The Diversity Dividend

Throughout my career, I’ve worked with many executives who take pride in having an ‘open door’ policy. Their approach is founded on the idea that every employee should feel able – and indeed, be encouraged – to make suggestions on the policy and performance of the organization. It’s an excellent ethic and an important signal from those notionally at the top that the best insights often come from colleagues who are closest to the action. I try to keep my door open every day! 

But the idea that by living this policy, we are open to truly different perspectives can be misleading.  At its most basic, the diversity of opinions we receive rather depends on who comes through the door. If our organization is overwhelming peopled by white middle-class graduates, then it’s likely that the views expressed will converge around that particular cultural outlook. Similarly, as was typically the case early in my career, if the gender bias is predominantly male, then the feedback will have its equivalent limitations.  

The need to embrace difference is rightly higher than ever in our consciousness and increasingly enshrined in legislation and corporate governance.  A growing culture of meritocracy is helping too, driving social mobility not only in companies but in schools, universities, and recruitment processes.  The examples I mentioned above include race, social class, and gender, but diversity definitions also extend to age, sexual orientation, faith, disability, and even cognitive mindset.

This latter point is especially interesting because, from a pure performance perspective, it’s arguable that the key benefit of diversity is to challenge our most comfortable notions with constructive alternatives. A Board made up entirely of extrovert thinkers – regardless of their race, gender, or social class – is less rounded and adaptive than one that includes a compensating balance of more reflective mindsets. We have long understood that the most successful teams are built on a mix of mutually supportive skills, and yet too many organizations are still characterized by homogenous reasoning, even if roles and responsibilities are well-defined.

It seems to me that opening the ‘doors of our mind’ to thinking differently is perhaps the greatest diversity challenge.  Only entrenched bigots would today deny the moral force of, say, ethnic and gender equality; most of us go further and acknowledge the wider definitions and categories I referred to above.  But it is something slightly different – and indeed, especially difficult – to diversify our internal rationality and logic. If you doubt this, think for a moment about your attitude to personal risk and ask what it would take to change your mindset.

Risk is not necessarily the best example, but it serves to illustrate that there are legitimately different methods of reasoning and that true wisdom comes only after listening and considering the full range of relevant perspectives. This is what I call the ultimate diversity dividend. Embracing difference in both its external and internal manifestations will reward us at every level and every day, not only because it is right ‘in and of itself’, but because a flexible mindset – in tandem with a diverse organization – will deliver better and more sustainable decisions. 

Before concluding, eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that I referred above to ‘relevant’ perspectives. It’s a small but often overlooked aspect of diversity that’s worth a moment’s reflection, too. 

If I have a health issue, I would be well advised to consult with a range of medical practitioners, but I’m unlikely to solicit the views of the local mountaineering club. On the other hand, if I were in need of an environmental risk assessment, they might be an interesting group to call upon. The point is that both tangible and cognitive diversity needs to be appropriate to the task; as my children remind me, asking folk over fifty for their views on the latest popular music is not the best focus group.

But even then, there may be exceptions.  So, while the door of my office is not open for anyone on the street, the doors of my mind are never firmly locked. And you know what – and here’s a thought to finish on – there being so is one of the greatest joys in my life. From people to politics, faith to agnosticism, age to youth, ethnicity to orientation… it is surely our variety and difference that makes our lives so worthwhile. That’s a dividend more valuable than gold, and the really beautiful thing is that it’s freely available to us all.

Demanding the truth

New subordinate looking at hospitable boss welcoming her to take her workplace

Modern physics tells us that all reactions and events are a consequence of four fundamental forces of nature. Three of these – electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces – are not immediately obvious to the layperson. Despite the growth of popular science, most of us don’t pretend to fully understand the complexities they involve. But the fourth force – gravity – is not only all around us, it’s intuitive to the way we live our everyday lives. 

