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Diversity in the Workplace: Bringing out innovative solutions from unique points of view

What is diversity in an organization? The best way to define it is to explain what it isn’t. Diversity isn’t just a box that needs to be checked on a Human Resources form. It isn’t finding that single African-American or woman to sit on the board. It isn’t a picture on a web site, a lunchtime seminar or a poster in the break room. These are all visible aspects of an intentional push to include a variety of voices, but they are not diversity in and of themselves.
The mere appearance of diversity doesn’t bring the real benefits of focused problem-solving possible in a heterogeneous group empowered to share their unique points of view. Only by purposefully including ideas from across the spectrum can we realize innovative solutions that will move our organization ahead of the competition.
Building diversity is everyone’s responsibility. The leader, whether a program manager, first line or middle manager, or executive, has to be brave enough to share all of his or her skills and welcome a wide range of input from other team members. Managers have to be willing to put in the time to recruit and nurture diverse employees. The biggest roadblock to the flow of qualified diverse leadership candidates is a lack of hiring and training at the entry level. Managers at all levels can be instrumental in driving transformation with every hiring decision. Finally, executives have to set an example and create a culture that welcomes all types of employees for their ability to deliver bottom line results.
So what is diversity in the context of today’s world — whether it is a nonprofit, a corporation, government, or any organization striving to make progress? Diversity requires reaching out to people of different races, genders, cultures, experience, personality, ages, sexual orientation and any other difference that is unique to an individual. But it is deeper than that.
A friend and mentor, Nora Denzel, who has served in senior executive roles at a number of technology companies, including Intuit and HP, compares diversity to an iceberg.
Physical appearance is just the tip of the iceberg, she points out. The aspects of a person that lead to individual ways of looking at problems and contributing to solutions are often hidden below the surface. Skin color, behavior, language, actions and gender are obvious. Physical abilities, life experiences, religion, culture, values, thoughts, perspectives and sexual orientation can be below the surface. True diversity leadership means bridging the divide between the seen and unseen nature of each individual in an organization. It means valuing all of the uniqueness they have to offer.
People draw on their backgrounds as templates for assessing, predicting and acting in future situations. Because people from different cultures often experience different challenges in life, they can bring the unique lessons they learned to the table and predict problems that others would never have imagined because they had not “walked a mile in those shoes.”
There is no one right mix of these elements for a productive team member. Only the interplay with other members where all are encouraged to draw on the reservoir of their backgrounds will result in an initiative that can cut through the clutter and turn the organization in the right direction.

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