25.06.2015 : Matt Ensor

Diversity of thought to enable diversity in leadership

Organisations that achieve diversity as a competitive advantage will in future attract the best range of staff. For professional services firms, that’s a business necessity!

Diversity of thought in organisational leadership is a long-term business necessity. It enables us to be more considered in our decision making, more effective in our engagement with staff and stakeholders, and provides a wider range of role models for aspiring leaders.

In Australasia we value our classless meritocracy and the dominant view is that staff promotions should go to the ‘best person for the job’. I do agree but then it depends on who’s making the judgement, how the role has been designed, and whether the performance requirements for the role are simply based on the performance of the previous incumbents.

Some organisations are investing to increase diversity in leadership through targeted development programmes that focus specifically on gender and ethnicity. This is an effective approach which can lead to diversity outcomes more quickly than other routes. However a silent majority will often react negatively as they believe this approach is discriminating - they tell me that people are unique individuals and diversity statistics shouldn’t be put ahead of ‘the best person for the job’. I do cringe when I see those stock photos of a staged mix of ethnicity and gender that are often used to somehow represent an idealised diversity outcome.

In 2007 I led a group at Beca that won the EEO Trust’s National Diversity Award for the private sector. One of the winning factors was the introduction of a staff programme focussed on nine things that are important to be successful in the New Zealand work environment. It was voluntary and not limited to migrant staff or by gender.

The fabulous level of success from this programme was a result of the group being a mix of genders and ethnicities; born-and-bred kiwis and those recently arrived with English as a second language.

We discussed issues in a way that enabled everyone to learn what is required to be successful but also how to respect and benefit from others’ experiences and backgrounds. It is that type of understanding we need to grow in our future leaders.

The group has become the most successful of its type in the country and a recruitment magnet for some of the best staff from all over the world. Now it is fantastically led by a new ‘best person for the job’.

So, in my view, inclusion needs to be the dominant strategy for diversity in leadership. Demographic targeting is valid, but great diversity statistics are not the target.  Rather, they will be the natural outcome in an organisation that has empowered diversity of thought and experience.

Two ways to empower inclusion is through technology and flexibility - the likes of Smartphones, Lync and Skype have given us the ability to build tremendous flexibility into management and leadership roles. And research shows that the more flexible a job is designed, then the greater the number of women who will apply. Actually, the more flexible roles become, the more attractive they become to everyone!

We need to put our energy into providing leaders and staff with the new skills and understanding of online flexible working, and design our management and leadership roles so that they are enabled by this technology. A team leader who’s available nationally at the click of a mouse for 1:1 meetings between 9:00am and 2:30pm each day should have a powerful impact.

In Australasia we need to use our ‘best person for the job’ culture to leverage how we grow diversity in our organisations. The best diversity strategy empowers people’s uniqueness of thought and experience rather than focussing on their demographic statistics.

I love seeing diversity thrive in my team and being part of a diverse organisation. But the challenge and aspiration I see in similar organisations is to increase the diversity of thought in leadership. Doing this will in future attract the highest calibre of staff. For professional services firms, that is a business necessity!

About the Author

Matt Ensor

Business Director - Advisory Services

Matt Ensor is a leader in business strategy and an expert on the future of professional services. He’s focused on our ongoing growth in integrated business advisory, design and asset management services throughout the life-cycle of our clients’ assets.

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Matt Ensor · 15/07/2015 8:55:39 a.m.
In New Zealand there is a furore this week over Labour politicians using people's surnames to draw conclusions on their ethnicity. From this, statistical conclusions are being made on the proportion of house buyers who may be based in China. The backlash to this approach is focussed on the inappropriateness of assumptions simply based on people's surnames, and their accents, etc. . I argue that the same backlash thinking applies to assuming an organisation is diverse because a significant proportion of people look different, sound different, or have "ethnic" surnames. True diversity comes from the level of engagement of staff who have different perspectives, backgrounds and beliefs, particularly in leadership roles. This may well lead to better "surname statistics" but that is a result, not an objective for analysis and dubious statistical conclusions.