All of us, at least from an early age, understand that if we drop a cup of water its contents will spill to the floor. We also know that although gravity may appear weak, it’s ultimately insistent. It takes the weight of the world to keep my laptop anchored to my desk, and yet I can lift it with ease—or at least, I can for a while! Try holding your arm at shoulder height without assistance and see how long you last… Nothing escapes gravity, least of all our vanity in thinking we might cheat it.

I open with this metaphor to science, because I like to think that over recent months, we’ve been witnessing a pull of a different sort. In domestic politics, the Coronavirus pandemic, the environmental crisis, and even the world of sport, I sense the persistence of truth weighing ever heavier on those who would seek to cheat us (and perhaps themselves) with illusions and lies. 

As I write, the UK is in political turmoil over the behaviour of those in positions of power during the lockdowns of 2020; in the US we are seeing something of the equivalent as more facts surface about the practices and character of our last administration. Only last week, in a bizarre series of events, we saw the undoing of Novak Djokovic in the face of evidence that even he couldn’t ‘wish away, no matter how strong his will to win. 

These are topical and even somewhat humorous examples of what some might consider being a long-overdue comeuppance. But the malaise of self-deception—as well as that of misleading others—is one that afflicts many businesses and their leaders too. Most often, I sense it’s not so much a matter of intent to deceive, and even less so of malice or prejudice. Rather, the denial of facts in our strategies and predictions stems from a mixture of wishful thinking, confirmation bias, and even good old-fashioned pride.  

Which as we know, often comes before a fall!

The deep truth is that facts, like gravity, will inevitably win out. Markets in structural decline cannot will themselves to grow; organizations with toxic values cannot tweak them into acceptability; and while chasing unprofitable business may shore up the top line, it will surely tell a different story in the end. As one of my former colleagues used to say, ‘we must face reality as it is — not as it was, or we would wish it to be.’

Telling the truth, especially when others don’t want to hear it, can take real courage. Typically it is easier to sugar the pill, and of course, in our personal friendships, there are times when we might judiciously keep our counsel. But when we have a formal responsibility to others, it’s vital that we ground our decisions (and the actions which follow) in our best judgment of the facts as we see them. 

Objectivity, analysis, and truth to data are as integral to good leadership as are inspirational words and a compassionate spirit. We may convince ourselves otherwise, but awaiting our self-deceit will be what the Greeks knew as nemesis: the inescapable downfall that is the consequence of our arrogance. 

The good news is that our nose for the truth is intuitive too. Following it isn’t complex; we know when we are deceiving ourselves, or hoping, fingers crossed, for a miracle to save the day. And so it should be no surprise that others can sense this too. Those leaders who act with honesty and integrity in the face of vested interests or established dogma will be rewarded with loyalty and admiration that in the long run gives them leeway for the mistakes that all of us inevitably make. 

But if staying’ true to facts’ is one of the hardest qualities of leadership, then so too is being open to opinions and ideas that challenge our perceptions. I don’t believe that truth is relative – at least not in the context under discussion here—but I do recognize that none of us has a monopoly of it. Our job as leaders, like that of scientists, is to listen, observe and make decisions based on the best available evidence. In that way, our failures, as well as our successes, can add to the body of knowledge, so long as we declare them both for what they are. 

I remember at junior school being told the story of Isaac Newton’s epiphany as an apple fell from a tree to hit his head. Whether that tale is fact or myth doesn’t really matter; what’s important is that it helped to explain a phenomenon that we instinctively knew to be there. Perhaps, to understand the power of truth, we need to see more high-profile exposures; more of our politicians, businesses, and even some of our supposed sporting heroes shown to be what they are. Only then can we appreciate our world as it truly is —the good and the bad; the honest and the cheats; the facts and the lies.  These are the forces of ‘our nature’, playing out in the harmonies and discords around us every day. But for all the clatter they create, it is the bass note of truth which, like the pull of gravity, quietly and insistently sets the tone and tempo of progress for the good. We do well to listen out for it among the noise.

