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BirdsEye View

improving diversity - lessons from alex

 I recently took a car from Denver Airport to a hotel in town.  The driver was a very pleasant young man, and we started talking.  Our conversation took a risky turn when I asked him what should I call him, as he was a man of color but not an African American. His response, and the ensuing conversation, was inspirational to me and I wanted to share my learnings with you.

Alex Olsen, the driver, is a 23 year old Brazilian-born American.  He is a student at University of Denver, taking a double major.  He grew up in Mclean, VA, among a diverse group of people. Like many of his millennial brethren, he wants to make a positive difference in the world, which is why International Security is one of his majors. And yet, he was so different from so many stereotypes.

Alex goes to school but also works as a driver for a limousine company.  He does not ascribe to the Politically Correct culture, as he says.  “People should see what I have to offer besides my race.”  When I wanted to understand better, he said: “We’re obsessed with witch hunts these days; it feels extremely Orwellian and inhibits how we use our language”.  How insightful can a 22 year old be?  I was impressed.

So I asked:  How can a diversity-conscious organization expand their employee base to be more inclusive without compromising employee quality and organizational culture?

Alex had a few thoughts:

1.     Nurture young.  Start with internship and awareness programs for high school students, giving them opportunities to interact with your organization and make specific contributions to your operation and success.  Get to know your target audience as they get to know you, and offer personal growth summer jobs that will help your bank as well as the student.

2.    Build internship paths.  Create career paths even for interns, as early as high school, so that a mutual track record is being built with the passage of time.  Offer entry internships for freshmen and then several specialization paths for return interns throughout high school and college. 

3.    Align professional passions. Your interns all have personal passions that can find expression and fulfillment in your bank.  Listen to their passion and match their interests with the departments and staff that can inspire them and teach them the most.  Engage their hearts, not just their minds, in pursuing their passion and dreams inside your organization. Give them a voice and listen to it.

4.    Redefine diversity.  Diversity has many definitions, most of which relate to race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.  Alex sees diversity in ways of thinking and varying backgrounds, the opposite of “group think”.  While race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation can offer unique diversity of thinking, other forms of diversity – along age lines, backgrounds, upbringing and experiences – are also valuable to create value to decision-making teams and the organization as a whole.

5.    Take a holistic, fully integrated approach.  Leaders who understand diversity also realize it can’t be forced.  It needs to become a part of the organization fabric and identity.  Expanding diversity has to work within the current organization framework.  It is an addition to successful current practices, not a replacement to them.

Alex’s message deeply resonated with me.  As a member of two board-level HR committees I have a hard time matching diverse talent with organizational needs.  His “Nurture Young” mantra makes great sense to me.  We bemoan the dearth of talent among minorities and other groups.  Let us take the bull by the horns and create the talent by offering talent-building opportunities to young people and developing them while familiarizing them with our organization.  In other words, making our own diverse talent pool makes great sense. 

This isn’t just a “feel good” initiative.  It is essential to future success.  Organizations can’t survive unless they reflect the constantly changing markets within which they operate.  Our country continues to morph in many ways, including ethnic, racial and sexual orientation.  It also is absorbing into the workforce 80 million millennials over time, thereby creating a multigenerational workforce with its own issues.    

Embracing diversity across a broad range of dimensions is good business.  Take the initiative not to fill a quota but to enhance shareholder value.  Build your own diversity pool by helping diverse talent grow.  It’s what America is all about.