In the Rest of the World, Diversity Is a Competitive Advantage

As the presentations started, a comment she made caught my attention. From that point on I noticed a pattern. Every other company started out by bragging about the same point:

  • Our company is comprised of 35 nationalities and we speak x languages.
  • We are proud to say that we consider ourselves a mini-UN with over 40 nationalities
  • We speak over 30 languages and we have close to 45 nationalities.

This past week I was the Day 1 keynote at the Global HR Trends Summit in Tehran, Iran. The pattern I noticed early in the presentations played out the entire day. We had speakers from Hyatt, Novartis and other multinationals and local SMEs. In all their presentations, they spoke about the people from all over the world who worked in their organization.

I contrast that with Silicon Valley firms reluctantly releasing their figures on the makeup of their workforce. My assumption is that they were somewhat embarrassed in having a homogeneous workforce.

My other assumption is that diversity denotes inferiority. I say this having sat on a panel years ago with, among others, a gentleman from a major accounting/consulting firm. He spoke of one of his clients who questioned why every time they won a new engagement the team that was sent in always had the same makeup. The client told them in no uncertain words that going forward they would need more diverse representation as their client base is getting more diverse.

When he mentioned this to one of the older partners at the firm, he said the partner became visibly upset and said they would not lower their standards in any way to bring about diversity. To this partner, when he hears about a diverse workforce, he thinks of it as an inferior workforce. That same thinking I feel has permeated tech, and, in my experience, the advertising industry as well.

A few years back I remember reading an article concerning the 4 A’s conference. (The American Association of Advertising Agencies.) There was a panel on diversity and they were lamenting the lack of progress to diversify their industry. Same story, different industry.

Diversity is a strategic advantage

Why is it in the Middle East diversity is seen as a strategic advantage and companies proudly display the talent they have? They proudly extol the value of having people from all over the world as part of their global workforce. They boast of the number of languages spoken. They do not see inferiority in talent that does look like them.

As I call on new clients, I always glance over at the workers as I enter the building and walk into appointments. I see a young, dynamic and international workforce that is dripping with talent. When we choose talent and we only choose from one pile, we are putting our organization in a high-risk situation. Imagine for a minute if, during the pursuit of talent, you were told that the preference was on one type only: one mode of thinking only, one type school, one type of background, etc.

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This would be committing business suicide because other organizations are striving to become more global, either geographically or more diverse in their client base. To better serve your markets you need people who understand them.

My experience

I remember graduating college and wanting to work in the advertising industry. Countless resumes faxed but I could not get a single interview. One night as I got on the train for the commute I sat across the aisle from two young ladies who, from their conversation, I could tell worked in advertising. Suddenly they looked up to see two more young ladies and they shrieked in excitement as they recognized each other. As the conversation continued, they talked about where they worked. All the agencies they worked at where ones to which I had applied without getting even a nibble of a response. As I watched the girls I realized they did not look like me, so maybe it was a little easier for them getting through the gate.

What I do not understand is that if we are trying to stoke our organization with top talent — top talent being the operative words — why would we need another filter. If talent is the essential part of the equation, hire for that part and let that be the overriding factor.

The world is changing

After having lived out of the USA for close to four years, it is ever so apparent that the world is changing at warp speed. The countries that realize the value of other nationalities within their talent base will be better equipped to succeed because they will have the talent that brings a different perspective to bear on the challenges that they will face.

As Michael Corleone says in the movie The Godfather: “It’s not personal, it is strictly business.”

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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