Thinking The Unthinkable

Across Europe and North America, political leaders are beginning to think the unthinkable. Two years ago, the suggestion that we would need medical passes to travel, attend events, or enter a restaurant, would have been shuddered at. Today these measures are commonplace, and the scope of sanctions for those who won’t play ball is getting ever wider. What’s more, the prospect of mandatory vaccination— a line that none of us could have imagined would be crossed—is now considered by many to be both necessary and urgent.

My interest here is not so much in arguing for a particular path, as in exploring how we best find a way through. Whatever our views on the rights and wrongs of the options, we cannot simply shirk the debate—for like the virus, it is already out there. The implications for the role of leaders—and the values they espouse—are therefore profound. 

But first, let me return briefly to the pandemic. 

There is a long and deeply held tradition in liberal democracies that compulsory medical treatment is a line we do not cross. Citizens it is claimed, have the right to make their own decisions about their bodies, even if they make objectively poor ones. The role of the State is to provide information and even to persuade, but (with a few extreme exceptions) not to compel, either directly or indirectly through the imposition of coercive sanctions.  

And in normal circumstances, most of us would agree.

But in times of crisis, the contrary view would home in on that word ‘citizen’. Our societies are collective endeavors and cannot be meaningfully reduced to supposedly independent individuals. Free riders who take of society’s benefits without appropriate contribution are universally disparaged. Furthermore, in the democratic West, there’s an equally long and deeply held tradition that the exercise of our liberty should always be limited to the extent it impinges on the freedom of others. 

And so, we have a values stand-off. On the one hand, there is the sense that there ought to be limitations to the State. On the other, growing anger that the actions of a minority are impacting our collective wellbeing. It’s a classic political and moral dilemma: the idea of medical compulsion is uncomfortable, but so too are the restrictions that everyone must endure because of a resistant minority.

What does all this mean for leadership?

I believe it was right for our governments to first pursue a strategy based on information and persuasion. Good leadership does not seek out conflict for its own sake and if momentum can be achieved without confrontation then so much the better. In this regard, trust in both the messages and the messengers is essential, and sadly, politics being what it is, this has been undermined all too often. 

It seems to me that the values which are typical of most progressive companies would have been excellent creeds for our politicians to have lived by: transparency, togetherness, speed and service to others… these, and many similar standards, will be familiar to anyone with experience of modern organizations.

But what if persuasion is not enough?

Over the last few weeks, we have seen countries in Europe and jurisdictions here in the US take increasingly strident lines. Austria will compel vaccinations from early next year while Germany is openly discussing similar measures; in France, the pass sanitaire is becoming essential for all but the most basic of needs. Even in the UK, one of the most reluctant countries in this regard, there is no mention of the need for a national debate. 

And surely here is where leadership has the most crucial role to play. 

For it is essential, in these circumstances, that leaders proactively facilitate an inclusive discussion, ensuring all sides have the opportunity to speak their truth. This process should not be used to delay decisions or abnegate responsibility for their taking, nor should it be the genesis of a fudge that pleases no one. Rather, it’s about using leadership as means to respectful understanding, which more than anything requires careful listening and consideration—before then acting decisively.  

And in that regard, the positive consequences of the action that’s chosen should also be made clear. In leading through divisive issues, we have a responsibility to set out a ‘roadmap of rewards’, showing the milestones ahead and the benefits that will be shared on reaching them. There will always be a resistant few, but our best hope of reaching out to those who are not entirely inflexible is by being transparent about the critical junctions and decision points we face. If progress is not as we had hoped, leaders might reasonably commit to revisit and reconsider in light of those circumstances. 

