If you are a business leader pursuing diversity, you are chasing the wrong goal. It is not diversity that matters, but rather excellence that counts. Diversity of people is merely a natural result.
When I say companies with diversity of people, I mean companies that do not limit their pool of candidates for employment using arbitrary traits that have no inherent bearing on capability to deliver business value, such as gender, age, nationality, education abroad, physical disability, religion, refugee status, university from which they graduated or academic degrees in general, being a mother with children, being married or unmarried, sexual orientation, and a whole host of other diverse traits that do not matter.
Companies with a greater diversity of people have been shown to be more innovative and achieve better business results than peers with less. For certain, a diversity of backgrounds among employees means a diversity of perspectives, and multiple perspectives always lead to better ideas and better decisions. Yet, diversity of staff does not guarantee the best performance if excellence is not the priority above all else.
Mediocrity, despite diversity, is always possible. One Japanese company I know makes diversity a priority. It proactively recruits women and non-Japanese as a matter of policy. A non-Japanese leads one of their largest sales divisions. Women occupy management roles that might be restricted to men in other companies. The business’s performance, while not poor, is not outstanding either. Sales growth has been limited, and it has been more than a decade since R&D produced a hit product. Many managers in the business are reactive and excessively averse to reasonable business risk.
Even though this company proactively hires for diversity, excellence is not their priority. Despite having done away with lifetime employment and seniority-based promotion as policy, these remain in practice. Leaders are reluctant to promote junior managers above senior managers despite merit. Poor performance is often given a pass because the employee “is trying so hard.” No one is ever fired except for the gravest of infractions, like embezzlement.
You show me a business leader who insists that to promote diversity in the business he or she must compromise excellence, and I will show a leader who is not looking hard enough. Excellence in people knows no bounds. I call that boundlessness the presumption ‘yes.’ Yes, any human being has the capacity for excellence. Yes. Anyone.
The most successful companies I know have several practices in common.
- They prioritize excellence over all else, without apology.
- They seek excellent people from an ever-widening and expanding pool of candidates.
- They make diversity a priority, but never at the expense of excellence.
- They eliminate seniority-based promotion and lifetime both in policy and practice.
- They eliminate overtime, and remunerate people based on the contribution of value to the business, not time at work.
- They fire people for non-performance without compunction.
If you are the leader of a business, all of the practices above are within your purview and control to implement. However, understand that it is only you as a leader who can successfully drive excellence and diversity in the business. This is not something that you can simply outsource to HR and expect excellence as a result.
Excellence is a top-down exercise. As a leader, if you want to reap the benefits of diversity, it is you who must enforce both excellence and diversity first from the top levels of management and then work your way down through the organization. That means that excellence and diversity must start with your leadership team first and foremost. Then, they can do the same with their direct reports and so on. You cannot start with diversity and excellence at lower levels while higher levels of management remain unaddressed and expect sustainable results.
Diversity is about uncompromising excellence. Excellence is always your choice and rarely your imperative. It all depends on what you want. What will be your choice?