The Power of Diversity From My Chief of Staff Role

Diversity and corporate actions are thrown around these days like confetti, shining at first, but ultimately hitting the floor with minimal lasting results. Executives see the studies on how diversity improves creativity and has a positive impact on the bottom line. They hear it is important, but still make few strides to successfully attract and retain a diverse workforce.

Booth Panel on Diversity in the Workplace, May 3, 2018

Booth Panel on Diversity in the Workplace, May 3, 2018

During a recent panel discussion I participated in on the topic of diversity in the workplace through the University of Chicago Booth Women’s Network, an audience member asked, “What will ever get corporate leaders to actually move the needle on diversity?” This is a million dollar question with no silver bullet answer. After ideas were tossed around, the moderator concluded that real change may come down to demographic shifts. Over time, the workplace will inevitably become more diverse because of our changing population. It is a very disappointing thought that more tangible movement for diversity may come down to statistics, but also a very real one.

This audience question spurred thought around my experiences as a Chief of Staff, where I was privileged to have a comprehensive view of an organization and direct exposure to diverse leaders. It was a monumental experience in shaping my understanding and viewpoints on the power of diversity. Regardless of your own race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, age, gender, or sexual orientation, there are important benefits to working with others who don’t “look or think like you.” Working for a diverse leader gives you exposure to the differences we face—in the workplace and in life. Below, I share a few of my own experiences working directly for Mellody Hobson, a black female in the investment industry. As a white female from a middle class family in Iowa, I cannot truly understand the experiences of a person of color, a religious minority, or an individual from the LGBTQ community. However, having authentic experiences with people who are different from me does help shape the way I lead and my belief that we can achieve more than simply cycling generations for change.

MORE EXPOSURE LEADS TO MORE AWARENESS

Diversity provokes creativity because it’s constantly challenging the “accepted norms.” Education experts discuss the importance of exposing children to cultural diversity at a young age, “Immersing children in culturally diverse activities gives them the opportunity to become more comfortable with difference in race, religion, language, and lifestyle. As this becomes the norm, a child’s tolerance and open-mindedness for others increases.”

We can apply those same benefits to adults in the workplace. The more exposure you have to cultural diversity, the more commonplace our differences become. Working on a daily basis with a leader from a diverse group exposes you to ideas and experiences that may be different from your own. While this can challenge your own ideas and beliefs, it will also deepen your empathy and understanding--important skills as you hone your own leadership style and approach.

I am reminded of a simple, yet insightful conversation I had with Mellody out of the blue during our time together. She said, “Do you use a washcloth in the shower?” I replied very questioningly, “No, I use a loofah.” She said, “I figured. Did you know black people often use washcloths? That is something you wouldn’t know, but I thought I’d tell you. It is really the best way to keep our skin soft and exfoliated.” This was clearly an unexpected and seemingly out of place conversation, but it was a simple way for my boss to expose something I would’ve never thought about before. Her telling me this wasn’t an opportunity to highlight various bathing habits—it was an opportunity to disarm the topic of diversity with a subtle difference between two people. While one conversation may not meaningfully change the way I think about diversity, many of these small instances over time certainly can. They also create more comfort around naturally “charged” conversations on difference in the future.

IS EVERYONE AT THE TABLE?

If you were building a house, it would make sense to bring together experts with diverse skills and knowledge: carpenters, plumbers, architects, electricians, interior designers, etc. The same is true for social diversity in a corporate workplace.

For example, during a meeting regarding rolling out a new family leave plan at my former employer:

Team Member A thinks this should be straightforward, a woman gives birth; she gets 6-8 weeks of short-term disability coverage as outlined by the company’s insurance policy. This is how it’s been for decades. Then Team Member B asks about adoption. Shouldn’t moms also get time off to care for their child in that case? Team Member C asks why are only women getting time off? Don’t fathers deserve an opportunity to care for and bond with their child? Team Member D agrees, what if both parents are male, then who gets family leave? Team Member E also asks about same-sex spouses. What if both parents are female? Does the one who gives birth get time off? Or do they both get leave? I then point out that family leave shouldn’t only be for birth. What about caring for elderly parents? Or a chronically sick spouse or family member? Suddenly, Team Member A realizes the situation is much more complex than she originally anticipated.

As Chief of Staff at any company, with a direct line to the highest levels of the organization and exposure to the smallest, it is important to consider new ideas, alternative angles, and unique dispositions when helping to solve a number of company challenges. In order to ensure diversity of thought, you must have different people at the table. You hold the ability to empower people to provide their own perspectives and viewpoints, especially if they oppose the consensus. And if you don’t have a diverse group of people solving a challenge, don’t proceed forward until you do. Make it a standard practice.

OBSERVE AND UNDERSTAND DIFFERENCES

The Chief of Staff role is a tremendous opportunity to learn through the lens of a leader and leadership team. This experience is invaluable no matter the organization or individual. You learn about the differences between yourself and the person (or people) you support.

The opportunity to learn from someone not like me taught me immeasurable experience that I will hold forever. Let me share one example:

In a meeting in New York City, my boss and I met with a man who dominated the entire conversation and patronized us both. He especially belittled my boss with lines like, “just smile and you’ll do fine.” He also mentioned feeling slighted that the CEO didn’t attend (though my boss handled the matters with regard to this meeting). During the meeting, my boss was quieter than usual, almost reserved against his commanding personality. I was appalled by his behavior, but also confused by hers. Why didn’t she say anything to him? After the meeting, I asked her in a fit of anger. She said simply, “Catherine, sometimes you have to crouch to conquer.” I realized in that moment she was playing with a different set of rules. If she raised her voice at every instance of unacceptable behavior, it would actually reflect worse on her than it ever did on him.

This one situation was a powerful moment for me in understanding that real-life situations could be much more difficult for my boss as a black female executive with 20 years of experience than even for me as a white Chief of Staff with only five. Now, even in times when I feel anger towards the blatant inequitable actions of others, I remember this meeting and channel my feelings into curiosity and questioning, adding to my leadership vantage point.

While no two people will ever share the same experiences, the more we broaden our exposure to other individuals, the more open-minded, considerate, and proactive we become. As a Chief of Staff, partnering with a leader from a different background may help you become more attuned to other circumstances and ways of looking at a situation. Having authentic experiences with diversity improves your own leadership skills, and will hopefully make a positive impact for further promoting diversity as you continue to lead now and in the future.