But a word of warning here. That willingness to reconsider should not be at the expense of a steadfast determination to follow a chosen path. Ultimately, no decision of this sort can be scientifically proven. As leaders, we must at times rely on ‘value judgements’ and the clue to the best of these is in the name. Decisions arrived at with sound reasoning and rooted in commonly held standards and are not guaranteed to succeed, but having made them, we should hold firm until evidence suggests otherwise. 

It’s often said that we are all leaders, and in the context of complex organizations this is undoubtedly true in the sense that we must each take responsibility for our actions. This must not, however, be misinterpreted as permission to act the maverick or undermine policies that have been fairly talked through. Leadership at an individual level is about actively contributing to a collective success even if the strategy is one that you might prefer to be different. If that policy is too far removed from your own values, then it’s time to move on. 

If that is difficult to contemplate, it is but a precursor to some issues we may soon have to face. I sense the next few months are likely to see us in political and moral territories that were unimaginable not so long ago. At times like these, leaders are wise to remember Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, which reminds us to …trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too…   Whatever paths we chose, I sense, like the crossing of the Rubicon, that there will be no going back. Perhaps more than anything these moments require us to show bravery, by which I mean courage of the sort that seldom wins medals but often wins wars— the sort that listens, considers, and ultimately act in accordance with our values.

Virtues and Values

Holding hands in friendship — illustrating Jozef Opdeweegh on virtue and values
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

The ancient philosopher Aristotle understood a thing or two about how to achieve success. According to his writings, a good and satisfying life was one that navigated a course between the extremes of hedonism and deficiency. And the way to do this, he asserted, was by living in accordance with our ‘virtues’ — those qualities and behaviors that we all, universally recognize as good, and which in his view, were best nurtured by experience and daily practice rather than prescriptive rules.

Fast forward more than two thousand years and ‘virtue theory’ is enjoying something of a well-deserved renaissance, most notably through the positive psychology movement and the writings of Martin Seligman. Its relevance to business is gaining traction too, and justifiably so, because the virtue theory adds a layer to our understanding of that other ‘V’ word, V for values, which has evolved into a ubiquitous concept in the progressive workplace.

There are few organizations today that would fail to acknowledge the importance of values. The idea that an engaged workforce, aligned to the goals of the company and working with common principles, helps to drive performance, is not only common sense, it is backed by a raft of evidence which crosses sectors, cultures and continents. Whether formalized or not, the best performing organizations across the globe have strong value sets which underpin their culture and provide a sense of meaning and belonging to their people.

But if the awareness of values is now commonplace, the concept of virtues remains somewhat academic, even though its benefits are just as transformational and equally self-evident.

By virtues, we mean those personal qualities that all of us recognize as beneficial to ourselves, to others and the community at large. In his work on positive psychology, Seligman identifies several high-level categories such as courage, wisdom, humanity and justice. Beneath these are more tangible qualities such as creativity, diligence, fairness and teamwork. In all, he lists 24 strengths that are universally recognized as positive attributes and which contribute to a collective good. While each of us has a preference and greater capacity for some virtues over others, all of us are happiest and most satisfied when we are able to employ these positive characteristics in our day to day lives.

It’s not necessary to dig deep into philosophy or psychology to take some lessons from this. For leaders and professionals, the critical point is that we all give of our best and make our greatest contribution when then the work we do supports our positive motivations. Consequently, if we can align roles and responsibilities across our organizations — and provide opportunities that nurture the virtues — then both our colleagues and our businesses are more likely to flourish. Having clear values helps us to establish the rules and guidelines for common behaviors; promoting virtues goes a level deeper, encouraging our individual strengths for the collective good.

Ploughed furrow — — illustrating Jozef Opdeweegh on virtue and values
Photo by Mat Reding on Unsplash

I like to think of living by our virtues as the difference between ‘being in a rut’, and ‘ploughing one’s own furrow’. In the former, we are trapped in a cycle of activity that feels meaningless and lacks personal satisfaction — even if the organization and its goals are worthy, we as individuals don’t fit, because the role we are asked to play doesn’t have room for those qualities that motivate and self-propel us. By contrast, in following a path which plays well to our individual strengths, we give and achieve more, thereby benefiting ourselves and our wider community. To use a sporting analogy: how often, do we hear soccer coaches talking of the need to give creative players ‘the freedom to express themselves’ — in a sense, that is virtue theory in action.

