Nurturing diversity results in better work and results

The case for diversity goes beyond fairness: diverse workforces can result in better work and results. So why, asks Jamshid Alamuti of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, do so few organisations concentrate on it

Once again on the road, with my faculty director Dr David Slocum. We’re in Barcelona this time, running a two-day creative leadership programme for the Art Directors Club of Europe. It’s a great group, over 30 creatives from all over place. David and I, having just finished the first day, are in a magnificent-looking tapas bar, and are discussing the high level of energy in the class. David believes it has mainly to do with the diverse group we’re serving. I look at our table, being overloaded with all these different little bowls and dishes, a colourful explosion of so many different tastes and flavour. Diverse indeed.

limited to gender

Some 50 years ago, the business case for ‘diversity’ within the workplace was born as organisations were urged to consider and respect equal opportunity employment objectives. Since then the word ‘diversity’ has often been limited to gender. This however made companies forget about the incomparable power of diversity. Anyone who’s been using intelligent sourcing as one of their leadership tools knows that only a diverse group can provide a wide range of skills and abilities to work and play with. In this case, we are talking about a lot more than just gender. Age, culture, race, religion, or even opposing characteristics such as introverts and extroverts, emotional and factual and much more enriches the field of diversity.

fundamental fairness

I ask David: “Why do you think organisations are not paying enough attention to the added value diversity brings along?”  “Because it’s damned hard,” he replies. “The diversity I believe matters isn’t just found in the demographic categories – though that’s an essential starting point. [Former Chair of BBH US] Cindy Gallop is right to fulminate about the need for more women leaders in advertising. It’s an issue of fundamental fairness, of course, of respecting and embracing a group that historically has been unfairly under-represented. More practically, though, having more women leaders would increase the diversity of experience, perspectives, and values in agencies and across the industry. And that, in turn, would generate greater creativity and profits. But changing the long-held assumptions and biases and habits of current leaders – who are, yes, b
disproportionately male and white – is hard. Then following through and putting in place a new mix of different people is even harder. It’s much easier for agencies, and organisations generally, to keep doing things the same way with the same kinds of people. Sadly, that’s part of why many organisations end up getting the same average business or creative results.”

the mad scientist

“So they need better leadership?” I ask. “It’s crucial. But the leadership needs to strike a balance between making an unmistakable, material, and continuous commitment to greater diversity without trying to impose a simplistic or superficial plan to achieve it. That’s a real bind: the more eagerly many leaders want to pursue diversity, the less helpful their actions end up being. They take the role of the mad scientist in the lab, devising the right mix and manipulating it every day. Part of what diversity requires is not only gathering various, often conflicting capabilities and perspectives, but allowing the people possessing them to interact on their own. It calls to my mind [US ad executive]Keith Reinhard’s great insight that supporting creative people is like growing plants. Diversity isn’t a formula to be implemented to solve a problem; it’s more like a garden to be seeded and nurtured but then allowed to flourish on its own.”

David makes some really valid points. And yet, in the past 10 years, I have had only one client who was daring enough to come up with the brief to “redesign our organisation in order to make us get the maximum benefit from our diverse global assets”.

risk and discomfort

It turned into one of the most exciting projects I have worked on. David wants to know how I approached it back then. “I focused on the intuitive and emotional versus the more logical and deliberative as two systems impacting the awareness and decision-making processes. I used insights and lessons from Daniel Kahneman’s book called Thinking Fast and Slow,” I tell him.

“I couldn’t agree more about Kahneman. That book should be required reading, particularly for people in creative businesses mired in out-dated left-brain-versus-right-brain thinking. His conclusions emphasise how complex and cross-brain the two systems of thinking are. Neither is more important than the other. But that kind of dual-processing is complicated. It’s also why I ultimately believe diversity is such a high mountain for creative leaders and organisations to climb. Many don’t want to recognise that creativity can come from either system or even the interaction of both, for example, because that complicates how they see themselves, other people and creative work. Instead, people and organisations like to keep things familiar – change means risk and discomfort.

“If we take diversity seriously, especially as a basis for creativity, it means that there’s no single rule or approach – particularly an approach inherited from the past – that works best for all leaders and organisations. Our best solution is to create a flexible platform that honours diversity by attracting and growing different mixes of talent as we face new and different challenges,” David argues.

people first

“That’s something [Senior VP of People Operations] Laszlo Bock has achieved at Google even as the company has expanded and changed so rapidly: he’s stayed open and kept people, many different kinds of talented people, first. In a much more modest way, I also believe it’s what we accomplished with our ADCE group today. We brought together people from all over Europe on a training journey that depended on both their commitment to working hard and learning as a group and their sharing diverse individual talents and experiences. It was only one day, I know, but imagine being able to sustain that in an organisation. To me, that shows the potential power of diversity,” David concludes as our now bare table suddenly looks empty and without much diversity of any kind.

Jamshid Alamuti is MD of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership. Founded in 2006 by a group of executives from the creative industries, the core mission of the school is to have a ‘Creative CEO in every creative enterprise’. Prof. David Slocum is Faculty Director Global Executive MBA in Creative Leadership at the Berlin School.  See berlin-school.com

Lead image: istockphoto.com/Ilbusca

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