10 people, 8 nations, 3 continents, 1 team: Diversity is worth the struggle

Everybody agrees that diverse management and leadership teams  make better decisions than non-inclusive ones. Why is it changing in  such a slow pace? I have a theory.

There is no need to quote a specific study. Nearly every single one of them concludes that diverse management and leadership teams that represent the environment in which their companies operate make better decisions than non-inclusive teams (typically composed of men in the 50+ age group). Why is it that something that seems obvious, even if it weren’t backed by this volume of serious research, is changing at such a slow pace?

I don’t believe that resistance to workplace diversity is based on a lack of relevant qualifications − at least I haven’t observed that in my professional life. Even in Japan’s male-dominated business world I’ve witnessed great female leaders crushing it in top management teams. Maybe it’s simply the slow nature of habit change or the corporate world’s intrinsic resistance to reform and its struggle to upend established structures and networks?

After years of building international teams that were diverse by design, I’ve developed another possible reason: Diversity management is challenging and difficult. Let’s be honest, leading a truly diverse team is no walk in the park! I could write an entire book on the subject, it‘s that fascinating, but for this reflection, I’ll share two real-life situations from my own experience.

  • For two short years, I was part of the supervisory board of a company that was conducting business in Western and East-Central Europe. I was one of six men in the 50+ age group, and four of them were from the same country and had gone to the same university. These were very enjoyable board meetings with a positive and supportive spirit − it was easy to agree on approaches, solutions, and decisions. Most of the time, we ended the meetings early without major disagreements. All the board members were highly professional, traveled frequently to the various company locations, kept their finger on the pulse of the business, and always put anymajor issues right on the table. And yet despite all this, I always felt there was a sense among the staff that being part of the board created distance and put members on some kind of pedestal, and I wondered how we were really perceived by the business units.
  • For five years I led a global organization with operations on three continents and business partners (customers) in 26 countries. The management was a gender balanced team made up of 10 people with eight different nationalities working on three different continents. Online meetings started at 6 am for some, 6 pm for others, and at lunch time for those in the geographic middle. We also met 4-5 times per year in one of our business locations for some 3-4 days. Even with a business direction and business plan that were created by, aligned with, and agreed to by everyone, and a fantastic community spirit, every single meeting was challenging. With a motley mix of European, Chinese, and American business culture gathered at one table along with all the other elements of diversity, long and heated discussions, frequent laughter, and occasional emotional outbursts were inevitable, and it was a constant struggle to stay on top of the time and the agenda. Many times, alignment meetings in smaller groups were necessary afterwards and all this often brought me, as the leader, to the limits of my moderation skills. However, once we reached common ground and made actionable decisions, we knew we could count on implementation and execution around the globe. And my own discussions with co-workers during trips to the company locations convinced me that they felt assured that their interests were represented in the decision-making process.

My intent is not to ask which of these alternatives is preferable, but to encourage every manager and every leader to take on the diversity challenge. There is so much more to be gained beyond «good and relevant decision making.» Everything from widening one’s own horizons, experiencing other cultures, appreciating the humility, respect, and understanding in the knowledge that one’s own truth and solutionsmight not be right everywhere, the ability to compromise in one’s own role or business unit for the benefit of the whole, and creating cross-cultural friendships. Our WeChat group is still active even though manyare now in different roles and some work in different companies.