As we all know, diversity and inclusion are the latest buzzwords and organizational focus these days. Finally, and fully right so. Though it is rather sad to witness that a company now requires a designated chief executive and a department to implement diversity and inclusion. As a German, I have long struggled with the female quota that was introduced in Germany in 2016 requiring that women hold 30% of top board seats (btw in 2018 it is still less than 30 percent). Part of me says yes, we need it to get a foot into the door that has been closed for oh so long, but the other part of me finds it mortifying that a law must be passed that reduces women to an openly disadvantaged group that needs this type of legislative support. Over the years though, I made my peace with it.

And yes, as I am living in the United States, I was also happy to see that diversity was a positive outcome of the 2018 midterms.

However, I cannot shake off the question that has been with me for many years and especially due to the current momentum.

What truly is diversity and inclusion?

Reading through tons of research, statistics and articles there seems to be one common thread – diversity must be seen and declared to the outside, it is defined by gender, race, age and openly declared preferences.

But what about the diversity of thoughts and opinions?

How can we proclaim true diversity which – at the moment – seems to be based on superficial attributes to please the eye of the beholder?

I am aware that not everyone will share my views, of course, because in the end these are my views.

Why do we think that visible diversity, or, as I like to call it, diversity for everyone’s eyes only, is equal to improvements, innovation and performance?

Yes, we have some statistics available, for example, in 2018, the Peterson Institute for International Economics completed a survey of 21,980 firms from 91 countries and found that having women at the C-Suite level significantly increases net margins:

“A profitable firm at which 30 percent of leaders are women could expect to add more than 1 percentage point to its net margin compared with an otherwise similar firm with no female leaders,” the report notes.

Again, I am not trying to make a case against diversity and inclusion, but for me the root causes, that need to be identified and resolved to live true inclusion and build diversity into every company’s foundation, go way deeper.

When I moved to the US many years ago, I underestimated the power of ‘pc’ (political correctness) but, don’t worry, I was reminded of it almost on a daily basis. Cultural differences were definitely part of the equation and it took me as well as my team probably a year to adjust to each other.

Something I tried to implement with my team as leader was to get rid of being ‘pc’ and being respectful while being vocal instead – respectful to other people’s ideas, approaches, thoughts – as long as these would not intentionally and personally hurt any individual.

So, what is so different about my approach? Before I moved to the US, I was told to avoid any personal viewpoints or discussions about religion, politics and anything that could possibly be in opposition to anyone’s thought and perspective. Basically, to not talk about life and the world in general.

I believe that by quasi mandatory exclusion of life topics that evoke emotional responses in the workplace, you are suppressing diverse thinking and personal connection – both of which are fundamental in creating trust, loyalty and dedication, and ultimately are cornerstones for progress and innovation and, yes, profit and subsequent rewards.

Isn’t it more about the respect for each other than the opinion itself?

Everyone advocates for authenticity in- and outside of the workplace, but let me ask you, how authentic can you be when you have to keep your ‘not-mainstream-approved’ thoughts to yourself – out of fear of being made fun of, being called difficult and emotional or not being considered for career advancement or a promotion.

Isn’t it that type of diversity that challenges the status quo, boosts innovation, empowers bold thinking and encourages actions that change the world?

And isn’t the exclusion of these diverse opinions and approaches leading to further frustration, silos and gaps?

I believe that resentment is writing checks a company, its employees and bottom-line cannot cash – the cost will be immense to both, people and profit.

Raise your voice – yes – but at what cost?

And yes, I am speaking from experience as I know very well what happens when you raise your voice to call out bullying and confide in a mentor for guidance and in turn being called an immature leader who does not understand the bigger picture by said (female) mentor.

The antonym of diversity is uniformity.

So, is the current trend of superficial – for eyes only – diversity only leading to uniformity in the end?

As a female leader I always looked for the best skilled, best experienced, best suited human being to fill a position – no matter the gender, race, preference – based on transparent recruiting, thoughtful assessments and a bold vision, not because of connections or popular agreement.

And I admit, there were times, when I nearly chose the comfort that is agreement and same thoughts right out of the gate over fierce discussions and arguments because it would have been easier and quicker. But, truth be told, the easy route would have not produced the best outcome and it most definitely would have not had impact it ultimately had. There is so much goodness and potential in respectful arguments and audacious ideas that are different to one’s own.

“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.” – Ani DiFranco

I am looking at diversity from a female perspective.

And while I was never given a free or easy pass to anything, the biggest challenges I faced almost always led back to unpopular views and opinions I voiced or stood up for, for being too ‘passionate’ in Europe and not being ‘cheerleader’ enough in the US.

What nearly broke the camel’s back was the good old advice of dressing for the role you want, also provided by a female executive who, in all fairness, always dressed professionally. Until that moment I actually did wear suits and did not really partake in casual Fridays, so no tank tops, camouflage or short shorts.

What bothered me about this ‘advice’ wasn’t so much the fashion statement but, once again, the need to conform to a pre-set standard and to be visibly appealing, to fit in instead of standing out and being my own person.

It wasn’t really about results and definitely not about personal and unique expression.

So, what does it take to create, encourage and sustain diversity and inclusion inside out and outside in?

It takes an honest look in the mirror, it takes commitment to do the hard work and not dodge the tough questions and decisions, it is about taking chances on people who are not like you, do not agree with the popular decision and could be considered ‘out there’ and it is about starting and sustaining an honest and transparent dialogue top to bottom and bottom to top, throughout every organization and level.

It is not just about creating further overlay teams or departments, it is not about simply ticking the box by rolling out one diversity and inclusion training after another without aligning strategy to people and processes, it is not about policies that live on websites and in handbooks and it is not forgetting about past decisions.

It is inevitable to shake up top leadership levels and to open the books on hiring, succession planning and promotions.

And investing into training that teaches the art of outlandish ideas and audacious goals such as design thinking, enabling “…chaos by direction, not chaos through absence of direction.” as per psychologist Edward de Bono.

“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.” – Malcolm Forbes


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