Guest post

How to Build Sustainable Diversity

How to Build Sustainable Diversity

A look at the business world reveals a graveyard of diversity initiatives that have failed to move the needle. Despite discussions happening all over the place, be they in boardrooms, social media, or the water cooler, it seems that very little has changed. The main reason for this effect is that most solutions are cosmetic and do not build a sustainable culture that includes diversity as one of its values.

In order to develop lasting results, we will all need to pitch in, starting with the understanding that a twist of the genetic dice put some people on the bottom of an outdated socioeconomic system, and others on the top. It’s not a comfortable system for anyone, and recognizing this is the first step in creating sustainable diversity. The second step is looking at the realities of that system, and there are several that are critical to understand if we are to change the system at the business level:

  1. Some groups of people are often undereducated and not inherently socialized to the culture of the business world and so their potential remains unexplored.
  2. These groups lack the resources (both social and financial) to have easy entry into the business world.
  3. Entering into a new group/culture is a risky proposition for all parties. The only way to smooth the transition is to take risks and be tolerant of errors and failure.

[A key point for the above is that this can apply to any number of categories of people, including almost every demographic you can think of and any other way you can classify people.]

Establishing the first principles above and recognizing the realities are two key parts of the first step in establishing a foundation for sustainable diversity. The last two are reexamining/redefining terms and envisioning the desired future.

In the business world, there are a few concepts that need to be reconsidered, especially with regard to their role in determining who may enter.

Talent. We need to view talent within the business world not as an established resource that it harnessed or used like gold, but rather like an engine that can power any number of machines, and that can be refined, upgraded, retooled, and even recycled for creating a better one (e.g., transferrable skill). Any engine added to a system must be onboarded carefully, connected tightly to all the parts it is supposed to power, and given both fuel to power its work and coolant to keep it from burning out.

Fit. We treat "fit" as being sufficiently familiar with the culture as to join seamlessly without needing much in the way of learning, tutelage, or the like. While ready-made fit is a fantastic ideal, its rarity means that it should be minimized as a criterion for entry. Rather, the key identifier should be some indicator that a person is ready, willing, and able to learn the culture of the company and field, and likewise willing to weather and fix errors along the way (and the company should be prepared to help with that through a solid onboarding program and a willingness to cushion the mistakes).

Knowledge/Skills/Education. Anyone who joins a company or takes a job will unquestionably need to grow, learn, and upgrade in the process. As such, the question isn't what the person can do in the moment, but what they can learn to do in an adequate timeframe given adequate resources from the company.

Work. We need to see work not as the grind that people put in, or the outputs that their factory-like grind produces, but rather whether the time and energy they expend actually contributes to the company's execution upon its value proposition. Every company should be connecting its workers' daily tasks and periodic deliverables to a meaningful value creation process, and that connection should begin at the very inception of the job (i.e., the creation of the position and writing of the job description).

Outcomes of Diversity

Neither diversity nor inclusion initiatives are effective unless they are tied directly to the value proposition of the company. Thus, every company necessarily needs to be able to answer the following questions:

  1. How is having and including different types of people in the company an intrinsic part of our value proposition?
  2. How does having and including different types of people in the company improve our ability to create value in a unique way?
  3. How much of our long-term strategy is dedicated to growth and innovation? What are the resources we have available for promoting long-term growth and innovation?

Companies usually struggle mightily with all three questions, and this is almost always why they struggle with diversity. If, however, a company understands why it needs diversity to create value in a unique way, and likewise to grow and develop profitably in the long term, then the company will continually push for diversity and inclusion, because without them there will be no sustainable profit. That is: diversity and inclusion have to be strategic initiatives, not personnel initiatives. Both strategy and personnel are an integral part of the product/service design and delivery methods, right along with the marketing and growth strategies. Thus, diversity and inclusion must become line items in the allocation of resources by the C-level team to execute upon strategies. Unless and until diversity and inclusion are part of the company at this level, they will never be sustained or sustainable without an outside force, like taxes or fines.

In order to determine the diversity and inclusion outcomes needed, it becomes necessary to look at the different manifestations of diversity and how they can be included in the company's strategy.

Types of Diversity that Need to be Considered in Strategy

Education. Though fairly obvious at the surface level, educational diversity has additional layers. One of the primary values of studying a wide range of subjects is the ability to draw analogies between the subjects one knows and the situations one encounters. This is consistent with hiring T-shaped folks who have both an area of expertise and a diverse range of experiences.

Skill. Again, fairly obvious, but more thought needs to be given to the concept of meta-skills. As I discussed elsewhere, meta-skills are higher-order and reflect a sufficiently deep understanding of the domain as to be able to develop new skills within that domain. For instance, linguistic ability relates to one's understanding of how languages work to the extent of being able to learn new languages by drawing on the individual's internalized frameworks of how language tends to work.

Experience. This is one of the most elastic of the types of diversity, because experience is not just about what someone has been through, but the meaning, value, skills, and judgment/discretion that have been acquired as a result. When using proxies to gauge experience (e.g., years in the field), it’s important to remember that the key question is whether the person has a wide enough base of experiences to draw from in order to have good judgment/discretion in novel situations (and that numbers can be superficial).

Whither Demographic Diversity?

You might have noticed that none of the biological demographics was included above, and that's because they're almost always irrelevant to strategy. If a company takes education, skill, and experiential diversity seriously, however, then demographic diversity will be an automatic byproduct. A company will be searching all over the place for the right kinds of education, skills, and experience, and collecting the right talent definitively requires a net wide enough to cover the demographics. They will be looking not just at who is a ready-made candidate, but who is teachable, who can be included in succession-planning strategies, who is a rookie that can be paid less in exchange for more training but who can then command a powerful skillset and earn a far higher salary, who knows the market, who can handle adversity, and a whole host of other forms of wherewithal that are not based on any biological demographic. This means significant deliberation about company strategy, and people strategy, and it likely means making sure you have the right advisors on the board and the right consultants in your rolodex.

This isn't to say that no effort need be spent on overcoming biases, but rather that such efforts must be placed in the context of strategic diversity. For instance, was a candidate's experience overlooked or given less weight because of demographics? This surely happens, and must be addressed. But, developing the habit of focusing on strategic factors instead of demographic ones is a slow change, especially when a surface-level look at certain demographics provides some inverse correlations with education, skills, and experience. Going deeper and looking more carefully for the best talent takes additional time and effort, and in this fast-paced world that can be harder to do when stakeholders are demanding fast decisions and instant action. That creates an inertia for surface-level decisions that must be overcome and replaced with better systems of decision-making and action, especially when it comes to talent management. But, the effort that companies put in to build solid strategy for the value proposition and for finding the people who will execute upon it is not just an investment in sustainable diversity, but in success.

This is a summary of a more detailed essay by the author. For more tips on diversity and inclusion, check out the Quality of Life Laboratory’s D&I Cheat Sheet)

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