True Diversity is critical to business success

Diversity of thought is critical for business success, writes Neil Bradbrook

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Diversity is a hot topic, but I get concerned that for many it has become a box-ticking exercise more than something they truly believe in.

So let me be clear: when it comes to running a business, nothing is more important than diversity of thought. No matter how good a leader you think you are, it is the team you assemble who will determine your success.

My business partner and I come from different backgrounds and that helps when we are making business decisions. We challenge one another constantly by stimulating new thought and debate, and our best work is always when we have both contributed to the process – which always creates something better than either of us could do alone.

It is not nearly enough though. We might have to make the decisions, but we do not have all the answers, which is why it is important that we listen to the team around us. If you can create a working environment where people feel empowered to air their views, and it is safe to have different opinions, then your outcome will be so much more. The best solutions always go through several iterations, each building on the last.

It is also why all businesses should bring in outside expertise from time to time. We all get too close to our own businesses and can benefit from an objective perspective.

Taking on board views that differ widely from yours can be a challenge but looking at a problem from every angle is the way to find the best solutions. That means surrounding yourself with people from different backgrounds rather than hiring in your own image.

That takes a conscious effort – we have all heard of unconscious bias – so self-awareness is key. No matter your position – even if you oversee a huge global enterprise, like Elon Musk at Tesla – never think it is all about you. The best senior managers are those who realise they might not be doing everything right.

Good managers should always be prepared to change their minds when presented with views that differ from their own. That is why the most important skill for successful leaders is the ability to listen. Listen to what your employees have to say, listen to your customers, take advice. You do not have to act on every single thing, but listen – and listen well – before making that call.

Trying to force people into your own mould never works; embracing them as they are and seeking the value they can bring, will. That can be difficult. Some team members can struggle to engage in a way you understand. They are the ones you have to invest even greater effort into listening to, because only by accepting that everyone can be part of the team will you have a truly inclusive organisation.

If you do not demonstrate you are genuinely inclusive, there are some people you will turn off. You will be the loser in that situation because you will miss the opportunity to find out what they could add.

Some managers find it hard to empower the individuals in their team. That is understandable: few people are given the training they need to take on a management position, with most being promoted simply because they excelled in the role they were already in.

Without being told otherwise, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that with power comes responsibility and with responsibility comes the need to make all decisions alone.

But if team members feel they understand your organisation’s vision and their role within it – and that they have the autonomy and opportunity to contribute and make a difference – you get so much more out of them.

That is to everyone’s benefit. If you are all pulling in the same direction, and everyone knows what the effort is being put in for, it will be so much more effective than if you just have one or two people doing it.

I have always been a firm believer that the power of the team is far greater than that of the individual. The most successful sports teams are not those with the best individuals, but those with a clear, unified vision, great team spirit, who pull together and support one another. If you get the team right – and that means having diverse perspectives and skills and embracing everyone equally – the team will always be much stronger than the sum of its parts.