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Doug Harris is CEO of The Kaleidoscope Group.


Christopher P. Skroupa: Why is gender diversity important in the workplace?

Doug Harris: The overall goal of organizations today is to maximize the talent that they have, and many times, a variety of talent allows management to approach things in different ways. The first stage of gender equality is giving opportunity to those who provide a different form of talent than that traditionally recognized in the past. It’s not about changing who you are—you might adapt who you are—but about appreciating that talent and getting the best out of it. The next stage is offering equal access, opportunity, pay, chances and exposure as you would with anyone else in line with what they’re able to achieve. Lastly, and most importantly, you need to really learn from the talent that you get through those new approaches.

When I first got into diversity and inclusion, I came from sales and sales management and I was a really hard-charging guy. The first meeting I went to, they said, “Let’s check in and see how people are doing.” I said, “What kind of meeting is this? You check in and see how people are doing? We don’t do that in sales.”

I learned that checking in is a good way to feel the temperature of your people, and now, I would never start a meeting without it. That’s how I learned the last level of importance for gender diversity: We can learn and grow ourselves as men in the workplace and bring different approaches and ways to get things done. There’s a lot we can teach each other, but we have to give access to one another if that’s really going to take place.

Skroupa: I agree, and I think if you approach it from what can be learned and what can be shared, it makes both women and men stronger—it gives everybody a reason to work together. I wrote a piece for Forbes a little while ago about the importance of men in advancing women. Do you believe that gender equality is a concern for men? Why and why not?

Harris: I think in most of the work around equity and equality, there’s a continuum on which people fall. We typically relegate that continuum to “Do you get it?” or “Do you not get it?” but there are really a series of stages in between.

The first is “I don’t care.” That stage is not strongly populated right now, but it does exist. The second stage is, “I care and I don’t know what to do,” and the third is, “I care, and I go out there and I try to do things, but I overprotect and mishandle the opportunity based on misunderstanding and a lack of cultural competence.” The final stage is, “I’m courageous enough to engage in dialogue with people around the unique nuances that women face, without stereotyping anyone.” These are some current trends in workplace equality, but management should individualize them as they work with colleagues on what’s expected.

I think the last stage is the one where we’re really growing and learning from one another. Men fall on all stages of the spectrum, and those who might say, “I want it but don’t know how to do it” will call themselves committed, but it’s not a competent commitment, so it feels like there isn’t one.

The next step is connecting those who get it and those who don’t. We, men, have to do the work with those other men. We have to sit down and help move this forward.

Skroupa: How do you get past this stall point where everyone agrees it’s the right thing to do? Everyone understands that we’re in a war for talent and that we need to do things to be more inclusive. We have consensus that men and women need to mentor and we need to get men down the path, but then it just doesn’t happen. What role do men play in helping to get the cultures of their companies past that stall point?

Harris: The term I’m going to use is “coaching,” which is frequently used by people who actually mean “mentoring”, but the two are very distinct. Mentoring is an environment in which you teach someone something, but with coaching, it’s really about understanding an individual well and teaching them the unique things that they need to know to advance. The things they need to know should not be lined up to match your traditional norms, but designed to bring out their best qualities.

The key role that men can play is first, appreciating the unique approaches women use to achieve success and being willing to coach them at times to enhance their effectiveness, to give them things that might uniquely enhance their capabilities those women bring to the table. That is a real contact type of relationship—it can’t be superficial.

I started my career at Procter and Gamble, and we had a promotion path where you went from sales rep to district sales rep, which involved working with another person. The head of management was holding a meeting in which one rep would do half of the meeting and the other person—in this case, my female colleague—would do the other half. My half was very dominant. I made sure I directed the group and controlled the conversation. Afterwards, your boss gives you feedback on those meetings, and my boss wrote, “Doug, you were great. You really took control. They knew it was your meeting.” And then, when asked how the woman did, he said, “Well, you were a little soft, you let it go on too long and you didn’t really take control.” Then, they asked the people we presented to how the meeting went, and they said the meeting that she ran was the best meeting they had ever participated in.

The reality was that because the norms were set up in the way the company had always done or perceived it, they did not bridge that gap. They didn’t appreciate another approach. It was all about outcomes, and that’s one of the things we want to address.

Skroupa: That’s really interesting. I think we should talk a little bit about how gender brings innovation into organizations, and how that reflects back to the overall company performance.

Harris: Innovation, continuous progress, improvement, and making sure the decisions being made have a holistic viewpoint of things are the most effective, benefits encouraging gender diversity. You could have eight people look at something, and the way they see it will be unique based on who they are, the way they see the world, their generation, and their gender. We’re talking about gender today, but we’re really talking about the power of having diverse viewpoints on anything which brings great possibility to the table. If you have a mindset that is appreciative of those great possibilities, the outcome is unbelievable. We have a model we use called “One Plus One Equals Three,” where we bring two people together and they have a healthy, respectful debate, and what they come up with is better than what either one of them started with. That’s the foundation of what women bring to the table if they’re empowered to bring it.

Skroupa: Even as a manager in my present context, I think it’s really important to recognize the contextual nature of bias in some of these situations. If you are a manager in an organization and you’re trying to make the environment more inclusive, you have to get everyone’s mind open to the idea that there are various ways of getting to results, and you should allow people a way to get there that works for them and that can then get added to the balance. How do you get people who are used to doing things a certain way to open up and step away from precepts that clearly don’t allow for diversity to flourish in their organizations? How do you get them outside of that box?

Harris: In our work, we become consciously inclusive of cultural competence: How do you think, lead and demonstrate inclusive behaviors in our situation? Most practices today consist of focusing on demonstration, not addressing the thoughts and beliefs that make demonstration easier. We’re not in the world of changing values, but we have to challenge them because it’s hard to make new decisions with old thinking.

For me to be right, someone else doesn’t have to be wrong, and our society today has no way of handling that. You look at the current political scenario and it’s absolutely crazy, because they don’t know anything about that concept.

Many people today, while very willing to try new approaches, aren’t willing to stop old approaches. You have to be able to say, “Hey look, this approach is the best one I have, but I’m open to achieve a bigger and better outcome if there’s a different way.” It’s not just about appreciating different approaches, but maybe replacing it if it’s more effective than the one that you utilize.

We need to really begin to think about redefining power. Power used to be about how much of it you can get, and power today is how much you empower other people. The new definition of power brings a whole new mindset to organizations. They now have to create that diverse organization, give it power, maximize the power, and then utilize all of the new possibilities and approaches to achieve bigger and better outcomes.

I get excited every day that I wake up trying to help organizations do this, not by attacking people, but by saying, “Hey look, you’re thinking about yesterday and you won’t find your way into tomorrow unless you’re trying new ways of getting there.”

Christopher P. Skroupa is the founder and CEO of Skytop Strategies, a global organizer of conferences.