In a workplace setting, promoting virtues can be as simple as allowing a few hours a week for more lateral thinking (creativity and curiosity), or offering the opportunity for development training (love of learning); it might mean shaping a job to include more group activities (teamwork) or allowing colleagues to self-organize charitable activities (social awareness, kindness). In truth, much of this, good leaders do instinctively, encouraging something similar in wider organizational goals. Though they might not use the term ‘virtue theory’, many of its key elements are inherent to contemporary thinking on issues such as diversity and inclusion: valuing differences and allowing us all to give the best of ourselves.

There’s relevance in virtue theory for our corporate strategies too. In the courting stage, contemplated acquisitions and mergers almost invariably sweeten the numbers, estimating the potential for synergies, market share, pricing power and the other benefits. And yet so much of this M&A activity ultimately fails to deliver the intended results. By applying the lens of virtue theory, we might consider more carefully whether the acquirer will be a good parent or partner — are its organizational virtues compatible or in conflict with those of its target?

Compass showing direction — illustrating Jozef Opdeweegh on virtue and values
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

And finally, as individuals navigating our career paths, the idea of living in harmony with our strengths and preferences is an invaluable perspective when viewing our situation and prospects. Seligman describes the pursuit of virtues as the ‘gold standard of human well-being’ — the root of the positive choices we make in our efforts to flourish. At times, that may involve difficult choices — and I recognize that the freedom to act varies by circumstance — but across a career or a lifetime, finding your niche, feeling energized and ready for the day, undeniably is worth some sacrifice. For as Aristotle claimed many centuries ago, there is no one prescription for success, but being true to our positive natures is the surest route to follow.

6 Core Organizational Values and the Importance of Corporate Culture

Whether you have taken the bold decision to start your own business or have been tasked with running an existing company, the asset you are managing may well have multiple areas that deserve your special attention. For example, your business may be lacking organic growth, its leadership team may need to be recruited or upgraded, and the organization may require a couple of tangible successes to reinvigorate the team.

Transforming a business from its current state to a desired future state demands not only passion but also disciplined planning. This requires: (i) a concise, well-articulated strategic plan, (ii) a description of the benefits of the desired future state to the associates, as well as to the long-term future of the company, (iii) the reassurance that the associates, collectively and individually, are mission critical to the success of the company, and (iv) a clear glide path to the end goal, with key milestones and a rigid project management approach.

In addition, any transformational activity is largely facilitated by a shared corporate culture. According to Jozef Opdeweegh, a Miami businessman with over 17 years of experience as CEO, Chairman and Board Member of private and public companies, “Corporate culture plays a critical role in the success of a company. The value and impact of a set of shared beliefs and behaviors can hardly be overstated when convincing a group of people to meticulously undertake a challenging change initiative.”

Opdeweegh uses a definition of corporate culture based on a commonly shared notion that a company’s culture consists of the sum of beliefs and behaviors that determine how associates and management interact with each other inside and outside the workplace, as well as with other relevant constituencies, such as customers, suppliers, the board of directors, lenders and other outside parties. Notes Opdeweegh, “Corporate culture, however, should ideally also extend to the development of a collective perspective on societal and environmental considerations, for instance, the role of the organization in the broader community, or the efforts to minimize a corporation’s carbon footprint.”

Opdeweegh adds that when suggesting a set of core values to the organization, it is important to come forward with values that are highly relevant to the corporation and its success, yet are universal in nature, and impossible to contest. Says Opdeweegh, “Nobody will object to a core value of ‘fairness.’ Nobody will raise their hand to state that they do not believe in ‘creativity.'” He notes that the process of agreeing on the most relevant core values or behaviors for an organization is an iterative and democratic process, with the ultimate end-result coming from many group sessions with a relevant diagonal slice of the company’s associates.

