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Diverse thoughts, backgrounds and experiences make organizations excel

November 3, 2008
Diversity certainly can make for strange bedfellows. And you don't need any more evidence than our historic presidential race that will finally end Nov. 4.

Three months ago, you would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of IBJ readers who could name the governor of Alaska. Same goes for tens of millions of people from Maine to California. Sarah Palin was not a household name anywhere outside her own household and the rest of our 49th state. Now, she's just days short of possibly being a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

Need another example? Look no further than Mauricia Grant, the African-American woman who is suing NASCAR for $250 million on allegations of sexual and racial discrimination. She accuses some NASCAR personnel of calling her a "Nappy Headed Mo" and "Queen Sheba." Some co-workers, she said, even made comments about her working on "colored people time."

Are Palin and Grant trailblazers? Modern-day Jackie Robinsons who are making life better for the next generation of women? Or are they unwitting pawns being used to create a politically correct moment for the sake of diversity?

Probably a little of both.

Palin and Grant probably will be viewed fondly by women and African-Americans years from now when their histories are reviewed. Palin, after all, wasn't exactly on anyone's short list (save John McCain's) and her meteor-like rise in national politics will provide an important platform for many years to come (as will Hillary Clinton's body of work). But to understand the full cost and benefit of these sorts of advancements, we must look at immediate and long-term impact.

The United States is extraordinarily divided right now. Yet John McCain chose a running mate who's simultaneously embraced and vilified. And NASCAR undeniably added diversity to be more inclusive—but at what cost?

So what should organizations do? Ignore gender, racial and other diverse factors to maintain status quo and keep relative peace? Absolutely not. Diverse organizations are typically the best organizations—and not only because of different skin colors, genders and religious affiliations. It's the diverse thoughts, backgrounds and experiences people bring that make organizations stand out and excel.

True diversity goes beyond hiring practices. An organization that's been transformed has a culture that expects and embraces diversity. In fact, employees at these companies don't react when the latest African-American business manager or female board member is appointed—because they understand what these various backgrounds will mean to the business. They expect it and they want it.

It's called transformation, and it starts at the top.

How does it happen? Naturally, there are no magic formulas other than setting the right tone through actions and words. But simply making the hire without first creating the right culture will create more negatives than positives. Recognition and acceptance are the starting point. Here are the "seven structures of integrity"—culture, competency, colleagues, community, capital, commerce and consumer. A focus on structural integrity will potentially turn lawsuits into people-friendly policies and bitterness into better environments to be productive.

When is a company or person ready for transformation beyond diversity? Like Palin and Grant, pioneers create proteges, results and pathways. Sure, the water-cooler chatter and even snide remarks will continue. But ideally our cultures will mature to the point where advances are met with silence. At that point, you'll know we've experienced a real transformation.

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Lewis is CEO of The MSL Group, a consulting firm that focuses on diversity.
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