08 May. 2012 | Comments (0)

What happens when you gather experts together in India, China and the UK to discuss the link between diversity and business performance? Regardless of cultures and backgrounds, they all agree that diversity starts and ends with having the right leadership.

The newly published report on these expert panels, Driving Business Performance Through Diversity, explains that proper diversity initiatives within organizations require leaders who are willing to listen to different perspectives and take these varying perspectives on board, who set the tone from the top, and who are comfortable with being “first among equals” rather than the big boss of old.

As one of the Delhi panelists stated, “I have seen situations where the CEO has got five nationalities working together on a project but he’s not willing to listen to them. He himself is unable, unwilling to embrace diversity, so having people of diverse cultures is not going to be relevant. The CEO must be the starting point.”

A London panelist expanded on this point, saying, “If the leaders are not behind the whole diversity agenda, then really nothing happens. When the leader is behind the agenda, it’s quite incredible how much we’ve been able to move things.”

I’ve been closely involved in this “East-meets-West” initiative, chairing the panels in Shanghai and London, writing a preliminary opinion piece to kick-start the discussions, and the final report, which I hope you’ll read and share. I’d welcome your views.

The expert panels were organized by ACCA, the global accountancy body, and the Economic & Social Research Council in the UK. Unusually for diversity forums, they brought together leaders from finance, as well as HR, academia and enterprise.

We first asked the panelists how they thought diversity (or the lack of it) impacted the five pillars of sustainable business growth – new talent, new markets, innovation, effective business structures, and leadership capability. It was fascinating to compare viewpoints from the rising economies with those of crisis-bound Europe.

While everyone agreed diversity was important, the Delhi panelists in particular saw it as a “staple” and a “starting point” for successful business today, but some in Shanghai and London argued that diversity should only be pursued if there was a clear business case.

Asked about the big trends affecting diversity over the next five years, participants discussed rapid growth in India and China versus economic retrenchment in Europe, which has led some companies to pay less attention to diversity and inclusion. They also talked about the ageing of the population and the importance of the new generation, both in the workforce and as consumers.

Together, these trends were captured nicely in an observation about who was driving the fast cars these days. “If you look around the streets of Beijing or Shanghai,” said one panelist, “80% of the [sports] cars are driven by a lady aged between 20 and 30, whereas typically in England all the Porsches are driven by people in their 50s.”

More seriously, there’s a growing tension for multinational companies that need to attract local talent in order to deepen their understanding of China’s many regions and cultures. The crisis in the West, and the shift of economic power to the East, has diminished multinationals’ attractiveness to young Chinese individuals, who can now gain international exposure by working for Chinese companies.

This led to a debate about what happens to diversity in international acquisitions, as, for example with China’s expansion into Africa. One panelist pointed out that communication styles differ in China and Africa. “China has to be respectful when it expands abroad, and I think [for] China as an economy and as a potential world power that is going to be fundamentally important to its success.”

Given the essential role of leadership, one question that emerged was how to teach cross-cultural intelligence. The London panel acknowledged that this was important in leadership development, but one panelist said we should start even earlier by teaching it to schoolchildren, because “cultural intelligence is something that’s very valuable in terms of an asset to use in the workplace”.

What do you think? How can we best prepare future workers and leaders to demonstrate cross-cultural fluency, empathy and appreciation in order to survive and thrive in our multicultural business world?

View our complete listing of Diversity & Inclusion blogs.

  • About the Author: Alison Maitland

    Alison Maitland

    Alison Maitland is a Senior Fellow, Human Capital at The Conference Board. In this role, Alison supports the Human Capital Practice which includes The Conference Board Human Capital Exchange™, r…

    Full Bio | More from Alison Maitland


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