Leading the Charge

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 07-14-2008 Print Email

Leading the Charge

One critical element in building a culture of diversity is leadership from the executive suite. When the Information Technology Senior Management Forum held its quarterly meeting in May, financial giant UBS sponsored the event and sent top executives to discuss goals for diversity. UBS brass also participated in an earlier event for the Hispanic IT Executive Council.

At a different ITSMF meeting, Cisco CEO John Chambers spent more than an hour discussing diversity. He also initiated a program to increase diversity at Cisco's executive level. Since the effort began in April of 2007, the company has hired 23 new vice presidents, and 21 percent of them are women or minorities.

"That's one way to get it done, with the tone at the top," says Sumberg of the Center for Work-Life Policy. "Chambers is charismatic and involved, and he says 'make it happen.' Without that, the message gets muddled in the middle layers."

Leadership from above can take many forms. For example, SAP's Leong has spoken to CEO Henning Kagermann about increasing the visibility of the company's diversity at shareholder meetings, so that all stakeholders can see diversity modeled by and for the company's owners and managers.

Bob Greenberg, the former CIO of Nissan, says one way to inculcate the concept of diversity throughout the employee ranks is by making sure that people are really working together. "You put people on a plane [to meet with co-workers], you let them learn by doing and interacting," he says. "You have to be willing to make mistakes. In the end, people will react differently to people they know and trust."

Says the Fortune 500 CIO who dealt with call center issues, "We make it clear during the interview process that we are looking for people who can work in multi-national environments. Are they strong enough to work with strong personalities, to share their opinions and influence decisions?" The CIO's leadership team, which was made up exclusively of white men just a couple of years ago, now includes three women and an Asian-born regional CIO.

Once a culture of diversity is established, other critical elements that come into play are hiring and team-building. "You have to set rules [when hiring], including ones that address things like gender and sexual orientation," Billings-Harris says. That's true no matter where in the world you operate. "You don't go into another culture trying to change it, but you do need to say that if you come to work for this company, there are some basics that apply."

The HR department becomes very important in this context, as a conduit for helping people understand expectations and consequences. "This might mean hard choices for senior managers," Billings-Harris adds. For instance, it might require replacing workers who are productive on the job but disruptive socially, because that kind of behavior can lower the performance of the larger group. It may even cause newly hired workers to quit, and replacing them could be quite expensive.

The hiring process can be challenging. "You have to be careful that your perceptions aren't colored by what you see," former Nissan CIO Greenberg says. "It can be a sensitive judgment call you have to make, to reconcile in your own mind whether you're being biased or you really sense a potential lack of fit on your team."

Shaklee's Harris has used the Myers-Briggs personality assessment to put together inclusive teams. Diverse groups, he says, "tend not to be as harmonious as a bunch of clones." To make it work, the manager has to let everyone know that any idea can be put on the table and will be greeted with respect. "You can challenge the idea, but not the value of the person who puts it forward," he says.


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