It’s time to reinvent the workplace to unlock the potential of diversity

Kay Formanek is a researcher, author, lecturer, coach and adviser on the topic of diversity and performance. After 25 years as a partner and managing director at Accenture, Kay founded her company, Diversity and Performance, to help organisations shape their diversity programmes and drive performance outcomes. In addition to developing the Integrated Diversity Framework, Kay spends her time writing books, lecturing at top business schools, speaking at events and serving on the board of Health Works, an NGO focused on liberating the talent of women and children from communities devastated by war.

When did you first encounter the transformative power of diversity?

I grew up in South Africa during the apartheid era. As a young girl, I witnessed the burning schools and the unbelievable pain of a country divided by race. Although most schools were segregated in those days, I attended a private multiracial boarding school for girls. My classmates and I did everything together: we slept in the same dormitory, ate breakfast together and attended our lessons together.

This experience taught me that we are each different, but we are all deeply connected through our humanity. When you look beyond colour, gender, age or disability and ask fundamental questions – ‘Have you experienced fear?’ or ‘Have you ever felt lonely or judged?’ – for each of these questions, the answer is yes. This is what makes us human beings. When we recognise that we are each unique and yet more similar than different, then we can start making things happen.

I experienced this professionally when I began working at Accenture in South Africa. The leadership acknowledged the political and societal transformation happening across the country and committed to transforming the company along with it. We took the time to register these changes. We were honest about the limitations of our homogenous talent pool and began looking very consciously at our unconscious biases. We then enriched our talent pool and our leadership capacity to reflect the realities of our country and the requirements of our clients. In essence, we set the goal of harnessing the power of diversity so that we and our clients could be more successful.

Why are diversity and transformation important within the context of the Netherlands?

Undergoing transformation is always difficult, and there usually needs to be a reason for it to occur. In South Africa, the reason was political. Here in the Netherlands, the issues are performance and productivity. The digital revolution is changing the shape of our society and business. Everywhere we look, classic business models are being supplanted. In this case, therefore, the transformational context for diversity is digital.

The Netherlands aims to be the number one digital economy in the world. This means being successful at a number of things, including high connectivity, excellent infrastructure and the digital empowerment of citizens. It also means being able to supply the necessary digital talent. In 2013, we had 11,000 unfilled digital jobs in the Netherlands, and this number is only rising. As a result, companies are waiting for months or even years to fill certain positions. This affects not only the company, but also our productivity as a nation and our ability to succeed at a global level.

For us to close the skills gap, we need to encourage a wider audience to pursue digital education and participate in the digital market. At the same time, leaders are realising that in the digital era, diverse teams comprising different ages, different educational backgrounds and different genders have a greater capacity to understand, innovate and take ideas further. Consequently, diversity is becoming a priority in the Netherlands. For the first time, we are treating it not as some moral or ‘feel good’ issue, but one that is critical to our very success as a nation.

What are the biggest challenges we face in changing attitudes and organisations?

The word ‘diversity’ often causes an instant sense of discomfort. Some people feel guilty or inadequate, while some think it means affirmative action and see it as a threat to meritocracy. If we get past the initial reaction, we minimise the benefits of harnessing diversity by treating diversity as a hobby rather than running diversity as a business. For diversity to work, organisations need to see it as critical to their transformational journey. They need to develop the diversity business case, set and measure diversity goals, and ensure that everyone across the organisation is held accountable for delivering outcomes.

One of the most important challenges we face is that focusing on diversity requires us to accept our own unconscious biases. We each have a genetic default and learned tendency to associate with people who are similar to us because it makes us feel safer and more effective. It takes strong behavioural guidelines to change our default patterns. We must always remind ourselves that being different has value, and that if done right, diversity can deliver extraordinary results.

What are some practical things students can do to overcome unconscious bias?

An easy first step is to take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to reveal your own biases. The results are often surprising. Additionally, while you should seek out mentors and sponsors who are good role models and will allow you to learn, consider selecting somebody who is dissimilar to you in some way. I recommend doing this because diversity of opinion is good, and you can learn a lot by learning how to work together. As you begin applying for jobs, you can do research on each company’s diversity track record. More and more companies are publishing their diversity charter and metrics on their websites. Know that equal work requires equal pay – this is your right, and it is protected by law. Last but not least, dare to speak up and challenge stereotypes in your everyday life.

What tips do you have for dealing with unconscious bias and stereotypes in the workplace?

My most important tip is to never restrict yourself because of your own unconscious bias. These are often the most harmful and limiting barriers because they are hard-coded into our being and our brain. For example, you may have an unconscious belief that digital jobs are reserved mostly for men. This is not true. However, if we hold false beliefs, then we will unwittingly filter out some wonderful career opportunities. So be sure to confront your own biases and don’t limit yourself.

As you move forward in your career, you may encounter people who are biased. Understand that these biases reveal their limitations and not your own. If at any point you feel weighed down by biases, try to surround yourself by people who defy these biases in their actions and achievements. I have done this myself, and it is liberating.

Finally, don’t ever stop learning. You are responsible for your own development, and the choices you make about what to learn and how to develop will be an important source for defying biases and becoming a role model for others.