Talent. It’s the only long-term differentiator for any organization. Now, to come that may sound a bit cliché, but it is a reality every leader knows to be true. In fact, it was Peter Drucker who said, “Developing talent is business’s most important task—the sine qua non of competition in a knowledge economy.”
Far be it from me to correct Mr. Drucker, but I do believe his thought can be taken a step further. Beyond just developing talent, a business must also be able to attract, retain and engage its people. These are the key determinants of success for any organization.
The question is—how does an organization do these effectively?
Build It and They Will Come
In my view, effective talent management begins with culture; creating an environment where people can bring their whole selves to work each day and contribute fully; where they know they will be measured on their talents and performance, not judged for their differences.
Creating this environment begins with an understanding of and commitment to diversity. If you believe there are talented people throughout society—people of every gender, race, religion and sexual orientation—who have unique skills and abilities, then you must create a culture that is attractive to all.
This makes good moral sense—it’s simply the right thing to do—but it also makes good business sense. Study after study has shown that the more diversity a business has, the better their decision-making process. Diversity brings perspective and depth to decision making; it adds richness to the conversation and is a powerful tool for innovation.
Now, diversity itself is fairly easy to create. Insist on a variety of demographics in your hiring process to achieve a diverse workforce, and check, you’re done.
Ah, if only it were that simple. It’s what organizations do with talent once they’re through the door that determines success. Will you build your culture to be inclusive of the rich range of differences in background and thought that your diverse team brings? Or will you expect them to conform to a culture that doesn’t necessarily reflect their unique perspective?
Come Dance with Me
Verna Myers, a nationally recognized expert on diversity and inclusion, sums up the difference between diversity and inclusion quite nicely. “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
We want to ask our employees to dance.
When we do, they are able to bring their whole selves to work. Think about the typical Monday morning question, “How was your weekend?” A person who is gay or lesbian should feel as at ease talking about their spouse and family as someone who is heterosexual.
And this is precisely what inclusion fosters—an environment of understanding and acceptance.
Seems simple enough, right? In reality, it’s not simple or easy for some. In fact, many white men simply don’t know how to discuss issues of diversity. It can be very difficult for a white male to understand what it’s like to be a woman working in their business. Or to be of a different race, culture or sexual orientation. It’s not that their perspective is wrong—it just means that we need to think about every member of our team in order to talk about inclusion in a meaningful way.
Everyone has a voice and a part to play in an inclusive environment.
Of course, creating this environment doesn’t happen overnight. Businesses and leaders must cultivate and grow a diverse and inclusive culture over time. But how?
Develop Your Roster
First, organizations must consider the hiring component of diversity. Insisting that a proportion of the candidate slate for new hires is diverse is a good place to begin. Not the hiring itself—a hiring should be a meritocracy—but by creating a diverse slate and giving every candidate equal opportunity to prove their ability. Too often, people hire in their own likeness. A diverse slate forces us to examine people who are different from us and assess them solely on their skills and abilities.
Second, companies can create affinity groups, which provide a forum for employees who share similar traits—whether they are female, LGBT, African American, etc.— to share their experiences working for their company. At the same time, these groups serve as a conduit for the broader organization— providing insight on how a company can be more inclusive.
Now, finding commonality does not mean encouraging separateness. On one occasion, I recall arriving at the annual company picnic and finding that everyone had already chosen a seat. Looking around, I saw people had naturally grouped themselves fairly consistently along gender and racial lines. Let’s be honest—sometimes sameness is comfortable.
The next year, we switched things up—forcing people out of their comfort zones by randomly assigning seats. What we found was this encouraged people to understand and share their similarities and common experiences.
As leaders, sometimes we have to be the impetus for change—moving people out of their comfort zones.
Teach and Learn
Next, organizations can train people in diversity and inclusion, which—like many things—are learned. Companies need to provide a forum to facilitate that learning and understanding.
At one of my plants, we had a female employee who was transgender and identified as male. Once this individual revealed her true self to our team and her intentions of transitioning, it was our job to support her—along with our entire employee population.
We did this through education—bringing in experts to help our employees learn about something they simply didn’t understand and to address their questions and concerns.
Months later, after this person went through his transition, I had the opportunity to meet him. He was in tears—thanking us for what we’d done to support him. Honestly, what we did was easy compared to him declaring he was a different gender and making that change.
By leveraging experts, being open and giving people the opportunity to ask questions in a safe environment, we were able to build understanding and create a culture where everyone felt comfortable and included.
Create a Support Network
Finally, businesses must offer robust mentoring and coaching. This is one of the most effective ways to retain and develop diverse, high-potential talent. Mentoring gives employees a formal way to share their experiences and receive guidance from someone other than their direct manager, helping them to grow, develop and navigate through an organization. A good mentor doesn’t provide answers. They’re actually a bit like a psychologist—there to ask questions, probe for information and offer suggestions.
One practical application of mentoring is in the retention of female manufacturing engineers. I’ve spent a fair amount of time recruiting for manufacturing locations. What I’ve learned is hiring women for manufacturing leadership roles isn’t terribly difficult—there are plenty of highly qualified women in the field. It’s keeping them that’s the challenge.
To address this in a previous role, I helped to create a mentoring program specifically for women in manufacturing. We paired women with peers—giving them a partner who could relate to their experience and with whom they could commiserate. We also established formal mentoring relationships with senior female leaders, giving these younger professionals access to someone who had walked the path before them and could understand the barriers encountered along the way.
Over time, we saw our retention rate for that population rise significantly.
Now, like any other business process or program, a good mentoring relationship should have structure—rules, objectives and a regular schedule. And, much like a celebrity marriage, it should also last about a year. This doesn’t mean the relationship ends—it just becomes less formalized, allowing the mentee to seek fresh perspectives and insights.
Keep in mind, mentoring isn’t just senior staff providing guidance to less tenured employees. Reverse mentoring is equally important. By this I mean having older generations—like mine—talk to millennials to learn about how they think, what motivates them, why they work, what’s important to them. Experienced professionals have nearly as much to learn from our younger peers as they have to learn from us. We need to remove judgment and be open to those conversations in order to build a culture that includes and values all.
The Buck Stops Here
What I’ve found in my experience—and what numerous studies have shown—is that increases in diversity go hand-in-hand with improved business performance; the final arbiter of success.
However, for any of these diversity and inclusion initiatives to be successful, the leadership of an organization has to be genuinely committed to inspiring change and must believe it’s the right thing to do. Do so, and you will attract the very best talent and engender an enormous amount of loyalty to your business.
Ultimately, the responsibility for talent management and building a diverse and inclusive workforce starts with the CEO. As CEO, I am the chief talent officer—creating my company’s culture and ensuring the organization has the talent it needs to succeed. Now, one might say that’s the focus of HR. Yes, it is. But it’s also the responsibility of the CEO.
At the end of the day, it’s all about people. I think of the motto of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst: Serve to Lead. As leaders, we must never forget that leading people is a privilege and responsibility—something that must be done with humility. It is up to us to reveal the culture of our organizations in the way we work, the way we treat our people and the way we lead.
Glen Morrison is the CEO of Tarkett. He is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council.
Photos by Daria Shevtsova and Ryan Tang on Unsplash.
Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly.