It Takes a Village to Get to Mars

They walked around their workspace in shorts. The women wore cool t-shirts and jeans; men in beards, baseball caps turned backwards. The high fives and fist bumps flowed freely. If I didn’t know better, I might have guessed it was some college event, it was such a collegial atmosphere.

However, the IQ in that room was probably the highest per square foot anywhere in the world at that time. As I watched them being interviewed, the caption listed their name and title: Astrophysics, aeronautical engineer, theoretical physicist. And the diversity in the crowd was a mini UN.

This was a TV special produced by National Geographic called Mars: Inside SpaceX; a behind the scenes look at the efforts of Elon Musk and his engineers to land people on Mars.

What made this workplace scene so compelling to me was the contract with the interspliced footage of the space program from the 50s and 60s.

Welcome to the new workforce

That setting was a total contrast. The employees were all white men, crew cut, ties and white shirts. The homogeneous group was a total contrast to the SpaceX environment. I found the contrast so compelling and interesting. Over the 50 plus years the workforce has completely transformed. It was refreshing to see the diversity and inclusiveness of the new space team.

As I looked at the sameness of the earlier time, my thoughts went to the policy and procedures that governed that workforce. Probably rigid, not much flexibility, the role of HR was as the police and protector of the organization, in this case NASA.

The SpaceX group of young enthusiastic workers that were bringing their “whole self” to the workplace would not have made it past a first interview in the legacy company. Today we know that diversity and inclusion are key drivers of innovation and critical components of being successful on a global scale in the new world of work. Same mindset and experience will get like-minded results.

Forward thinking companies are realizing that a diverse set of experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds is crucial to innovation and the development of new ideas. There is a relationship between diversity and innovation.

A pillar of organizational success

This is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that foster innovation. A diverse and inclusive workforce is crucial for companies that want to attract and retain top talent. Competition for talent is so fierce in today’s global economy, that companies need to have plans to recruit, develop, and retain a diverse workforce.

Every organization today is looking for that nugget among nuggets that will speed up the innovative process in such a competitive environment. All of your systems, processes, etc. can be duplicated — all of it. What you can’t duplicate is the talent quotient that you have. Talent is the new differentiator. Any organization that does not get that is doomed to mediocrity. I am not just talking about hiring a body. I am talking about using a sieve and holding out for “A” plus, regardless of what the person looks like.

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The blindness of decision-making

I have seen organizations use a “persona profile” recruiting process. What caught my eye with some of them was that they used an actual photo. While I understand the method, I do not understand an approach showing what the “ideal” person should look like. But then, when I look around their workforce, I understand the mindset. Sad though is that whoever created the persona was absolutely clueless.

I have seen numerous ad campaigns that show the creators have no idea of their market. As I am based in the Middle East and travel the region extensively, I often see visuals used by so many to represent their company that show people who look nothing like those in the region.

There was an ad produced by H & M a few months back showing a young man of African descent wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with te words “Coolest monkey in the jungle.” While I do not think this was intentional it shows what can happen if everyone making decisions thinks and looks alike. They would not see and understand this horrible misjudgment.

I am a big fan of “surround the challenge,” which means that you have people of all stripes in the room because everyone’s lens is different. Sameness in this new era is an accident waiting to happen, especially as companies explore new markets.

So next time you are sitting in your conference room take a look around the room and then envision your clients. Do you see a difference, an imbalance?

If that room does not look like your client base, welcome to the new world of disconnect.

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.