I’ve written quite a bit about economic development lately. In particular, I’ve had an eye towards areas that are often overlooked in conversations of how to make Arkansas more competitive. One such area is the role of diversity in the marketplace.
About a year ago, I was attending the 100th birthday celebration of Daisy Gatson Bates, famed mentor of the Little Rock Nine. During the celebration, Ernest Green, the first African American to graduate from Central High School, shared some thoughts that have stuck with me ever since.
As I think back, I knew that Mr. Green was coming to the event to honor Mrs. Bates and her family. I was very interested in hearing him speak not only because of the significance of Mr. Green being the first graduate of the Little Rock Nine, but also because he is someone who took his talents to the business world. As a businessman myself, I was very interested in hearing his perspective close to 60 years since the integration of the Little Rock public schools.
When he spoke, Mr. Green argued that Little Rock still wasn’t where it needed to be and that its core problems were diverse leadership, economic development, and educational achievement. He went on to say that until there were diverse leaders in the marketplace hiring diverse individuals, Little Rock would still be faced with “have’s” and “have not’s.” He noted that a lot of talented individuals leave Little Rock because they don’t have access to the right opportunities.
What I’ve seen in my own career caused Mr. Green’s words about the need for Little Rock to tap into its potential for diversity in the marketplace to ring true. The same could be said for Arkansas as a whole.
A Forbes study that surveyed executives from more than 300 global companies with a minimum annual revenue of $500 million found that 85% agreed or strongly agreed that workplace diversity was critical to driving innovation.
I’ve been fortunate to work with diverse teams made up of women and men from many different backgrounds and have seen firsthand the difference that kind of diversity can make in terms of providing a real competitive advantage. For instance, during my tenure at the Target Corporation, my team of fellow distribution center managers and I were able to be more effective because we had a diverse group offering unique perspectives and collaborating to come up with innovative solutions.
This kind of diversity is not to be confused with a focus on numbers and quotas. Instead, the kind of diversity I’ve seen add great value is centered on interaction. A company can have the numbers in terms of women and minorities, but without day-to-day interaction where diverse teams are working closely together towards reaching the company’s core goals, that company won’t achieve the full benefit of diversity in the marketplace.
So how can business leaders better harness the potential value of diversity?
One way is by creating opportunities for employees to collaborate with team members different from themselves. The more folks with different backgrounds and perspectives spend time working with one another, the more comfortable they will become with each other. And from there, they’ll be more likely to discuss ideas and uncover approaches they might not otherwise have.
Another important way is for leaders to keep an open mind about hiring individuals with industry or functional experience outside the traditional mold for their company. Someone who has the core skills to do the job can be taught the nuances of a new function or industry. And that same person can bring a fresh perspective to the work because she or he isn’t stuck in a certain way of doing things.
As we work to increase Arkansas’s competitive edge in order to grow our economy and create jobs, we shouldn’t overlook the value that diversity brings. And as we become more comfortable working with people different from ourselves, that’s bound to have other positive effects across our cities and the state as a whole.