Growing up, I was surrounded by a lot of people who looked like me.
My childhood was spent Circleville, Ohio, which is in the middle of the country. My family was lower-middle class. We went to a church that wasn’t exactly cutting edge.
Even when I went off to college, I was exposed to ideas that echoed what I learned as a child: comfort is found in spending time with “people like us,” people from our community.
And that community was almost entirely white.
My early career was equally vanilla. Surrounded by good-hearted, hard-working men and women who looked and thought and acted like the folks I’d grown up around. Progress was defined as moving backwards slowly. Innovation was adding more of the same.
It took me years to become a leader who understood and embraced the benefits of diversity, but it was one of the greatest shifts I ever made as leader. That’s why it’s one of the eleven shifts I outline in my new book, Leadershift: 11 Essential Changes Every Leader Must Embrace.
The more I grew as a leader, the more I came to appreciate a team of people with a variety of perspectives, experiences, backgrounds, and insights. And the more I added diversity to my teams, the more I experienced the success that comes when people with differences find common ground and commit to bringing out the best in one another.
You may not have thought about it, but there’s diversity within your own team or organization. Here are four things that you can do today, as a leader, to make sure that you embrace those differences and bring out the strengths of diversity within your own team.
Diversity is a challenge for many leaders because they don’t understand the kind of diversity they need for their team. Some leaders think that hiring people who look differently is the answer, but diversity of appearance—while not wrong—isn’t enough.
What leaders need is diversity of ideas. Diversity of thinking. Diversity of experience.
The good news is you have that on your team right now, you just need to tap into it. Take a look at your team, and instead of inviting the “Yes Men” to the table, invite people who bring a different perspective.
Invite folks of a different age, a different background, a different political leaning. Surround yourself with people who believe in your mission but have a unique understanding of how to accomplish it, and you’ll be on your way to greater diversity.
Now that you’ve invited fresh people to the table, it’s time to give them something to work on. Right now, you have a project or a problem that could use some sort of creative boost, and the best way to get that catalyst is to put it in front of your team.
I’m a big fan of bringing people to the table to discuss an idea. I’ve found that I can get some folks from my team, share a thought with them, and within an hour I’ll have a vastly improved idea. That’s because more brains are better than one, and the people on my team bring a lot to the table in the way of creativity and insight. Your team will do the same if you’ll give them the chance.
You don’t have to restrict diversity to planned meetings or specific projects—you can get the benefits of diversity on a daily basis if you’ll develop the habit of asking questions. Asking people what they think, how they would approach a solution, or even what is one great idea they have that your team isn’t currently implementing can unlock a flurry of fresh observations.
As an added benefit, questions are a great way to not only get to know what your team thinks but how they think as well. Sometimes we need a new process as much as a new concept and learning how information and ideas form in the mind of our team can prove helpful for future projects.
Finally, we can embrace diversity as leaders only when we’re willing to break from the way we usually do things. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: many people are more comfortable with old problems over new solutions.
As leaders, we cannot let that happen to us.
Departing from what’s tried and true costs us something—usually in the area of our pride. We have to be willing to make mistakes, look foolish or even admit that we don’t have all the answers to reap the full benefits of diversity. That’s why stepping away from our formulaic ways of thinking takes courage.
Or, as Sir Winston Churchill said, “You must put your head in the lion’s mouth if the performance is to be a success.”
If your organization or team seems to have lost a step, it might just be time to shake things up and bring some new and different voices to the table. Diversity is a great strength, if we’re willing to embrace the mental and practical shift it requires.