Prompted by an introduction to and really interesting conversation with a former international footballer, I recently started thinking more deeply about diversity and inclusiveness – particularly in the context of leadership and creating a high performance culture.
Then a couple of weekends ago two seemingly disconnected things happened. And whilst they were totally serendipitous, they have brought much greater clarity to how diversity, inclusiveness and high performance can sit together in perfect harmony – like ebony and ivory on a piano keyboard (ref. McCartney & Wonder, 1982).
I think I’m getting closer to working out why diversity and inclusiveness are not only important, but necessary for high performance. And to how encouraging diversity and being inclusive are huge potential forces for good in our organisations. I’m reaching the conclusion that no leader worthy of the title can afford to ignore these important topics. They’re essential considerations if you’re serious about identifying and acquiring the very best possible talent and then creating an environment where those talented people can confidently and creatively bring their best selves to work in our organisations.
First, I’ll briefly tell you the two seemingly disconnected stories.
It started one afternoon when a splendid bunch of people spent the afternoon at our place. At one point I sat back in my chair sipping on my cup of tea. What I saw in front of me was a French man, an American woman, two Zimbabweans, a Welshman (for those of you who’ve never met one: they’re quite good at a funny game called Rugby, but they can tend to go on about it a bit!), two English folks (who didn’t seem to want to talk about Rugby quite so much), and 2 other people who’ve grown up and lived in our village pretty much all their lives. Within the group were a gay couple, 3 straight couples and a single woman. Some of these folks believe in a God and live by a strong religious code. Some don’t. Some I don’t know about. I don’t care what they believe. What I do care about – very much – is them. As people. As individuals. And I care deeply about their right to be who they are. To do what they do. To believe what they believe. To love who they love.
Despite all the very clear and obvious differences between us I was also struck by how much people had in common. The conversations were respectful, honest, open, humorous, intelligent (mostly!) and no-one was making any special effort to be politically correct. It was delightful and a brief glimpse into the benefits of diversity and inclusiveness. It made me feel a little bit proud of the welcoming home environment our family has created – which is a long way removed from the world I grew up in in the 1970s and 1980s.
Then, that same weekend I read this blog (https://spilleroftea.com/2019/03/23/the-homophobia-we-experience-as-children-spreads-throughout-our-lives-like-ripples-on-a-pond-i-remember-everything-and-so-will-your-children/).
If you’re in any way involved in or interested in leadership, education, policy or politics then please read it. It’s beautiful and deeply personal. Then read it again and swap homophobia for any other form of prejudice based on biology, beliefs or birthplace. Please read it at least 3 times. It’s wonderful, important and relevant.
Max’s writing has done for me what great writing is supposed to do – made me stop and think deeply. I started to crystalise some thoughts in conversation with my wife. And clearly I was using sleep to process these thoughts because at 4am on Sunday morning I woke up with clarity about why his message mattered so much to me.
It’s because it’s about leadership. It’s about the choices we make that create places where people can be the best versions of themselves. It’s about shaping environments where people can thrive and fulfil their potential – whoever they are, wherever they come from, and whatever they believe.
As you think about what you take away from this please be aware of where you’re seeing this from. I’m deeply aware that I’m seeing this from a particular place, which creates an inevitable bias that I need to be aware of and manage.
I’m white. I’m male. I’m attracted to women (one in particular who I’m also lucky enough to be married to). I’ve been fortunate to be born in a wealthy country. Indeed, I’d be dead if I wasn’t born in a country with an advanced medical system. I’m able bodied. I’m educated. These are not judgments, they’re facts. Each of those facts has given me pretty much every conceivable advantage. And this all means I see the world through that lens.
But other people are not the same as me. Many do not see the world from the same perspective. Most have not had the same level of advantage. Or get seen as “normal”. While some have enjoyed even more privilege. They, and you, are different from me in some way. Yet at the same time we’re exactly the same. People. Unique. Human.
I am so grateful that my children are growing up in a world where this kind of conversation is happening and so much progress is being made. But we need more progress and we need to resist anything that slows progress down. There’s still fear of difference, prejudice based on biology, birthplace and beliefs, which creates division rather than diversity, denying inclusiveness and fairness of opportunity.
So I ask you to think about the kind of workplaces, organisations and communities you want to create. Where you’d be happy for the people you love to spend their time – not because your loved ones gain favour, but because it’s fair. Where if your loved ones happen to be different, based on biology, birthplace or religious beliefs, they are accepted for who they are and given opportunity because of their talent, attitude and will to hard work. Picture places that give all people chance to thrive and be the best they can be. Genuine meritocracies where people, regardless of biology, birthplace or beliefs, are given opportunity to demonstrate what they can do and fulfil their potential. That’s a high performance culture. With opportunity open to all, not just to people who fit the perceived norm or have been fortunate enough to enjoy the right privileges.
And if as a leader you’re doing anything to create a world biased towards particular sorts of people then you’re not creating a culture of high performance. You’re creating a culture based not on capability and commitment, but one based on prejudice and privilege.
So I ask all leaders to fight hard to create environments in our organisations that accept people for who they are – unique, individual, human. Where no matter what a person’s biology, birthplace or beliefs, they will be measured on merit. And we need to be utterly intolerant of anything that limits the availability of opportunity.
I also ask more leaders to demonstrate that most human of qualities – kindness. We know that leaders in a high performance culture need to challenge and push, but they can do so with care and kindness in a way that gives support and encouragement to the people they lead.
Keep hold of that hand a little longer sometimes and walk with people rather than always running ahead of them. Showing people what’s possible for you may at times be showing them what’s currently impossible for them.
Help them on the journey, don’t just show them the result.
Also be careful when you find yourself judging others. Be aware of your perspective, your privilege and inevitable bias.
Then be careful with your words and your actions because they spread a ripple that can have a deep and lasting effect. And Max has explained that far better than I ever could.
I know this is not all of the answers to the challenge of diversity and inclusiveness. I’m deliberately viewing things with fervent optimism and perhaps choosing to ignore some realities that led us to need a sense of belonging and identify with people who look and think like us. I’m choosing to do so because it’s only by setting the very highest standard for ourselves that we will, erm, achieve the highest standards.