Diverse teams lead to more innovative solutions

Harriet Green, one of Fortune's Most Powerful Women Internationally in 2019, on how the 'vortex of change' puts the spotlight on diverse teams

Harriet Green is a global executive, a leader in business transformations, and diversity and inclusion activist. Here she explains how the ‘vortex of change’ spotlights diversity and inclusion, diverse teams and the importance of being what you can see.

Hiring people from diverse backgrounds, including developing and retaining them, leads to greater productivity, happier teams, and better solutions.

“The data is overwhelming,” argues Harriet Green. “We’re going through a huge vortex of change – climate change, a health pandemic, new technology and, rightly, an intensification of diversity and inclusion.

“When you mix people who think differently, are from different age groups and backgrounds, you get very different solutions. For example, throwing together people who understand travel with engineers who make wheels produced an amazing new industry – bags on wheels. Those people would never have come to that separately.”

Green believes that, although embedding D&I is taking a long time, the younger generation, particularly in the wake of the vortex of change, are less inclined to work in environments that are not empathetic and truly diverse.

The last five years have seen an increase in diverse hiring among the world’s top corporations, although there is no one of colour running an FTSE 100 business in the UK, and the focus now needs to be on progression and retention.

Says Green: “It’s one thing being invited to the dance but being asked onto the dance floor and being part of the wonderful festival of dance is now an imperative.” A great quote from Pamela Fuller’s book: The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias.


People, planet and profit

As a business leader, she believes strongly in people, planet and profit, in that order, whereas many would put profit first. But the vortex of change is directing leaders to connect more with their workforce and provide environments that allow their employees to flourish and fulfil their capabilities.

“Of course, there will always be some who tick a box, who don’t believe,” Green adds. “I don’t think you can be a successful leader of a start-up, a medium-sized company or a large brand if you are not authentic around diversity, equity and inclusion.”

And as she points out, it will be young, diverse people who will drive innovation as the world emerges from lockdown. This is similar to the development of Sony’s first transistor radio after the flu pandemic of 1957 or Apple launching the first iPod when the dotcom bubble burst.

Promoting diversity and inclusion

Green has a long and impressive track record in promoting diversity and inclusion. Former chair and CEO of IBM Asia-Pacific, she is a global executive who has led business transformation on four continents. She was named one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Internationally in 2019 and has been on the FT/Yahoo HERoes Champions of Women in Business list top 10 for three years running and in 2020 entered their Wall of Fame.

Last year, she also became Executive Chair for Mission Beyond and Advisory Board Member for digital transformation company Red Badger.

From her own experience in improving DE&I in organisations, Green says there are three main elements: psychological, physiological and anatomical.

“If you believe that your teams should be diverse and inclusive, state your plans, and your leadership team action should reflect that; you set up, for example, shadow boards and do mutual mentoring between young and much older or experienced individuals,” she explains. “People see very quickly what the leadership importance is, so psychologically, you start there.

“Then it’s physiological: what are the processes, the metrics. When I was running all of IBM’s businesses across Asia-Pacific, close to 50% of our executives were women. That was a very important metric. Thirdly, the structure, the anatomy is ‘if you can see it, you can be it’. Role models are unbelievably important for two reasons. The first is that you aspire, and, secondly, it removes the issue of not belonging.

“I hired so many people from outside IBM who had reached a ceiling in their organisations – there was no one like them above it.”

Unconscious bias

She adds that it is up to leaders to support those who may lack confidence and to be an ally and advocate. However, there was one instance when Green admits to harbouring unconscious bias. She was at a meeting in Korea, and a man was speaking and, because his English wasn’t too good, she began to demonstrate impatience.

“Suddenly, it hit me that if continued with this slightly edgy, impatient tonality, maybe his English would not improve,” Green recalls. “So I demonstrated visible encouragement, listening skills and patience. In the end, he thanked me. It was a big reminder that, as a leader, you hold all the cards.”

To those companies who, because they are profitable, feel they do not need to change, she has this message: “A business is so much more than just profits. It’s about a commitment to the communities and consumers you serve and a promise that you make to your employees and partners.

“I believe young people are constantly pushing that they need and want individuals around them that can solve the problems and reflect consumers and communities in a very diverse society.”

Social mobility

Through her work at Mission Beyond, Green aims to promote better social mobility among young people entering the workforce. Statistics had shown that many youngsters ended up following their parents’ careers, especially those in lower-paid jobs.

“I believe deeply in the potential of others,” she reveals. “Many young people, without knowing it, have skills that the world needs. For example, those from tough backgrounds don’t realise that balancing a family budget is a considerable skill, as is caring for a sibling or parent. Those skills are needed because, as AI changes every single job, we need people with empathy, practical analytical ability, and creativity. If you have more outgoings than income, you have to get creative to survive.

“So, recognising the skills that they have is very, very important. And companies recognising that the diverse talent they’ve hired has to progress and feel valued is the next phase of this journey.”

Looking ahead, Green believes that, although any change is a shock to the system, especially the current vortex, the old ways no longer work. The right leadership, psychology, processes and structure, plus good communication and celebrating successes, are essential for mobilising innovation-led growth and diverse and inclusive teams.

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