Diversity dividend

As a business leader you’ll be aware of the D-word and may already feel some apprehension. Diversity is a concept like many of those created for the greater good. It begins with the best of intentions, then mutates like a virus. First into a set of obligations and later into a genuine business risk – giving internal and external publics the opportunity to criticise or even ‘cancel’ you and your enterprise if you get it wrong.

So allow me to give you a different spin on the Diversity roundabout. Based on empirical evidence, amassed over eight years of transforming organisational cultures here in Africa. You’ll be relieved to hear it’s a positive spin, but it may still challenge your leadership style.

One of the quickest ways to achieve positive change in an organisation is to create an environment wherein teams of people from different disciplines can gather to work together on business initiatives. In doing so, they learn about life in other departments or offices, and they get to see the benefit of blending different perspectives and skills to get a better solution.

These initiatives don’t need to be huge, in fact it’s better that they are aimed at quick wins. More complex assignments allow more time for people to revert to type: the traditional manager, the pernickety accountant, the bullish salesperson. They also indulge our love of process so, before you know it, you’ll have Meeting Minutes and Rotating Chairpeople and Co-opting of Members. Then the means becomes the end and all progress ceases.

Small assignments also make it easy to change team members when their aptitude or attitude isn’t right for a particular task. To change leaders when a different style is needed – transactional, collaborative, inspirational or whatever. And small assignments, when completed and celebrated in the right way (both for effort and impact) build the confidence needed to tackle bigger challenges.

Now, you won’t be surprised to hear that younger people, with less experience of the organisation, are better able to make contributions and progress in this kind of environment. They don’t have ‘years served’ or ‘we do it this way’ credentials, so they have to rely on something else – their wits and imagination. They also have fewer hang ups about gender or ethnicity, so they are more open to different kinds of contribution.

Do you let them loose on their own, these young people? Not at first. Instead, you find someone more mature who might coach younger people to success. Prepared to sit on their hands and keep their mouth shut as the discussion opens. That takes a special someone.