by Katie Chevis
Creating a more diverse organisation is a key point on almost every board’s agenda. Whether the business is facing quotas, investor demands or public scrutiny, business leaders are increasingly interested in seeing a diverse selection of candidates when hiring for new positions.

As a result, I’m regularly asked how my team and myself can tap into diverse talent pools at the early stages of a search. In some extreme cases, they may have already singled out a specific minority to hire (which is both short-sighted and potentially discriminatory).

In this rush to bring diverse talent to an organisation, few stop to ask themselves why they are actually doing this. What is it about the sex or race of a particular candidate that makes them the best fit? What does the company hope to gain by seeking out a more diverse group of candidates in general?

Answering those important questions holds the key to unlocking the potential of a diverse organisation, and that requires redefining what diversity is.

Diversity Redefined

What is the company’s motivation for seeking out diversity? Senior executives may say they want to maximise the reach of their search to find the best person for the job, but how mature is their thinking about diversity?

“Normally, diversity and inclusion are dealt with through a narrow, process approach of ‘fixing’ the problem,” writes Pooja Sachdev and Chris Yates in their book, “Rewire: A Radical Approach to Tackling Diversity and Difference”.

Diversity initiatives often focus on “single strands of difference” — race or gender or age — and rely heavily on metrics. External pressure can force business leaders to seek out an expedient, often superficial solution that has no lasting impact.

But if companies want to reap the benefits of a more inclusive organisation, they need to go a little deeper, looking at diversity and inclusion “not as an HR issue but as a human issue, rooted in culture.”

Valuing Difference

That can mean persuading business leaders to take a more considered approach and redefining diversity in the context of their teams. What are the mindsets we need to make this team more innovative or agile? How can we think — and act — differently?

It starts with practising cognitive diversity or diversity of thought. Identified as the ‘next frontier’ by a Deloitte University Press paper, diversity of thought encourages us to attribute value to a difference, rather than homogeneity.

It celebrates “each person’s unique perspective or different way of thinking”. It is less concerned about someone’s sexual orientation or religion than the way they think about things. Less fixated on the ‘one right way’ than on bringing together a range of skills and qualities to create dynamic teams.

Developing Insight

There is no template for diverse thinking. It calls for insight from the particular business. It might involve sitting down with the CEO, who will outline the company’s vision and values, but it’s also important to talk to people throughout the organisation. Often, there is a mismatch between what the top layer believes are lived-out values and the reality. People may pay lip service to values such as diversity without making them part of the day-to-day culture.

It also means recognising that we’re all prone to cognitive biases– subconscious preconceptions that can derail even well-intentioned diversity initiatives (as one marketing business recently discovered.) We’ve had a client go through a shortlist of candidates for an overseas position and flatly refused anyone from one particular European country.

Helping business leaders to open up to other ways of thinking calls for a robust, direct approach; some people will be more open to being challenged than others.

Leading by Example

Cognitive diversity is vital for any organisation looking to become agile and innovative: you need to bring in people who think differently, offer different views, understand and reflect the communities in which you operate.

HR will be the champion of this. As the conscience of the business, HR should be able to have difficult conversations and articulate the values of diversity in tangible ways — through bonuses, career progression, learning and development.
That means identifying people who are unafraid to challenge others about their behaviour and take people out of their comfort zones. I will look for examples of how candidates have won round naysayers, managed conflict and turned negativity into positive momentum.

Diverse thinkers will often have had a range of experiences in various types of organisations or at different stages of a business’s evolution. Likewise, people who have lived and worked in other parts of the world, or multinationals, are well placed to understand cultural sensitivities. They are less likely to think in stereotypes and will understand how cross-border teams operate and how discipline or incentives in different countries may vary.

Setting the Culture

For organisations that hire for differences – think design business IDEO or Apple under the late Steve Jobs — the rewards are self-perpetuating as diversity of thought becomes the cultural norm. It’s a shift from a quota mentality to one where you actively seek people who will challenge preconceptions and ‘the way we do things around here’.

Despite embracing differences, inclusive companies tend to have a strong, shared core identity. This is because they embrace authenticity and encourage individuals to ‘bring themselves to work’. You can’t force loyalty, but wherever you are in the world, the desire to be listened to and respected is almost universal.

It is personal, experiential — you can’t just put in policies or quotas and expect it to work. Initiatives focusing on specific minorities have value, but these, too, need to be inclusive, such as Catalyst’s MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) programme.

What Next?

For any organisation serious about realising the benefits that diversity can bring consider:

  • Looking at your culture, how you communicate — and not just through diversity seminars.
  • Encouraging HR to become active — what does good look like? Considering the corporate structure. If you want less hierarchy, you need to talk to different people at the coalface. A good HRD will walk the floor, as well as undertake engagement surveys and holding days out. I’ll ask them: how do you know what’s going on in different divisions, how do you challenge people, what are your techniques for influencing?
  • Considering the corporate structure. If you want less hierarchy, you need to talk to different people at the coalface. A good HRD will walk the floor, as well as undertake engagement surveys and holding days out. I’ll ask them: how do you know what’s going on in different divisions, how do you challenge people, what are your techniques for influencing?
  • Leading by example and hire people in your team who have a global mindset. This is particularly important across different geographies where understanding consumers and how the brand is perceived locally is vital.

By starting with the definition of what diversity is and what it really means to an organisation, it encourages business leaders to ask the right questions about why it is important. Once that is clear, it’s then much more straightforward to identify and target the right kind of candidates to bring into an organisation.

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