We’re going to talk about workforce diversity, but first, let’s go back.
It’s 1994 – two decades after the birth of the personal computer, and roughly two decades before now. I was a sophomore working in the computer lab at Spelman College in Atlanta. In 1994, personal computer household penetration was 24%. A few women in my dorm had one, but most of us used the lab to type papers from our handwritten notes. Seems so archaic now, and for those raised in the digital age, 1994 was literally a lifetime ago. The over 35 crew has blinked a few times since then. Between blinks, we saw life as we know it completely transform. 1994 was when the worldwide web exploded.
A lot has happened in twenty-two years. The web evolved tremendously through blogs, search, online retailing, mobile, crowd-sourcing, and more. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t carry directions to everywhere, access to everyone, and answers to everything in my purse. If I’m honest, I can’t even remember my children’s phone numbers half the time. We are living drastically different lives, all enabled by the digital revolution.
While the pace of technological change has been shocking, the change itself was expected. Tech gurus and anthropologists alike warned of technology’s growing impact on relationships, finances, wellness, and business. Corporate leaders devoured articles and hired futurists. And still, while some invested heavily in preparing for the shift, many found themselves in a state of paralysis.
Today, the world’s largest retailer owns no inventory. The largest taxi company owns no vehicles. And the largest media company owns no content. Several companies who spent time and money readying for a digital future through infrastructure, talent, and capability are thriving today. But those who watched from the sidelines are either woefully behind, or no longer exist. Why? Perhaps they didn’t believe the shift would be so dramatic. Maybe they refused to challenge their own value propositions. Even if they did know the change would be massive and irrevocable, some likely lacked the resources or alignment to do much about it. I’m sure the reasons are vast and varied.
Now, in 2016, we are in the midst of yet another revolution – the cultural revolution. And like its digital analog, downplaying it won’t prevent it from happening. As a business leader who follows demographic shifts with great interest and (appropriate) paranoia, I can’t help but think American businesses are in for another very rude awakening.
For at least a decade, we’ve been citing the trends: Women make the majority of purchasing decisions. By 2042, the majority of Americans will be people of color. As of 2014, there are more non-white babies born annually than white babies. The majority of children under five years of age are non-white. A few of America’s states are already multicultural – Texas, California, New Mexico, Washington D.C., and Hawaii. And if you believe cultural blending impacts identity formation, we are already a majority minority nation, via interracial marriage, residence location, and mixed race families. (Source: Ethnifacts.)
Of course, through a marketplace lens, the people behind these trends and statistics are more than “people.” They are consumers – current and future. They are employees, leaders, partners, and depending on industry, the fuel of America’s economic growth. Still, while most business leaders are aware of these facts, women and people of color are still woefully underrepresented in corporate America, especially in leadership positions.
Does diverse representation matter?
If your company’s workforce diversity profile reflects the majority of U.S. companies, the team creating strategy, developing products and solutions, and determining how your brand will be represented is operating with considerable knowledge gaps. An insightful leader can read, watch, and engage with people who are different to enhance his or her consumer understanding. But knowledge gained through observation and inquiry is limited. Only those in-culture can see the tide before it turns. In short, lack of cultural diversity hampers your consumer innovation efforts.
Why cultural diversity?
Let’s go back to our digital analogy. Do you believe hiring digital natives gets you closer to the technology curve faster, more accurately, and with a lower spend? If so, understand that the same is true for in-culture leadership. Focus groups can’t tell you all you need to know about multicultural America, and they certainly can’t help if your leaders don’t have a diversity consciousness. Without consciousness, you may not ask the right questions in the right way, or ask them of the right people.
While many companies have added D&I as a corporate priority, it’s not enough to say it matters and trust the rest will take care of itself. I’m sure if you’d asked Blockbuster fifteen years ago whether digital mattered, they would have said yes. The “declaration without activation” approach has been our collective default. Lean In and McKinsey’s 2015 Women in the Workplace Study claims it would take us 100 years to reach gender parity if we keep doing what we’re doing today. For men and women of color, the picture is even more dire. Companies who want to optimize their growth potential with a multicultural America will need to act like it matters. Yesterday.
But how to leverage diversity to drive business?
1. Invest in leaders and teams who can place you ahead of the curve. (Have focus groups and partner with experts, sure, but hire and promote diverse leaders, too.)
2. Set business-relevant goals for hiring and promotion, and measure yourself against those goals. (We wouldn’t expect to meet a business goal we never set.)
3. Create cultures of inclusion that not only tolerate diverse perspectives, but intentionally leverage them. (It’s not about assimilation; it’s about broadening your lens.)
4. Hold leaders accountable for building teams who reflect the consumers they serve. (We prioritize what we’re evaluated against.)
5. Ensure the diversity pipeline is not only present, but prepared. (An inclusive environment without prepared leadership frustrates internal growth.)
It’s time to go #BeyondWords. If we fail to do so, two decades from now we will struggle to be relevant. Others will have passed us up with new products and experiences that delight the new majority. They will know what those products and experiences are, because they will have been traveling alongside their consumer, or better yet, they will be their consumer. By then, we’ll have to acknowledge the hard truth: We weren’t caught off guard by the cultural revolution. We just neglected to take it seriously.
Tara Jaye Frank is CEO of TJF Career Modeling, a leadership and culture transformation consultancy specializing in women’s leadership and diversity and inclusion strategy. Tara Jaye is also Corporate Culture Advisor for Hallmark Cards, Inc. and the author of Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose, written to help women from all cultural backgrounds chart a career course they can believe in and achieve. Follow her on Twitter @tarajfrank, Instagram @tarajayefrank, or Facebook at Facebook/tarajayefrank.