Diversity tips for leaders

Abed Farhan draws on his 20+ years of experience to share with us his diversity tips for leaders. Five factors that are slowing progress on diversity and five potential remedies.

I have had the privilege of leading large teams, as well as supporting leaders who have had similar experiences. I am not a subject matter expert on the topic, but I think my perspective is relevant and will provide a practical hands-on analysis from the trenches.

Leaders challenging tokenism

“Diversity” as we know it is oftentimes nothing more than a token and mostly pertains to gender and race. Lots of lip service is paid to diversity initiatives, yet where is the follow through or desire to truly make a difference? We tend to think it is a binary matter limited in scope to one’s prejudice. I have experienced this in exec staff, board meetings, and having a beer at the corner of a brewpub with colleagues and friends, unguarded.

The privileged tend to be preconditioned to trust their own perspective and personal view on diversity and inclusion, while the rest is history. Although an unintended consequence, it still sucks. Diversity gets more complicated given the fact that the migratory trends are limited to a few homogeneous STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) cities and talent pools. All tend to operate in similar environments, network with the same people, reside in the same cities and have the same habits which all lead to a smaller pool from which to choose.

Yes, bias is rampant particularly against women, people of colour, older people and disabled people. While group thought and culture has a large part in creating bias, I do think – to a limited extent – that some of the burdens fall on the individual. When you are on the receiving end of bias, your options are limited, and your wit and mettle are always being tested. That is truly exhausting. But there are ways we can all make a difference.

See also: Diversity is the answer to the UK’s engineer shortage

I attribute the lack of meaningful progress to the following five factors:

  1. Polarization: Diversity and inclusion have avid supporters on the opposite sides of the spectrum. Polarization can and often does lead to indifference and division to avoid confrontation or the prescription of being an obstructionist.
  2. Undervalued achievement or merit: Overachievers and successful people are often under scrutiny. Having a diverse background only adds to the burden. A good friend, African-American female executive, has shared horror tales of how she is told often that her rise is due to her race and gender, not achievement.
  3. Lack of quantifiable effectiveness: It is difficult enough to show ROI in our daily jobs, let alone diversity. This is likely due to the challenge of measuring a state of mind, philosophy and long-term strategy – while still dealing with the challenges of what’s right in front of you now. And most are not willing to wait or see it through.
  4. Competing initiatives: It is human nature to be single-threaded and pay attention to what matters most as it pertains to our daily job or the order of the day. For example, hiring Millennials could be the initiative of the company and for most, that cures the need for diversity. Leaders should have a more comprehensive approach that will be thought out and deliberate.
  5. Non-conforming: By my definition, diversity is to step out of one’s element of comfort, familiarity and understanding, and welcome perspectives from those with different experiences. That is hard enough within your space or environment, faith, race, gender, philosophy, etc. You step out of your space and then it gets really uncomfortable.

While each of the above challenges is significant, there are several approaches that will help you navigate the waters of diversity.

See also: What does a good employer look like?

Five remedies that helped me deal with my own challenges:

  1. Hire people you do not know: If you look at any given exec roster, it will hard to ignore the tribalism. We all tend to hire people we know, come from people we know, or who look and act like us, compounding the tribal effect. Diversity in is having a healthy balance between your view of the world and another’s. Having the courage to welcome examination of your thinking and authority.
  2. Listen: Do things you do not understand with people who are not familiar. Adapt your approaches based on what you learned. Creating an open culture of listening is one of the key pillars of learning and personal development. People will be a reflection of who you are as a leader.
  3. Use the same measuring stick: To eliminate the curse of subculture, apply the same rules and criteria of success to all, regardless of who, where and why. Fairness in dealings will frame a legacy of trust and collaboration.
  4. Expand the definition of diversity: Diversity extends well beyond the limiting definitions we are taught. It starts with a mental state of curiosity to seek an alternate path of learning. Find your own and build on what is already known.
  5. Rinse and repeat: Live by your deeds and actions, say them again and again. Continue to listen, adjust your approach and start all over. Stay the course and be consistent, and only then will your legacy take form.

Never ceases to amaze me the difference real talent can make when given the opportunity

See also: What is diversity without inclusion?