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  • Matthew Mugan

Diversity: It’s An Individual Thing

The debate on diversity is everywhere in society, from business to politics, to sport.

“I would not want to be picked because of my skin colour because that surely would not be good for the team, and the guys around you would know.”

So said Siya Kolisi when he gave his views on proposals for race quotas in South African rugby in January 2019. These comments were met with anger from many, but the forward went on to explain that the issue begins at the grassroots and should not be about putting numbers on “stuff like that”. Fast forward to November, and Kolisi raised the Webb Ellis Cup above his head as a World Cup winning captain.

The story of Siya Kolisi has been told so many times since that fateful day in Yokohama, and not once has it focussed on quotas. It is the remarkable story of an individual with the talent to stand atop the world. It is the story of the individual, who contributed to the team.

Is there anything in this story that can be applied to how diversity should be handled in business? Absolutely.

What Is Wrong with the Business Approach to Diversity?

Diversity continues to be about talking the talk. It’s a boring subject at every event you’ve ever been to. It’s the same discussions on strategies, programmes, and the need for change. The result is that many businesses are making token gestures when they promote diversity, recruiting small numbers of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of equality in the workforce. This is a quota system approach to a problem which doesn’t change the underlying problems that cause diversity issues. Papering over the cracks with tokenistic action at best denies the existence of the issue, and at worst, exacerbates it.

Consider gender. Even though we are seeing increased progress in leadership this is yet to trickle down to the senior or middle management levels. The McKinsey Global Institute 2019 ‘The Power of Parity’ report found that the number of women in middle management has decreased by 1% annually since 2015, despite Africa having the highest female representation on company boards in any region. What Kolisi was saying when he dashed the quota system wasn’t a comment on race at all. It was a comment on the importance of the individual. Diversity is about individuals. It about giving opportunity to each person on their own merit, and removing roadblocks that might unfairly impact on their progression, and this is businesses’ big mistake. As long as we view diversity as a broad brush issue, where a policy or programme will fix everything, we will continue talking the talk, and never walking the walk. To do that, you must get down from your seat overseeing your talent as one entity, and walk with individuals, measuring them on their skills, impact and potential.

What Should We Be Doing?

The first step in your diversity walk is to change leadership mindsets, not about the importance of diversity, the business case has been made a thousand times, but about the process. Shift your diversity thinking to each person and begin internally.

Understanding your current talent is where your diversity grassroots begin. You have diversity within your organisation already. Find it. Engagement surveys of your workforce give you a wonderful picture of your people, right down to an individual level. Learn more about each person working for you, and make sure they know you care. This begins with line managers. Increasing contact time for each individual has been proven to increase staff wellbeing, performance and retention. These are opportunities to understand the current diverse nature of your people and find high potential talent who can champion your employer brand. And so begins a cultural shift, away from quotas, and towards individuals who make your business better.

When we consider recruitment, employer brand champions are your best asset. The Careers in Africa Employer Of Choice study found that a diverse workforce is important to Millennial, Gen Z and female talent. These people will certainly be the future of your workforce, with an estimate of 75% of the labour market across Africa being Millennial by 2025, and more highly qualified women than men already being the case as 64% of Africans with a post-graduate degree are women.

Now that you understand the stories of your individuals, tell them. Promote your individuals openly, without an agenda for diversity, and your future talent will see people they relate to. They will gravitate towards your organisation, and in turn, your diversity will organically grow.

There is no doubt that the candidate quality, skills and experience are there for women, those with disabilities and from every background, race and religion to play a greater role in business. In order to recruit them, remove the political roadblocks in their way. Include anonymous assessments as part of your process, ensuring the brightest are successful. Confidential CV’s help remove unconscious biases, and diverse hiring managers working in a business that has made the cultural shift to the individual will naturally increase their workforce diversity.

Are you ready to stop talking the talk on diversity and walk the walk? It begins with you changing your view to focus on everyone within your organisation. Create a team filled with people who know they are there because of their strengths, their skills and their potential. The only number that really matters in diversity is one, welcomed and supported by every other one.

By focussing on the talent that each individual in Africa has, and by removing the political blockades and opportunities for bias, we will see more African brands, and African people, standing atop the world in business, as well as in sport.


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