirm our worldview. Treating information on its merits, not putting it through our filter and discarding contrary information, is a really important step to better decision-making. With any piece of relevant information, it’s worth asking ourselves a few simple questions. Could this be true? What if it were true? How would it change my current position? How does this viewpoint interact with the data I already have? How would I use this new information to adapt or modify my existing view? Now my new favourite podcast at the moment is The Megyn Kelly Show. Megyn Kelly is a former Fox News anchor and probably one of the most credible and respected journals in the USA. She’s a lawyer by background and chose journalism as a secondary path rather than continuing her meteoric rise to fame and fortune in the lucrative world of big law firms.

Now, the reason I love this podcast so much is because it really challenges my thinking. It puts me outside my comfort zone and allows me to consider opinions that I wouldn’t necessarily have held myself. But I’m a sucker for incredibly intelligent and erudite people talking in a matter of fact way about issues that would normally tend to attract quite a deal of emotion. A guest on The Megyn Kelly Show a few weeks ago was Alan Dershowitz. He’s an eminent defence attorney who taught at Harvard Law School for about 50 years. Now he said some things that both shocked and invigorated me, I must confess. And in part, this convinced me to make this episode. On diversity, he said something that just hit me like a pie in the face. And I quote “The last thing Harvard wants is intellectual diversity. What it wants is superficial diversity. It wants people to look different, but it wants them to think the same.” Dershowitz spoke about the growing level of ideological intolerance. So his contention, is that any views that are now not left-leaning, are simply unacceptable. And he is a lifetime Democrat voter, by his own admission. But he makes that statement not as a political belief, but more as a social observation. On Harvard Law, he even went so far as to say, and once again I quote, “Students are not being educated, they’re being propagandised.” So of course I went searching inside as I tend to do when my views are challenged. Is the push for diversity on boards and leadership teams genuine, or is it just for show? Of the corporate leaders I used to mix with, how many of them do I think are genuine about promoting and unlocking diversity and how many just want to be able to report their numbers in the annual report as a form of virtue signalling? Is corporate diversity just for show or are we really trying to nurture, encourage and grow diversity of thinking and perspectives for better or for worse? I don’t want to appear cynical, but I can’t point to many people that I’ve run into who I think genuinely believe in the value of diversity and take action to do what it takes to grow it. Most of them have learned the right words, but the way they allow their cultures to develop demonstrates that it’s not really a priority. Now have a think about this for yourself. Don’t just take my opinion for it. What feels true to you?

How do you unlock the diversity you have? Let’s just say you’ve managed to build a level of diversity into your team and you’re happy with it. You’ve got people from different generations. People from different industries with diverse experience. You’ve got people from different cultures and upbringings, and heritages. You’ve got people with different functional expertise and you have people with different intellectual capabilities and educations. Now, even if you haven’t set out to build a diverse team consciously, you’ll still find some diversity in what you have if you look hard enough. Try the difference in perspective on life, between a single father, on the downside of an ugly divorce, and compare that to a happily married man. Our major life events colour our view of the world, there’s no mistaking that. And there are always differences that you can draw out from that.

So here’s three things that I think you can do to actually harness the power of the diversity you have.

The first thing is be open to new ideas. Now your people are going to see this immediately in everything you do. They make an assessment as to whether or not you really want to hear what they have to say, or if you’re just going through the theatrics of listening. What they think you want to hear will largely determine how willing they are to participate and open up. You might say that you want everyone’s input, but then you spend the rest of your time showing them that you don’t. For example, how do you react to different viewpoints in meetings? Do you listen carefully? Ask clarifying questions and summarise the essence of the comment. Do you guide the team by talking about how it might fit in with the conventional wisdom that’s on the table? Or do you instead, brush over it quickly, looking mildly annoyed or impatient, and then proceed to completely disregard the input you’ve received? Good luck having that person contribute again, anytime soon.

Second tip is set a culture of expectation. No tourists. Everyone has to contribute their thoughts where relevant. Now in decision-making this can be a little tricky, but as I used to say to my executives, you have to bring something different and valuable to the executive team. If you think the same as I do, then at least one of us is redundant. And it’s probably not me. The object of the exercise is to encourage consultation and collaboration without treading over the accountable person’s decision rights. So when it comes to decision-making speed and accountability are the primary drivers of good decisions. But the quality of outcomes will be really poor if you’re accountable people don’t learn to extract relevant information quickly from the other people around them. And this demands that you develop a high order capability in unlocking your people’s unique perspectives and viewpoints. This is the primary mechanism for extracting value from the diversity you’ve worked so hard to build into the team on the front end. I also often used to use the expression “Everyone gets their say, but not everyone gets their way.” But as I came to learn, not everyone should even get their say. The purpose of asking people’s opinion is not to appease them. It’s to genuinely tap into them as a source of expertise and capability. Filling a room with tourists, who are there for no other reason than to feel included, is not what I’m talking about. This is inefficient, it’s disingenuous, and it can even be destructive depending on how it’s done. You need to avoid the decision-making by consensus and the management by committee, that plagues organisations with weak accountability cultures. Nothing happens, as everyone’s simply trying to compromise to include everyone else’s views, no matter how outlandish that latest thought bubble might be. So it’s up to the accountable decision-maker to work out who’s genuinely able to contribute and then to go about bringing out their views and use those to shape their understanding of the issues and risks and the potential options for resolving them. The episode I did a couple of weeks ago on the leadership meeting cadence is predicated on the fact that you need to determine the right people in the room before you even decide a meeting is necessary. Most meetings, let’s face it, they just have too many spectators.

The final tip for unlocking the power of diversity is to draw out people’s differences through robust debate and challenge. Now the only teams I’ve ever seen that I would define as high performing are the ones where people aren’t afraid to challenge each other. They debate issues absolutely passionately, but they don’t take it personally. They aren’t afraid to put their opinions out there. They’re driven by getting the best result for the team and the organisation, and that always trumps everything else that might prevent them from contributing. A really good leader will encourage this, nurture it and manage it. So that the heated debate doesn’t boil over into acrimony between team members. They’ll also ensure that anyone who finds themselves in a meeting room feels the weight of expectation to contribute something useful.

Finally, leaders should show people that what they contribute actually matters. Good leaders demonstrate a willingness and an ability to change. So it’s important to reward the people who go out on a limb. Listen to what they have to say. Dissect a little to show understanding. Help them turn random thoughts into valuable contributions. But you have to be genuinely willing to shift your stance as better information comes to light. Being adept at collecting that information, communicating how it makes a difference, and then letting people realise that they’ve made a difference is the key. Now we’ve mentioned previously the work that Dan Pink did on motivation in his book Drive. People are driven by three things, autonomy, mastery, and purpose. When you can draw out people’s unique contribution and allow it to make a difference to the outcomes, this touches on all three of those emotional drivers. If you want to improve the outcomes your team achieves one way is to unlock the unique value that each individual brings.

Don’t just pay lip service to diversity. You need to spend time working out how to harness the potential value that diversity brings. You have a goldmine sitting right in front of you that you need to tap into. And if there’s anyone in your team who you think doesn’t bring anything unique and valuable, then they simply shouldn’t be there. But that’s a different discussion and that’s for another day. All right, so that brings us to the end of Episode #113. Thanks so much for joining us. And remember, at Your CEO Mentor our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please take a few minutes to rate and review the podcast if you’re on Apple or share it with your leadership network. I look forward to next week’s episode, making a roll your own.

Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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