OP-ED: True diversity starts with the appropriate mindset

Move over Hilfiger and Lauren. FUBU, Phat Farm, and other urban brands are America's fastest-growing fashion segment.

Move over Hilfiger and Lauren. FUBU, Phat Farm, and other urban brands are America's fastest-growing fashion segment.

Rap's more popular than pop among young people. The metrosexual look, guayabera shirts, and Japanese manga are mainstream.

Increasingly, the "edges" of American society are defining the mainstream - what we eat, what we read, what we watch, what we find sexy ("buttocks are the new breasts," per a recent New York Times article). More than ever, our world is defined and driven by diversity. While baby boomers grew up in a world where whites outnumbered non-whites 4 to 1, the world of Gen Y kids is 1.5 to 1. During their lifetime, the children of Gen Y will be living in a minority-majority country.

What does "diversity" mean? Diversity is the mixture of similarities and differences. Sure, it includes race, gender, and ethnicity, but also lifestyle, functional expertise, age, and thinking style. Diversity is white and Asian-American, straight and gay, quantitative and creative, urban and country.

For those of us who make our living communicating with the world around us, it is critical that we understand that world from the inside out. We must be representative of our clients and their constituents if we want to deeply understand them.

To make your organization more diverse, you have to foster a "diversity mindset." Certainly, racial and ethnic diversity are important. However, representation alone is not sufficient to foster an environment in which people with differences - and different ideas - thrive. Organizations need to embrace and value differences - proactively, enthusiastically, and naturally. That means moving beyond the natural instinct to relate to those who think like they do and reaching out to those who think differently and have different backgrounds or points of view.

Consider this: Before a minority candidate comes to your firm for an interview, she has already checked you out. Her network of friends and connections is at two degrees of separation, not six. Minority candidates don't care most about the numbers - numbers just tell you representation. They want to know: Is this an environment where people who are "different" can grow and build a great career?

Your company has a reputation for how diversity really plays out. Do you know what that is? How can you enhance the reality - and thus the reputation - of your organization?

The business rationale for diversity is something we as a profession understand. Creating an environment where a "diversity mindset" thrives can be easier said than done. Here are some starting points:

Talk about it. Tensions often go hand-in-hand with differences. But often, instead of using differences as a source of creative energy and new thinking, people avoid dealing with them. You might start by bringing staff together in an open, non-judgmental environment. Help them reach a shared perspective on what diversity is and what a diversity-friendly environment looks and feels like. Ask your staff: Do you feel accepted for who you are? What are we doing well in promoting diversity? What are some opportunities to improve? Just getting the subject "out of the closet" is a start.

Learn about it. Hold brown-bag sessions with outside speakers who can help de-mystify diversity and share best practices. Invest in diversity training. Bring people along and help them get comfortable with the fact that "diversity" includes everyone, and that everyone can gain from a diversity mindset.

Model it. Embracing differences, welcoming debate, and fostering new ideas starts at the top. It must be constantly reinforced in word and deed. You must make investments in recruiting and relationships that advance the ball on diversity - internships, partnerships, and new hires. You must insist on a culture that values each person's uniqueness and contributions. Commit to, and be accountable for, milestones like diversity training, a mentoring program, and affinity groups.

Diversity is not a trend or a "nice-to-have." It's a strategic imperative, especially in the PR profession. We must think about it broadly - as a transformational issue and a competitive advantage. It takes all kinds of people, styles, approaches, and ideas to ensure we have the human assets that are an organization's only point of sustainable advantage.

  • Helen Ostrowski is global CEO of Porter Novelli.

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