Diversity Done Right is a Competitive Advantage

Looking at diversity management in the new global economy

L to R: Panelists Natsuyo Lipschutz, Kathryn Komsa, and John F. McNulty at Asia Society New York on Nov. 17, 2010.

NEW YORK, November 17, 2010 - Diversity in the workplace should be viewed by companies as a true asset rather than as merely another legal requirement, argued the speakers and panelists here at the Asia Society forum Reframing Diversity Management for a Global Economy.

Philip Berry, president of Philip Berry Associates, LLC, began his keynote address by pointing out that the very concept of diversity is "tremendously" misunderstood. "In my travels globally, the concept is usually equated to US affirmative action legal requirements," Berry said. "Goals, quotas, and mandates immediately come to the forefront." Yet merely focusing on race, ethnicity, and gender, Berry argued, misses the many more subtle forms of diversity.

"To a large extent it is like an iceberg," Berry explained. "When you view the top of the iceberg, you can visibly witness differences based on gender, race, or ethnicity. However, when I go beneath the tip of the iceberg, I witness much more. These elements below the waterline of the iceberg have to do with geographic region, age or generational difference, lifestyle, thinking patterns, function, job level, sexual preference, education level, disability status, class, and so much more. Organizations want to consider all of these elements as they seek to incorporate the various aspects of its mosaic."

Yet according to participants in the panel that followed Berry's address, fostering diversity is only the first step. Managing and retaining diversity is key to ensuring that diversity remains a real asset to companies.

"Just having diversity—a diverse group—doesn't mean you're going to get wonderful results from business," warned John F. McNulty, Executive Director of People Focus Consulting and CEO of PFC Asia Pacific. "Actually, diversity is pretty challenging. You have to manage it."

Kathryn Komsa, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Marsh and McLennan Company (MMC), agreed, adding that it is the responsibility of the leadership to ensure that diversity is truly integrated into the company. "The right answer is not to say, 'Oh, there's a chief diversity officer and a diversity office who will handle diversity, but I as a leader don't have anything to do with it.' And it's not even relegating it to your HR team. It really is, how do you embed [diversity] into the fabric of doing business?"

The first, and perhaps most important, step in successfully managing diversity is viewing it through the correct lens. "Do you really think of diversity as a competitive advantage," Komsa asked, "Or do you think about it as just checking a box?"

Reported by Ben Linden

Related links:
Cracking the "Bamboo Ceiling"
Diversity Executive article by Philip Berry and David Reid

Asia Society's Corporate Diversity Council

Asia Society's Diversity Leadership Forum