"We love diversity, age, education, race, ethnicity, gender, but want too much conformity in how things are expressed." – Author’s name withheld
I love this quote. I didn’t read it in a book or find it on a website. It was offered to me by a close friend and mentor. When he said it, I paused for a minute as diversity is a very important subject to me and I don’t think that I have ever thought of it in this particular way. As marketers, as merchants, as anyone in a customer facing industry, it is imperative that we embrace diversity. To not would be to fail to understand our customer, to not represent them fairly, to not deserve to earn a profit through our relationship with them. But as leaders, while we may embrace diversity in the traditional manner, do we truly accept diversity of THOUGHT? Are we really open minded enough to allow for candid and provocative discussions? Or do we bristle when someone expresses an opinion that doesn't align with ours?
That I think, is a question worth considering.
COMPANIES & BRANDS MUST CREATE A SINGLE, UNIFYING VISION
Start with the premise that with a vision, there must be a single, unifying plan with an accompanying road map. As leaders, we need to foster the development of that vision and the road map that others will ultimately need to follow if you are to be successful. At times, this isn’t developed in the most democratic manner. We have to make tough decisions that others may not agree with, but ultimately we need for the team to support. However, this does not mean that these decisions should be made in a vacuum, without allowing for opposing view points. Throughout the development and planning process, as leaders, we need to not only accept a diversity of thought and opinions, we need to foster it and embrace it. Otherwise we aren’t putting the best, most well thought out ideas forward. We are giving those on our team the chance to impact the plan from their diverse perspective. And ultimately, we may not receive the buy-in that is critical to success.
CREATE A CULTURE WHERE DIVERSITY OF THOUGHT IS EXPECTED
This doesn’t mean simply having a single brainstorm meeting where everyone gets to write their ideas on sticky notes. Or going around the room during a staff meeting and asking everyone to weigh in with their opinion before the final plan is passed out. People see through these attempts as "less than genuine" requests for open dialogue and feedback.
What I am referring to is building and encouraging a culture of open and often “vibrant” dialogue that gives those around you not only permission to challenge , but the expectation that they should challenge ideas, concepts, plans in a thoughtful and productive manner. As a leader, if you encourage engagement, you may discover that there are legitimate concerns with the road map, or alternatives worth considering. Or perhaps the process will serve to further reinforce your point of view. Either way, your culture, if it encourages diversity of thought, will ultimately be far more productive in the long run.
TO HAVE A STAKE, YOU MUST BE A STAKEHOLDER
We have all been in meetings where “everyone gets a vote.” Put people in a room, ask them their opinion on a particular subject (or regardless of the subject) and you can bet that there will be plenty of discussion. Fundamentally, I believe that anyone in an organization can have a great idea and you should constantly be combing for those. But discussion without background, ideas without foundation, and opinions without the benefit of experience and analytics can be dangerous. Simply expressing a “counter point” when one has little experience or expertise on the particular matter rarely is a meaningful contribution. The expectation that an organization will respect a diverse range of opinions should be accompanied by the equal expectation that those offering opinions do so in a well founded manner and are invested in the final outcome. As a leader, it falls to you to set that tone.
One caveat, don't mistake stakeholders as being defined by "rank" alone. All levels of the organization should be challenged and those with a vested interest in the outcome, regardless of position or title, should have the opportunity to contribute. Many times as a leader, we have to look deep into the organization to find the best ideas, and to ensure that they aren't being blocked by a misguided manager or a broken process. "Says easy, does hard" as a former boss once told me, but often times, the best ideas come from the areas most hidden from your view.
MAKE IT CLEAR WHEN A DECISION HAS BEEN MADE AND IT IS TIME TO GET ON BOARD
Many leaders allow for open discussion and may in fact embrace a diversity of thought, but then fail to communicate when the decision has been made and the plan is set. He or she then views further discussion on the subject as dissension. You have to have a clear line of demarcation; that point where a decision has been made and you expect the team to support the final plan. One of the biggest mistakes that I have seen, and have made personally, is not engaging people up front and letting people know when a decision is final and it is time to move forward. It isn't fair to those who have invested time and energy into putting their ideas forward to let them know why you've moved in a different direction. Failing to do so in a respectful manner will stunt the support of your plan, and likely discourage involvement the next time around.
(original version posted June 9, 2014)