I grew up in Georgia during the Civil Rights Movement. As a matter of fact, I was entering eighth grade in 1969 when the Supreme Court ordered the immediate desegregation of all public schools. A lot of the white families pulled their kids out of the integrated public schools and enrolled them in a newly opened, all-white private school in our county. But not my parents. The world was changing and my mom didn’t think running and hiding from it was going to do me any good. She wanted me to learn how to live in it, so I stayed at R.L. Cousins Junior High School where 50 percent of my classmates were now African-American.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that even though my classmates and I had different backgrounds and very different life experiences, getting along with them was easy. I also quickly realized that not everyone around me felt the same way. There were an awful lot of people who were only comfortable being around others who were just like them and anyone different made them incredibly uneasy. That line of thinking led to a lot of ugliness in our country.
The world has never stopped changing and, unfortunately, a lot of the attitudes that were so prevalent almost four decades ago haven’t either. That’s really unfortunate if you consider the fact that our country is becoming so diverse that, by 2050, the United States isn’t expected to have an ethnic or racial majority. Basically, that means that the odds of finding people just like you to go to school with, work with and live around are getting slimmer and slimmer. Now, perhaps more than ever, if you want to be successful in business—and in life—you better learn how to not only be comfortable with people who are different from you but also how to work really well with them.
Having a diverse workforce can be a huge asset. Putting together people with different backgrounds and experiences drives innovation. Innovation improves your bottom line. But the only way having a diverse workforce is going to be beneficial is if you make inclusion and unity a cornerstone of your culture. As the leader, you have to set the standard for how diversity is going to be handled—with your actions and your words.
Your every action and word has to show you recognize the different strengths in each person and that you see those strengths as the opportunity to grow and be more productive. Challenge yourself to seek advice and opinions from new and diverse sources when you are faced with a difficult task or situation. Make a habit of putting people from different backgrounds and experiences together on big projects so they can witness each other’s strengths firsthand. If your teams see that you believe in the benefits of everyone working together for an innovative, common goal, they’ll be much more open to collaborating with diverse groups on their own.
These little organic exposures to “diversity training” will ultimately give you and your team the ability to do the one thing I believe can unify us all: see things from someone else’s perspective. I feel like that is one of the greatest lessons I took away from my mother, especially during those turbulent integration years. By keeping me in the public school with all those different kids, she was making sure I had the ability to understand we don’t all experience situations the same way. To this day, I still make a conscious effort to try to appreciate other people’s perspectives—even if I totally disagree with them. The same thing happens when people collaborate with others they ordinarily wouldn’t get to know. As a result, they get to see and experience things in ways they never even considered. That unleashes creativity, which leads to innovation—and employees who truly understand what an asset a diverse workplace really can be.
Our world is a diverse one and it’s going to continue to become more so. There is eventually going to be no way around having a diverse workforce, and hanging on to prejudice and intolerance in this evolving world will lead to your company’s demise. Not everyone who works for you is going to want the same things or be driven by the same goals. But that just makes them different, not wrong. Those differences can be the unifier that leads your organization to greatness.