“Organizations need an infrastructure that acts as a pipeline, channeling ideas from remote facilities to the center of power.”

Egon Zehnder Chairman Damien O’Brien on fostering diversity and inclusion

Researchers estimate that between 3,500 and 6,000 languages are spoken around the world, each of them an opportunity for people to communicate effectively, be it in spoken or written form, each also harboring the risk of misunderstandings.

Today, diversity is no longer something we witness from a distance on highbrow TV channels; we are in the midst of it. Day by day we can sense how enriching a dialogue with people from other countries and cultures can be. Day by day we experience, almost as close at hand, the clash of different cultures. Diversity can be so beneficial and yet it is also a serious – maybe even the most serious – challenge facing society at large.

Such is the conflicting and contrasting backdrop against which companies must deal with diversity in their own ranks. They have long been aware of the positive influence that different perspectives and mindsets can have on decision-making processes. They have realized that they must reflect the diversity of their customers and markets if they are to continue serving them successfully. Furthermore, demographic patterns in many industrialized countries have ensured that companies are also intensifying their efforts to make use of previously unexploited human resources, not least at top management level. Added to which, the weight of public opinion – recently reinforced by political pressure – is forcing them to make equal opportunities a reality.

So the business case has long since been made. What makes it so hard to implement is a factor inherent in human nature. When confronted with something unfamiliar or alien, we generally respond not openly and objectively but by applying a frame of reference based on stereotyping and founded on experience, hearsay or subconscious biases. These stereotypes hamper a receptive or trusting approach that would foster diversity and inclusion.

How, then, do companies overcome such biases and strike the ideal balance between diversity and internal coherence? How do they arrive at a diversity of perspective that will allow them to mine the bright ideas that lie dormant in their minorities? The first step is to embrace a positive attitude to the topic as a whole. Paul Bulcke is CEO of foodstuffs giant Nestlé and can give many examples of how complementary perspectives and mindsets can lead to more firmly founded – and thus better – decisions. Renowned US organizational behavior expert David A. Thomas demonstrates in his research that here it is not just a question of how many teams within a company have a multicultural make-up or how many employees belong to which categories. Far more important, his findings show, is for the organization and above all its top management to deliberately embrace a diversity of perspectives, to utilize this to drive innovation and creativity, and to put in place the necessary structures for this to happen.

A glance at other areas of society can also help make better use of diversity. Cosmopolitan locations such as Barcelona, New York, Copenhagen or London may indeed have their problems with social fringe groups and problem zones, but they do offer their inhabitants a broad range of options that promote inclusion. One key ingredient here is an efficient mass transit network. Like cities, organizations too need an infrastructure that acts as a pipeline, channeling ideas from their remote facilities to the center of power. And from the world’s most successful soccer club, FC Barcelona, which trains youngsters from around the world at its football academy, companies can learn a thing or two about the unifying force of a common goal.

In effect, then, dealing successfully with diversity is never a question of compliance and always one of culture – of achieving a culture in which each individual need not be afraid to be different. With this in mind, I hope you find that this issue makes inspiring reading.

Damien O’Brien

Chairman and CEO, Egon Zehnder