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I recently met with a business leader who shared an instructive thought about the value of diversity in an organization. She said, “When I’m in a meeting and all the people are the same, I think, ‘What’s the point?’ Someone could leave the room and you would make the same decision.” She told me she valued diversity because it brought needed perspective to her leadership.
It’s an important observation that goes right along with the old saying, “When everybody thinks alike, no one thinks very much.” Indeed, diversity brings distinct life experiences and viewpoints to the decisions we make in business and in life.
The Breadth of Human Experience
So what exactly is diversity? Diversity by definition comes in myriad ways. While we often categorize it by racial/ethnic composition or gender, it’s really that and much more. Diversity also includes young and old, short and tall, gay and straight, thin and stout, urban and rural, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, outspoken and shy, right brained and left brained, and many other juxtapositions. Diversity represents the full spectrum of humanity. And that’s the point. Everyone offers value.
I once had to make a major hiring decision and assembled a small team to help recruit, interview and check references on several great candidates. At the end of the process, the candidate I ranked highest differed from others on the hiring team. It made me question my choice, reconsider the options, and ultimately select a different candidate. To this day it is the best hire I have ever made. And guess what—he was a white male. The diversity of the team helped me land the best candidate notwithstanding his race and gender.
The Salt Lake Chamber Board of Governors meets every month to discuss the major business issues of the day. It’s always a remarkable sight to see the captains of industry gathered early in the morning to compare notes and make important community decisions. As I glance around at a room filled predominantly with white men in suits, I think to myself, “What kind of decisions would this group make if it included a broader mix of life experiences and perspectives?” Similar to my hiring experience, I believe the decisions would be made with increased breadth and deeper thought.
When I served on the BYU Marriott School National Advisory Council, we often considered ways that we could increase diversity at the school. It’s an amazing school with super smart students and a strong international student body. It also lacks diversity. To their credit, the administrators recognize this challenge and actively seek a more diverse student body. They know varied perspectives in learning will be an asset to their graduates as they assume business leadership roles around the world.
A Deeper Understanding
Diversity can also be personal. I once took a drive with a colleague who is a rather large man. We had time to talk in a private way. In a rather tender moment, he explained he was good at not judging others because he didn’t want people to judge him. He was raised in a family with unhealthy eating habits. His family seemed predisposed to being genetically overweight. He had tried dozens of times to lose weight. His weight was something he had struggled with his whole life. He understood weight gain and, more importantly, a sensitive self-image in a way that many of us never will. That’s diversity.
In another personal and delicate situation, I went to lunch with a trusted friend and we started talking about her life. I mentioned her uncanny ability to appreciate people who struggle, the underdogs in life. I asked her where she developed this trait. She confided in me that her father had sexually abused her for most of her young adult life. She got pregnant at 16. She described the scorn she felt as a young teenage bride. I left the lunch with a deep understanding that I could never understand the abuses of authority in a way that she does. That’s diversity.
Christian scripture speaks of a diversity of gifts that every person possesses. I like to interpret these scriptures broadly and recognize that every human being offers virtues that improve our lives. When we embrace diversity in our decision-making process and leadership, we make better decisions and contribute to a better world.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.