Elephant

Building a House for Diversity in St. Louis

This article appeared in the St. Louis American on January 12, 2019.

A few years ago, I read the book, “Building a House for Diversity” by R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., a renowned Harvard professor and diversity scholar. Thomas begins the book with a fable about a giraffe who wants to befriend an elephant.

The giraffe invites the elephant into his house. After some quick carpentry to enlarge the basement door in order to be able to admit the elephant, the giraffe goes off to answer a phone call, asking the elephant, “Please make yourself at home.” But every time the elephant moves, there is a large scrunch or crashing sound. When the giraffe returns, he is amazed at the damage the elephant has done.

There were three takeaways from this story about the interaction between the giraffe (the insider) and the elephant (the outsider). First is the silliness of expecting an elephant to assume the same dimensions as a giraffe.

A second lesson is that organizations should expect a certain amount of tension and complexity when attempting to build a house of diversity. Diverse candidates in our organization are often asked to conform to daily regiments and traditions without consideration that it is their distinct differences that make them so valuable to the organization in the first place. 

The third take away is that organizations ought to measure successes in diversity and inclusiveness not by attempts or the grandness of the plans, but tangible results. Diversity comes to fruition through the willingness and active participation of supervisors, managers, employees at all levels and the willingness of the organization to change itself by being totally inclusive.

This is what we know: Organizations with more women and diverse representation statistically outperform their peers; inclusive teams out perform their peers by 80 percent; gender-diverse organizations are more likely to outperform their peers; and organizations that hire demographically diverse candidates have a greater chance to be around into the future.

The elephant and the giraffe represent the value of equitable collaboration, the combination of individuals who are different in some ways and similar in others. The elephant represents people who are not familiar to us, speak with an accent, have different sexual orientation, individuals who didn’t go to high school in St. Louis.

They are younger or older. Their education credentials and professional experiences are from faraway places. They graduated from college elsewhere. They hold personal and political views that differ from those of their work colleagues. But one thing they bring to the organization is undeniable: a high level of intellectual contribution and the capacity to make meaningful contributions that will ultimately be measured by dollars and cents and increased relevance of the organization.

Harvard Business Review article from summer of 2016 addressed "why diversity programs fail." The findings were that training helps and will continue to be a piece of the quest to ensure diversity. However, to truly break down the unconscious biases, we need to have relationships with people different than ourselves. 

Even more recent research from Price Waterhouse Coopers found that 87 percent of global companies identify diversity and inclusion as a top strategic priority. It also stated that facts and data don't necessarily change minds. The research suggests continual exposure to difference, novel experiences such as cross-cultural or reverse mentoring, and creating safe places to discuss traditionally challenging or polarizing topics are places to start. 

I believe that the biggest threat to any diversity effort is not external but internal. It is the threat that comes from organizations that choose to surround themselves with people who think alike. This results in isolation and insulation. Diversity gives us an opportunity to create an environment that allows all employees to contribute and perform at peak levels of effectiveness.

My challenge to the elephants and the giraffes of St. Louis is we must measure our successes, and sustained results will come only through the willingness and active engagement of supervisors, managers and employees at all levels and – most importantly – the leaders of the organization.

In the recent installment of “Star Wars,” one of my takeaways was the statement from the wife of Yoda’s dad – we need to do and to stop trying.

St. Louis: It’s time to stop trying and focus our collective efforts on doing.

Benjamin Ola Akande, an economist, is senior advisor to the chancellor of Washington University and director of its Africa Initiative.