I got a taste of being “different” as a corporate executive. I learned how being different can undermine engagement. I spent most of my career as a lawyer. I helped my clients do better by complying with the law and avoiding falling into costly legal problems. I was the first woman at the C-level of a well-known public company. While I knew my gender made me “different,” I did not focus on it. I focused on doing my job and doing my best. In fact, I worked to mask my differences—to fit in.
Because I was different from the others at the top, I got asked to participate in “diversity” programs. I was a senior sponsor of our women’s group, took on the mission of creating support among aspiring and talented women and became involved in designing “diversity training.” It was in this role that I began to understand how being “different” can affect engagement.
The team designing the diversity training was, as is usually the case, diverse. Surrounded by people distinguished in one or more ways from the white male heterosexual norm (people of color, gays and women), the light bulb went off. When one is putting energy into observing what the norms of an established group are and making sure one’s own behavior is not too far “out of line,” one cannot operate as naturally or as well. Energy that could be going into creativity and quality is being spent on “fitting in.” I began to see how much my own difference had cost me in terms of focus and energy.
I knew this insight could help the business. If we could tap that energy and put it back onto quality work, surely people would do better work. People would feel greater loyalty to the company. I understood that, to redirect that energy, we needed to create a culture where people felt heard and valued for their own ways. I did not know the term “inclusive culture” then. I do now—and that is what I am committed to creating!
My purpose and passion are about the power of appreciating and leveraging difference. I know—from research and personally—that businesses get better results if they leverage the rich diversity of today’s workforce. The goal of my stump speech and my workshops is to improve productivity, profitability and retention by unleashing the talents of MORE of the workforce.
Have you been “different”? Have you seen how lack of inclusion can take energy away from doing great work?