Diversity. We hear the word often, but do we ever stop to think about what it actually means? Because it should not just a vague part of your company’s HR policy, and it’s so much more than complying with employment equity guidelines.
Workplace diversity encompasses acceptance and respect. It’s appreciating that everyone is unique and that we all have something meaningful to bring to the table. It means welcoming and celebrating our differences and creating environments where mutual respect and equity are fundamental. It’s about moving beyond simple tolerance to a place where we actively embrace the value of everyone’s contribution.
All of which sounds fantastic on paper, but is genuine diversity actually achievable, and if so, what impact does it have on performance?
The Outperformer recently asked Nancy Collins these exact questions. Nancy is the CFO of Burra Foods, a leading Australian dairy ingredient processor that produces and markets value-added dairy products for domestic and international markets. She has 18 years' experience in leadership and executive management roles across the Professional Services, Food Manufacturing and Nutritional sectors and is currently the CFO of Burra Foods.
Nancy is passionate about doing a whole lot more than simply paying lip service to workplace diversity. As a CFO and leader, she actively works hard with her team to hold themselves accountable for walking the talk when it comes to building a diverse and high performing team.
In her interview with us, Nancy explored:
The full interview is available on our website, but here are a few of the key take-outs.
Nancy defines diversity as having people on your team who come from a variety of different backgrounds, and who bring with them a range of experience that compliments the broader team. These varying backgrounds encompass race, gender, age, religion, educational experience and language, among others.
Nancy believes this kind of diverse working environment has many advantages.
“It creates a really strong learning environment”, she says. “There are more opportunities for people to be challenged, and to learn from each other. Everyone has different skills sets and experience, and they have different viewpoints and different lenses. The way they look at problems and try to solve them is different. This means people have the opportunity to learn a lot more. So many companies today compete in a global environment, and studies show that diverse teams achieve better outcomes. Research also shows that if there is diversity in company management, the company as a whole is likely to perform better.”
Recruiting a diverse workforce also means opening your business to a far wider pool of potential employees. This means you greatly increase your chances of finding the most suitable and qualified candidates. At the end of the day, diversity is about the full utilisation of a variety of resources to create better outcomes that benefit everyone.
“In my particular case, I have Chinese and Japanese shareholders, for example,” says Nancy. “I also have people in my team who are able to communicate in Mandarin, and that really helps with relationship building.”
Nancy also believes that a diverse workforce opens you up to a vast pool of potential resources by tapping into your employees’ individual networks.
“If there’s a problem that requires going outside your immediate ‘realm,’ the people in a diverse team have diverse networks of people to turn to, so you’re far more likely to get a better outcome,” she says.
Countless studies show that we are naturally attracted to people similar to ourselves. This could be because of the way they look, the way they work or the way they talk, among many other possible reasons. This is biased thinking, but many people are not even aware that they have this cognitive bias. Hence the popular description, unconscious bias.
“We are always looking for self-affirmation,” says Nancy. “Cognitive bias is how we’re naturally wired, but by being aware that this is likely to happen, we can put systems and controls in place to overcome it. It’s important to be accountable, and hold others to account. Make sure you do what you say you’re going to do.
“From a finance perspective, make sure members of your team gain exposure outside the office of finance and ICT. It’s important for them to learn different ways to problem solve, and to embrace a collaborative culture.”
As with all strategies, senior management has to be on board right from the start.
“You have to make sure that the CEO and other top executives are committed,” says Nancy. “In larger companies, for example, this could be demonstrated by having formal policies in terms of recruitment strategies. In my case, I always make sure our interview panels are comprised of a diverse group of people.”
Clear channels of communication are also essential.
“It’s important to have conversations about our differences and understand that together, we’re achieving really good outcomes that we may not be able to achieve individually,” Nancy says.
It also helps to understand what motivates the different people on your team and to build an appropriate rewards programme. And, as with many forward-thinking working environments, flexibility is key.
“A flexible work environment facilitates diversity as it enables people to accommodate their varying commitments, such as children, for example,” says Nancy. “It’s important to be as inclusive as possible by being as flexible as possible.
“At the end of the day, the structures and systems you have in place should ultimately make thinking about diversity unnecessary. It just becomes the way things are done. It becomes the norm.”