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.

10 STEPS for climbing to greater heights

Date: January 9, 2005
Publication: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Section: Business
Edition: Five Star Lift
Page: F07

Jim Collins, in the best-selling book "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don't," tells a story about Darwin Smith, a little-known leader of a well-known company, Kimberly-Clark. For a century, Kimberly-Clark languished in mediocrity with most of its business in traditional paper mills. Then, a mild-mannered gentleman took the reins and realized that the company's best shot at greatness was in paper-based consumer goods, a sector in which it had a side business called Kleenex. Like the general who burned the boats upon landing, leaving no retreat for his soldiers, Smith sold the traditional mills and threw proceeds into the consumer business. Today, it's No. 1 worldwide in paper-based consumer products. Of course, there was no guarantee that Kimberly-Clark would succeed in the consumer business, but the demonstration of action amid uncertainty is the lesson. There are no guarantees in anything we do. But the lack of a guarantee is the urge we need to go from where we are to where we want to be. As we begin 2005, these are 10 ways to reach the next level:

1. SET NEW GOALS Focus your efforts on quantum-leap innovations and ideas, which go beyond incremental improvements. What you've done in the past is good, but what are you going to do in the future? The goals you set should require that you stretch your professional acumen and contribution to your organization.

2. FIND THE URGENCY FOR ACTION This demands a recommitment to excellence that would enhance the organization's market position and profitability.

3. SEEK NEW CHALLENGES Dedicate yourself to seek challenges even if the odds of success are less than 20 percent. This year should be your opportunity to set and achieve goals that aren't within easy reach.

4. BELIEVE IN YOUR GOALS Instead of second-guessing yourself, embrace the notion that the right decision is the one you believe in. Recognize that success is up to you.

5. DON'T ALLOW MEMORIES T* BE GREATER THAN DREAMS You've failed in the past. So what? This year, focus on purpose and not on avoiding failure. A road without potholes is a road not worthy of the journey.

6. LEAD FROM WHERE YOU ARE Dedicate yourself to become a contributor to your organization by taking responsibility for its success. You might not have the title or position of a leader, but leadership can be exercised at any level if you're invested in the work.

7. STRIVE T* OVERCOME INTERNAL THREATS The greatest threat to your success isn't necessarily the competition. The biggest challenge can be internal. It's the willingness to tolerate a commitment level to remain at room temperature.

8. RECOMMIT YOURSELF T* BECOME RESULT-BASED You can't continue to do the same thing and hope for better results. The new year should be the point of departure when you set aside the practice of playing it safe and doing just enough to get by.

9. REDISCOVER YOUR PASSION Find a way to apply the same passion and sense of conviction to your job that you have for your favorite hobby.

10. BE JOLLY Keep a sense of humor. Laugh, smile and develop a wrinkle on your face as a result of habitual laughter. And for those of you who had your share of failures last year, I leave you with this advice: We learn more from our failures than from our successes. Failure is the call for action, resurgence and tenacity. Those of us old enough to reconcile the prejudice of experience with the enthusiasm of youth can take a risk-informed approach to breaking the shackles of failure-induced fear and strengthening the conditions for self-esteem. We get up, dust ourselves off and go back into the game.

Ten Most Interesting: Benjamin Akande

29-Jan-2009Published in: Ladue News Author: Trish Muyco-Tobin

For as long as he can remember, economist Benjamin Akande has been fascinated by success, specifically by what makes people successful. Given to perusing several books at a time, Akande is currently enjoying Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. "It's a very interesting book about why people succeed," he says. "One thing is very clear: In many instances, success doesn't come because we're born with the intellectual capacity to be successful, it comes as a result of hard work."

Akande himself is an American success story. Born in Nigeria, he spent much of his childhood at boarding school, away from his parents and four sisters. He says having a certain level of independence allowed him to discover himself. "It was a time to grow up: to make mistakes and learn from them. It was all about education and preparation."

Education was the reason Akande came to the United States 30 years ago. He attended Wayland Baptist University as an undergraduate, received a doctorate in economics from the University of Oklahoma, and completed post-doctoral studies at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Akande's interest in economics began in his teens. "I wanted to understand how the economy worked, as well as what caused interruptions, when things don't work as they should," he says. A penchant for reading soon followed. "I read everything I could get my hands on, newspapers, magazines, fiction. Back then, we'd get most of the papers two days later. But it didn't matter. I'd read them as if they were new," he recalls. "Being able to see and read different writing styles helped me formulate my own. It also expanded my imagination and took me to places I'd never go."

Since 2000, Akande has been dean of Webster University's School of Business & Technology, overseeing 13,000 business students and working with 1,500 staff throughout the university's worldwide system. "My responsibility is to provide leadership in curriculum and innovation, as well as ensure that we're constantly challenging the most important people at Webster, the students."

Aside from his duties as dean, Akande also maintains a strong public presence in print, on the airwaves and around town. He's been recognized as one of the city's most influential leaders, serving on the boards of The PrivateBank, Newberry Group, Xiolink and Beyond Housing, and consulting with a number of Fortune 500 companies. "I'm constantly engaging the private sector, seeking input and building relationships," he says. "The experience has served as my laboratory of sorts, as it has enabled me to implement ideas that could grow and transform organizations."

When he's not making presentations to business and financial organizations or delegating academic directives, Akande can be found listening to jazz, reading a book or two, or spending time with his wife, Bola, and their daughters, ages 16, 13 and 8. "We hang out, play pick-up soccer in the backyard or ping-pong, the kids are not as good as me but they're getting there." He also enjoys storytelling. "It's having a conversation with my kids, and a way for me to stay connected with my past."