By Scott Westerman
“Good art is art that allows you to enter it from a variety of angles and to emerge with a variety of views.” – Mary Schmich
It was somewhere during the mid-1980s when our company became hip to diversity. In those days, diversity was all about removing barriers for women and “people of color”.
We brought in the smartest trainer around, a woman named Wrisë D. Booker from Reid Dugger, a firm that is still the best in class. She taught us that, “The foundation of personal and professional success lies in understanding yourself, understanding others, and realizing the impact of personal behavior on others.”
This was old school for an Ann Arbor boy like me. Growing up, my parents home was a constant crossroads for a rainbow of skin tones and a wide array of cultural and political thought so stunning in its breadth and depth, that I thought the United Nations was Jingoistic by comparison.
It wasn’t until I entered the work world that I began to understand that my experience was an anomaly.
For many of us, the daily battle is one of making sure that we evaluate our relationships based on, to quote Dr. King, “the content of their character”. We’ve made progress, but there is a new dimension of diversity that we need to understand if we hope to be successful in our chosen profession:
If you’re a boomer, Have you ever pulled your hair out over young employees who rarely get past the subject lines in the emails you send them? Do they drive you crazy when they respond more quickly to text messages than to your phone mails? Do they quit with no notice if the project you assign them doesn’t light their fire?
Welcome to the new generation gap.
I’ve written before about my recent visit with Jason Dorsey. He’s a cross between Zig Ziglar and Robin Williams, a virtual machine gun of data, insight and humor. And his specialty is Generation Y.
Truth is, according to Jason’s research in the great book “Y-Size Your Business”, Gen Y’s are motivated much differently than are their boomer bosses. They don’t join service clubs, not because they have no community feelings, but because Rotary meets at lunchtime instead of during happy hour. They hesitate to give money blindly to an annual appeal, but will give time, talent and treasure to a specific project that touches their hearts. The best motivator you can offer them at work is time off and the most important day of their year is their birthday.
And they are the vanguard of the next generation of entrepreneurs and philanthropists who will determine whether or not we make progress on everything from world peace to world hunger.
Generation Y is the culmination of our drive toward diversity. They celebrate, they revel in their uniqueness. And they hate being assigned to a demographic of any kind.
Naturally, I’m making some generalizations across a divergent population for the benefit of our weekly 750 words together. But the reality is that our ability to succeed in whatever we do will be directly tied to how well we can understand and work with the differences among the people we serve.
As a servant leader, you have the best chance of being effective if you can get inside each team member’s head to find out what makes them tick. Try to understand their holistic self, not necessarily that which you see at the office every day.
One of my favorite people in the world, and one of the smartest financial talents I ever worked with, is a gay, African American woman. During the course of her fascinating life she has been a poet and a break dancer, a would-be stand up comic and a musician, a process designer and a senior vice president for finance, planning and analysis. She plays Nintendo with the same focused devotion she gives to selecting wine with dinner.
And she was a key factor in our small operation becoming a top performer in one of the most benchmarked and competitive companies on earth. My life has been enriched across many dimensions by having her on our team and I cherish our friendship.
It was when I understood our differences, that I began to learn how much we really had in common.
My favorite Gen Y guy is Henry Balanon. He is an authentic and rabid Spartan who is building one of the world’s most innovative application development houses, specializing in the iPhone and the iPad. Henry’s routine doesn’t sync up with the regular meetings of our traditional alumni clubs, so we turned him loose to re-invent the whole alumni engagement definition. He’s attracted a diverse group of Gen X and Y folks, each of whom has their particular core passion.
I was warned by one of the old guard to, “spend some time with the kids… they need structure.”
They need anything but.
When I arrived at the bar they had selected for that month’s ad hoc get together, the group was already deep into fragmented conversations about everything from building a newsletter that would aggregate all our club events in Metro Detroit, to kick-starting MSU’s involvement in Urban Gardening in the inner city. They were talking dates, times, to-do lists and ownership. They totally fit Malcolm Forbes definition of diversity: “The art of thinking independently together.”
I loved it!
Each of us has co-workers, relatives, customers, bosses and friends who probably don’t fit into our mold. That’s great! Let your fascination become learning what it is that fires their passion. Seek to understand how you can provide more of that fuel.
If you’re a leader, go out of your way to populate your team with as much generational and cultural diversity as you can. A symphony is most beautiful when it’s made up of many different instruments.
Maya Angelou writes that, “We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”
There is a deeper message woven into this tapestry. If your brain trust really does reflect your marketplace, you are much more likely to construct and execute a winning game plan.
So go do it!