If Martin Davidson had his way, the recent media flubs concerning Jeremy Lin could have been avoided. ESPN’s operation, he said, wasn’t diverse enough to stop a racially insensitive headline about Lin.
The lesson for others, said Davidson, a professor at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, is leveraging difference to the organization’s benefit.
His new book “The End of Diversity As We Know It” is billed as a how-to manual for business and nonprofits interested in shifting the way people think about diversity, he said. In his research, Davidson found that despite all of the efforts for increasing diversity in the workplace, real change was not happening.
So he set out to “crack the code” to help move people in organizations forward. He developed the three-step, leveraging difference process. It involves asking these three questions:
1. How is it that I see or identify what differences matter and how that affects what I do? Is it a racial, thought or gender diversity that I need?
2. How I do learn about those differences and what is underneath those labels? How does that help me and the changes I am trying to make?
3. How do I engage these differences? It’s about being able to roll up your sleeves and start to figure out how to create results.
The goal, unlike previous efforts, is not just having diversity but generating business innovation. In his book Davidson compares the approaches of two companies: AMEXCO and New Frontiers Financials.
AMEXCO promoted an African American man who had been at the company for 12 years and was well liked, especially with other employees of color as director of diversity. But because he was contracted for a two-year position and would return to his original post, the company focused only on short-term goals, met those goals in the two-year period and then abandoned that specific diversity initiative.
New Frontiers Financials used more of a “leveraging difference” approach. The desire to increase diversity came from the managing director, who handpicked leaders of different ages and industry experience for her brainstorming sessions. Her reasoning was that because younger clients were likely to gain wealth differently their parents’ paths, a generationally diverse team would be smartest. From that, the team launched a successful marketing plan taking multiple generations into consideration.
The New Frontiers story is a Leveraging Difference story, and clear contrasts emerge in comparison with AMEXCO. First, this difference-related change was clearly driven by a strategic objective—in this case, growing the client base. The activity New Frontiers undertook didn’t come from a leader’s passion to help women or people of color, nor was it a mimicking of competitors’ best practices in diversity (a common Managing Diversity activity). What New Frontiers did was focus on creating sustainable competitive advantage. If it could penetrate households generationally, it could build business in the coming decades.
Although Davidson admits that one of the biggest impediments of making progress is the unwillingness to step up and talk candidly about race, it’s a necessary cause.
“I want to create a space for the different voice. The voice that brings in the unique idea, the voice off the beaten path. The U.S. is at risk of getting its butt kicked in the global economy and we need new ideas and perspectives. It’s also very much a matter of ethics, morality and justice. Voices that deserve to be heard not only add value, but have earned the respect and opportunity to be valued get to be present in these conversations at these organizations. It’s both practical and ethical,” he said. “The real thing is that diversity helps people learn.”
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