Diversity – Lean In Tune In

The biggest leadership challenge and opportunity facing organisations, and New Zealand itself, is harnessing our ever-increasing diversity. That’s the view of the majority of leaders we interviewed for our book Leaders Like You.

Based on this observation, I started the year taking a deeper look into this thing called diversity. I’ve read a lot and talked with people who live and breath the topic and there have been some interesting revelations. The first is the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of diversity – boards and teams with a diverse mix of gender and ethnicity tend to make better decisions than those without, which in turn leads to better organisational outcomes. McKinsey has issued research demonstrating this phenomenon: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/delivering-through-diversity.

The other revelation is that diversity is not about representation, but about mindset; about the willingness to authentically explore and understand things from different perspectives. So, from a board or a senior leadership team (SLT) point of view, it’s not so much about changing the hues and gender balance to tick a compliance box, but about having a collection of people who authentically explore different perspectives not represented at the table.

This, in turn, has got me thinking about how effective boards and senior leadership teams are in practising diversity thinking. Catapult has worked with hundreds of boards and SLTs over the years, and my conclusion is that, as a generalisation, they are not particularly good at it.

It’s partly due to too much focus on operational versus strategic conversations, and partly because the attributes that lend themselves to diversity thinking are not consciously promoted or valued. What gets people on boards and SLTs is proven professional competence, experience, and a general sense that they are wise and “know stuff”.  Competency is hugely important. We want people in governance and senior executive roles to be professionally competent, but what is needed in spades are the attributes of curiosity and connectedness. Curiosity is about wanting to find out what others think and feel, and what’s important to them and why. Connectedness is about having contacts or channels to be able to tap into different points of view and priorities held by different groups in a society or community. In short, the willingness to lean in and tune in.

But curiosity takes vulnerability and courage to admit not knowing. Many members of SLTs and boards are guilty of focusing their contributions on either demonstrating what they know (to show they deserve to be at the table) or not contributing enough for fear of looking stupid. What’s needed more is embracing “not knowing” combined with an appetite for finding out. In terms of connectedness, how many board and SLT members can really say they are connected to parts of society that differ from their own?

I’m not having a crack at the individuals here – the overwhelming majority of people on boards and SLTs are generous, hard-working people doing good work. Rather, I’m observing the dynamic and proposing that the attributes of curiosity and connectedness are vitally important and should be high on the list of attributes for board and SLT membership and practice.

Board members and SLT members are very busy people. They move at speed and lead hectic lives, juggling multiple priorities and roles. For many, a typical day may involve driving to the airport alone, having a coffee and a chat with a colleague in the Koru lounge, reading business papers on the plane, and jumping in a taxi at the other end. In the evening, the process is reversed, with pinot substituting for coffee.

It’s something I do, and it makes me think I’m walking a very narrow corridor of NZ life. On one level it makes sense because it’s comfortable and efficient. But diversity thinking is not always efficient because it involves unearthing and understanding different points of view, and this takes time and effort. Encountering different perspectives and priorities is certainly not always comfortable and it can be confronting. However, the research shows the effort is well worth it in terms of better decision-making and overall performance.

Curiosity and connectedness should not be restricted to those in senior leadership roles. If we were all more curious and connected it would undoubtedly help New Zealand make the most of our increasing diversity.

So, what if I were to catch the bus to the airport, forego the Koru lounge and sit at the gate and observe and interact with the diverse cross-section of NZ society flowing by? And once on the plane, instead of reading the paper, strike up a conversation with the person in the next seat, especially if they are different from me. Clearly, it’s just a start, but it’s one small practice that will help me lean in and tune in more. Let me know what you think and whether you are up for giving it a go.