Opdeweegh cites 6 core behaviors that are very powerful in driving the right strategic initiatives of the organization. He encourages using one or more of these for discussion purposes as you go through the collaborative process of defining your corporate culture.

  1. Creativity: “Think outside the box and share your perspective.”
  2. Customer centricity: “The customer is central to everything we do.”
  3. Empowerment and accountability: “Push decision making down in the organization and hold people accountable.”
  4. Fairness: “Be fair and respectful in everything you do.”
  5. Openness: “Be open and open-minded, listen and allow the best idea to win.”
  6. Speed: “Make quick, analytics-based decisions.”

Jozef Opdeweegh Cites 6 Organizational Behaviors Essential to Your Corporate Culture

Whether you have taken the bold decision to start your own business or have been tasked with running an existing company, the asset you are managing may well have multiple areas that deserve your special attention. For example, your business may be lacking organic growth, its leadership team may need to be recruited or upgraded, and the organization may require a couple of tangible successes to reinvigorate the team.

Transforming a business from its current state to a desired future state demands not only passion but also disciplined planning. This requires: (i) a concise, well-articulated strategic plan, (ii) a description of the benefits of the desired future state to the associates, as well as to the long-term future of the company, (iii) the reassurance that the associates, collectively and individually, are mission critical to the success of the company, and (iv) a clear glide path to the end goal, with key milestones and a rigid project management approach.

In addition, any transformational activity is largely facilitated by a shared corporate culture. According to Jozef Opdeweegh, a Miami businessman with over 17 years of experience as CEO, Chairman, and Board Member of private and public companies, “Corporate culture plays a critical role in the success of a company. The value and impact of a set of shared beliefs and behaviors can hardly be overstated when convincing a group of people to meticulously undertake a challenging change initiative.”

Opdeweegh uses a definition of corporate culture based on a commonly shared notion that a company’s culture consists of the sum of beliefs and behaviors that determine how associates and management interact with each other inside and outside the workplace, as well as with other relevant constituencies, such as customers, suppliers, the board of directors, lenders and other outside parties. Notes Opdeweegh, “Corporate culture, however, should ideally also extend to the development of a collective perspective on societal and environmental considerations, for instance, the role of the organization in the broader community, or the efforts to minimize a corporation’s carbon footprint.”

Opdeweegh adds that when suggesting a set of core values to the organization, it is important to come forward with values that are highly relevant to the corporation and its success, yet are universal in nature, and impossible to contest. Says Opdeweegh, “Nobody will object to a core value of ‘fairness.’ Nobody will raise their hand to state that they do not believe in ‘creativity.'” He notes that the process of agreeing on the most relevant core values or behaviors for an organization is an iterative and democratic process, with the ultimate end-result coming from many group sessions with a relevant diagonal slice of the company’s associates.

Opdeweegh cites 6 core behaviors that are very powerful in driving the right strategic initiatives of the organization. He encourages using one or more of these for discussion purposes as you go through the collaborative process of defining your corporate culture.

  • Creativity: “Think outside the box and share your perspective.”
  • Customer centricity: “The customer is central to everything we do.”
  • Empowerment and accountability: “Push decision making down in the organization and hold people accountable.”
  • Fairness: “Be fair and respectful in everything you do.”
  • Openness: “Be open and open-minded, listen and allow the best idea to win.”
  • Speed: “Make quick, analytics-based decisions.”

About Jozef:

Jozef Opdeweegh, also known as Jos, has served as CEO for over 17 years of global technology, distribution, and supply chain optimization companies with 5,000 to 20,000 employees, public or privately held. Opdeweegh has extensive board membership experience on 4 continents with related and unrelated companies.