Podcast 45 Transcript: Business Diversity

Written by Ian Portsmouth

Ian:   Welcome to the Business Coach Podcast, an advice-oriented series that tackles the top issues and opportunities facing Canada’s small businesses.  I’m your host, Ian Portsmouth, the Editor of PROFIT Magazine and we’ve developed this podcast in cooperation with BMO Bank of Montreal. 

Companies these days are looking for every advantage they can get but one they might be overlooking is workplace diversity.  Indeed, there is a growing course of business people and academics who say that a diverse employee base can give added strength to a company.  If that’s true, then the cultural diversity of Canada’s workforce represents a gold mine of opportunity for entrepreneurs.  But how do you manufacture diversity in your company if you don’t already have it?  And how do you leverage diversity once you do have it?  Joining me to discuss those questions and more is Lisa Mattam.  She is the founder and Managing Principal of The Mattam Group, a Toronto-based management consulting firm that counts workplace diversity among its specialties.  Lisa, welcome to the Business Coach Podcast.

Lisa:   Thank you very much.

Ian:   Now Lisa, I think most people when they first hear the word diversity think about ethnic diversity but what’s your definition?

Lisa:   You know we define diversity a little bit differently.  We basically say that diversity is about using all of the collective talents that individuals bring to the workplace regardless of their differences and their similarities.  So, in Canada, we have the tendency to say diversity is multiculturalism but we know it has to be broader, that it has to, you know, include some elements such as gender, such as religion, such as age, sexual orientation.  But it also needs to be a bit broader for organizations to be successful to include work experience, to include, even as far as personality type at time, to say, you know we need to have a variety of people around the table to meet the business goals that any organization should have.

Ian:   So apart from the obvious namely that people within the organization have different roles, why is diversity valuable to a business?

Lisa:   You know, essentially, if I could start with an overarching reason is that we do know that diversity drives performance.   If you think about, you know, in these though economic times, organizations are going to have to run with leaner ability, and they are going to be forced to innovate much more quickly.  And so if you have a diversity of people sitting around the table tackling any problem, you’re basically more likely to get a different type of thinking than if you would have had in the past.  If you think about it when we do problem solving, we all sort of go back and to “ok, what do I know to be true, what do I know to be possibility” and we make all those decisions and we come out with a conclusion.  If everybody sitting around the table thinks the same way, you’ll never get to those really truly great capabilities, you’ll never get to those truly great ideas.  And so, from an overall perspective, we know that diversity drives performance, we know it drives business results and we know it drives innovation.

Ian:   Now, I think that sounds very reasonable in theory.  Has a lot of research been conducted into this?

Lisa:   Absolutely.  You know, some of the research that we have seen and a lot of research started out on gender particularly, but Catalyst, which is the group, they are actually out of the U.S., they have an office in Toronto as well as in Europe.  And they did a study in 2004 were they look at Fortune 500 companies.  So these are higher performing companies and they look at Fortune 500 companies that had fairly homogeneous boards and then ones that had gender diverse boards and they were able to show that those with gender diversity delivered a higher return on equity and total return of shareholders than their homogeneous counterpart.  Those are really great examples of diversity at play, and a very tangible sense as well.

Ian:   Now how would a business owner go about making their business more diverse if they feel that it’s a little bit too homogeneous for their needs?  We think of the term affirmative action and that has a rather negative connotation for a lot of people.

Lisa:   It does and I think thankfully in Canada at least, we can say that affirmative action doesn’t exist because for those reasons.  To give you a little bit of context, we do have employment equity in Canada which only takes place for federally regulated or federal contractors so many organizations do fall into that and many don’t.  I think if you’re a business owner or if you are saying how can I diversify my business, if you look at it as more of a strategic opportunity and really build the business case, so why my employee base needs to be diverse.  So look at who are your customers, who are your current employees, what are the challenges to the business that you currently face and even do an internal scan of what does the make-up of my organization look like right now, and does that mere the community that I work in. 

So for example, if you happen to be working in Toronto, which we know to be extraordinarily diverse, and you have actually look to do some sort of people survey and realize that diversity does not exist, and you are an organization that does a lot of client facing or consumer facing work, that sorts of land to the business case of why you need to be more diverse.  And so the first place to start is really building that business case and then you can sell it internally to the people who, you know, are going to have to go through this diversity process and then you can start to build the reason for diversity and then start to say ok, here is where I need to go or here is who is missing around the table.

Ian:   So, essentially, the next step in the diversification process is going to be hiring, correct?

Lisa:   Absolutely.  You see, you start with really some internal processes,  and you say, ok I need to build a business case, I need to understand who is here and then you move right into hiring.  And so, often times, what we would recommend to organizations, you know, we will, depending on the size of the organization and what it is that they are looking to do.  So for example we worked with a large Gas company who said, you know, we recognize what we do, we’re consumer facing and we have a relatively homogeneous workforce.  So we said, ok for your particular roles, you know, where can we expend the capability for you to do some of your recruitment efforts.  So if you are hiring engineers, you know, there are specific engineering organizations for women, we help them identify great recruitment sources in terms of universities.  So, it is understanding how can you cast a wide enough net so that you are getting a diverse candidate pool when you do the recruitment process.

Ian:   Now once you have a diverse employee base, how do you leverage that, how do you get these diverse view points, opinions, backgrounds to work together for the greater good?

Lisa:   I would say you do two things.  The first thing you have to do is really build what we call an inclusive workforce.  It might sound a little hockey from the beginning, people think that’s all about, you know, holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” or something but building an inclusive workforce basically said we are going to bring all of these different candidates regardless of what makes them different.  So if it is, you know, cultural base, if it is sexual orientation, if it is age, that we’ve build an environment where everybody actually has the capability to maximize their potential.  So we won’t undermine them by not inviting them to meetings or rolling up our eyes when they speak or just remembering to include them, which is such an important part here.  So that’s really what the first thing is.  Having that organization say what can I do to build an inclusive workplace, which comes from education, which comes from, you know, internal work and processes and messaging around diversity.  And the second thing you really do is you teach managers how to engage people.  And in some ways, it is simple leadership skills, but traditionally, people used to think, ok I am going to employ a diverse workforce so what I will do is I will teach people, you know, things like, you know, women like this and Chinese people like this and we know that not to be the case anymore.  Every single person is an individual and comes with many layers of diversity.  And you know, I am made up of the fact that I am a woman, I am made up of the fact of my ethnicity, I am made up of the fact of my university education, as an example.  So it’s teaching managers to say here is how I engage with this person.  Here is what I need to know about them, here are the questions that I need to ask about them to get to know them, to get to really give me the best that they currently have.  And if you can teach managers to engage someone, you will get the best possible results from having that diverse workforce.

Ian:   Lisa, it’s a very interesting subject area and I thank you for joining the Business Coach to speak about it.

Lisa:   Thank you very much for having me.

Ian:   Lisa Mattam is the founder and Managing Principal of The Mattam Group in Toronto.

That’s’ it for another episode of the Business Coach Podcast.  Be sure to check out other episodes which you can download from BMO.com, profitguide.com and iTunes.  If you have any comments or suggestions about the podcast, please send them to me at ian.portsmouth@profit.rogers.com.

Until next time, I am Ian Portsmouth, the Editor of PROFIT Magazine, wishing you continued success.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com