The Diverse Leader

Ways to encourage diversity on your team beyond race, religion or sexual orientation. 

Several weeks ago, I got an unexpected Skype call.  It was from my long-time client Pete. He was calling from Germany to say “hi” and let me know he’d just landed a new job as Director of Operational Excellence for a large metalworking enterprise. This exciting opportunity has offered a new challenge for Pete: the leading a team that’s physically located across four continents. His nine direct reports are spread throughout the U.S., China, Germany and India. Beyond the logistical challenges of varying time zones, Pete now also has to contend with communication issues that are heavily influenced by his employees’ cultural backgrounds.

Pete’s going to succeed at creating a cohesive, high-performing team.  His learning curve will be a bit longer this time, because he’s doing it for the first time with a global work team, but he’ll get there. How do I know? Because I’ve seen him do it repeatedly over the past 12 years.  He’s hired me to consult with him on several projects requiring people-skills development, thus enabling me to see up close how he interacts with his employees.

Right now, Pete is working on providing developmental opportunities for his direct reports; that’s why he contacted me.  As he’s thinking through his options, he’s paying attention to the fact that anything he does will also need to acknowledge the multiple national cultures that his employees hail from.

Anyone who’s held a leadership position knows that it’s tough to get an entire team on the same page.  Adding diverse cultural backgrounds only makes it that much harder. Pete does have an advantage because his previous job had him traveling the globe for the past six years. Even so, I think his success is going to come from his highly tuned interpersonal skill set rather than any deep knowledge of cultural insights. Even though this is Pete’s first go at leading a global virtual team, he’s going to do well because he has a track record of doing the following four things to value diversity.

Change Up the Definition

The basic premise of most corporate diversity initiatives is that creating an inclusive workplace is about honoring all people, regardless of skin color, faith, or lifestyle. Pete goes beyond that notion to the root of the word.  “Diverse” means differing from one another . Notice there’s no value judgment in that definition.  The “difference” is neither bad nor good, it’s just different. By taking this more all-encompassing view of encouraging “diversity” on a team, he removes himself from having to be the expert in all forms of cultural, ethnic and religious norms. It’s not possible, so he doesn’t even try.  But he does come from a place of valuing each and every person for their uniqueness, which is Pete’s second success factor. 

Value Their Uniqueness

Pete is consistent with company policies, but flexible in his interpersonal approach. Even the newest supervisor knows this truth: every single direct report is unique.  So, the key to learning to bring out the best in each contributor is to figure out how to interpersonally “deal” with him or her. Pete has honed his powers of observation: is this person outgoing? Introverted? Which team members thrive on deadlines? Who is embarrassed by public recognition and who loves it? Pete cares enough about his team members to know these details. This allows him to tailor the “must haves” of company policy in such a way that it fits an employee’s preferred approach.

Encourage a Variety of Viewpoints

The third way that Pete encourages diversity is that he is always seeking multiple viewpoints, both from inside and outside of his team.  That’s why I value working with him. He taps multiple sources of expertise to be sure he hasn’t missed something.  He’s open to hearing the “bad stuff” as well as the good. I’ve witnessed people say some fairly inflammatory things and he has remained calm and open to their opinion.

Be Respectful at All Times

Above all, Pete is respectful. His respect is genuine; it goes beyond the political correctness that sometimes masquerades as respect. That’s why he can get away with saying, “I was raised on a farm in Kentucky; I’m fluent in ‘Kentuckian’ as a foreign language.”  He can acknowledge who he is and where he comes from without it sounding like a put-down to others of similar backgrounds.

Pete’s story demonstrates that you don’t need to have an advanced degree in multi-cultural affairs to be an effective advocate for workplace diversity.  By doing the four things outlined above, leaders ensures that team members are bringing their whole selves to the picture— including, but not limited to, the beliefs shaped by their race, religion, etc. This mindset allows leaders to honor their employees’ diversity yet remain focused on the task at hand: delivering value to the customer

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