By Michael Gunther

When you hear the word diversity, what comes to mind? For many people, diversity equates to a group of people of various nationalities and cultural backgrounds. But for me, it goes beyond ethnicity and background. Over the years, I’ve gained the perspective that diversity encompasses differences in thoughts, opinions, management styles, education, etc.

I’m sure you’ve known an organization in which everyone is cut from the same cloth; their thoughts, opinions, management styles, etc. are homogeneous and/or people with different beliefs or experiences are seen as outsiders or trouble makers. In these organizations, managers typically hire people like themselves. And why shouldn’t they? Their team members will all agree and everyone will get along, right?

Well, I believe that creating an environment in which diversity of thought, expression, or opinion is discouraged hinders an organization’s growth and potential. This belief is as much a part of me as my memories of growing up with 10 brothers and 6 sisters – which is exactly where it originated. In a household with so many people, I had to work with many different personalities just to survive. Imagine having to negotiate everything from what chores to do to what games to play – with so many different people! In the Gunther household, we had no choice but to listen to all different perspectives in order to generate an end result; sometimes a win-win for everyone, sometimes not. As the old saying goes, you can’t please everyone all of the time. Whatever the end result, we certainly did learn to value diversity.

I learned another side of diversity – in the workplace – from my Dad, who championed differences amongst his team as a manager at RCA in the 1960’s. I remember him telling me a story about his peers giving him a hard time because of the team he assembled; RCA’s most ethnically diverse team at the time. He believed in hiring for the right skill and attitude for the position, regardless of background and nationality (not a common belief at the time). Ultimately, those were the traits that made his team strong and successful.

Accepting diversity of thought and opinions can be challenging for many managers and leaders, particularly those who believe it’s their personal role to have all the answers. In reality, it is collective participation that creates strong solutions and opportunities within an organization.

My business partner, Lee Johnson, spent 18 years with the Maersk Line – the shipping arm of AP Moller-Maersk (Maersk). Now the #1 largest shipping company in the world, Maersk was ranked #10 when Lee began his career there. Ask Lee and he’ll tell you that the diversity within Maersk was a key factor that led to the organization’s growth and success. Methodologies to promote diversity were infused throughout the company’s management and human resource processes. Leaders were measured each year on the diversity of their teams as well as the leader’s ability to be open to and encourage differing thoughts and opinions. In addition, managers used a communication assessment tool to better understand the different communication styles of their employees in order to improve and enhance the communication of the overall team. It was this constant focus on welcoming diversity, understanding others, and encouraging opinions that set Maersk apart both as a great place to work and as an industry leader.

When is the last time you analyzed the diversity of your team? Does each team member offer different opinions, viewpoints, and skill sets that in the end will provide for a collaborative team?

The Bottom Line
Whether your organization employs 2 or 2,000, a team that embraces and encourages diversity will offer value to your organization, your employees, and your clients. Look around at your team and ask yourself if you have the diversity needed to grow as a leader and as an organization.

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