Lynda Moe · 6/07/2015 6:50:49 p.m.
I think you make a very important point Matt when you talk about shifting the focus from diversity statistics (gender, ethnicity etc) to a focus on inclusion and diversity of thought and experience. I've taught "Diversity and Inclusion" workshops as part of Leadership Training programmes for a number of years now. From my experience, a critical component of such programmes is teaching, coaching and working with participants to increase their level of emotional intelligence including the ability to deeply listen to the perspectives of others, particularly when they are very different or opposing to our own viewpoint. [‘ Listening is the most underdeveloped leadership skill.’ - Peter Drucker].

As well, enhancing the collaboration process and related collaborative skills within the organisation is key to greater diversity of thought. This increases the ability of workers to effectively work with and include others with diverse thinking and experience in the decision making process.

Diverse thinking (and innovation) happens when people don't all come from the same box, so to speak. Most recruiters/organisations are so risk adverse that hiring someone 'out of the box' is akin to jumping off a cliff without a parachute. Until this barrier is overcome we will not see the level of diversity (and innovation) required to meet the challenges we are faced with in today’s business world.

Matt Ensor · 6/07/2015 3:26:58 p.m.
Thanks to Kirsty, Kevin, Ashley and Linda for your comments. In last week's NZ Herald there was a business article about Deloitte's perspective that in New Zealand the workforce is changing fast, but management isn’t keeping up: 'New Zealand businesses, typically led by the "male, pale and stale", are not making the most of the skills present in the cultural melting pot, particularly in Auckland.' Auckland is only behind Vancouver in having the greatest diversity in the workforce pool. If Auckland organisations can up-skill their management of diverse inclusive workforces, the city will be a true gateway city between New Zealand and the rest of the world.

Linda Watson · 2/07/2015 3:18:58 p.m.
I really like this article, Matt. You make some excellent points and I love your conclusion concerning "The best diversity strategy empowers people’s uniqueness of thought and experience rather than focussing on their demographic statistics". This resonates with me. I am concerned right now that in a time when skills are deficit (particularly in your industry) that businesses are recruiting to what I call a "cloning" strategy. This is risk adverse and is of limited value to a business. Unfortunately, a lot of this aversion is driven out of KPI's that are historical and recruiters who make safe placements in order to mitigate financial risk. Disruption is what engineers do all the time - it would be great if we could see this parallel in talent management strategies! Thanks once again for the great post.

Ashley Barratt · 29/06/2015 9:20:10 p.m.
Matt - Wise observations. So many efforts at Diversity seem stuck in the realm of 'affirmative action'. Diversity of ethnicity or gender is necessary but not sufficient for success. Diversity of thought matters most but is hardest to achieve. Inclusion seems a vital sign to promoting diversity. Michael Stevens and I are presenting a workshop at the PMINZ conference in September on Cultural change - Why diversity is vital. Celebrate it! Michael has been instrumental in the development of NZ8200 - Rainbow Inclusive Workplaces - A standard for gender and sexual diversity in employment.

Kevin McFarlane · 28/06/2015 3:28:58 p.m.
Matt - I was particularly interested in the point regarding "Two ways to empower inclusion is through technology and flexibility – the likes of Smartphones, Lync and Skype." I was lucky to chat to Vaughan Robertson (Beca) regarding the use of technology as a business (when changes are happening in leaps and bounds over short time periods) and Vaughan certainly made me rethink my own approach to what tools to use and how we might best use them.

Kirsty Johns · 25/06/2015 11:06:08 p.m.
Great points Matt. I used to be very anti positive discrimination, but as my view has matured and I've grown to understand more of the challenges, I believe these kind of approaches towards increasing diversity are the only way to remove the need for talking about increasing diversity.