Leading Diversity

by  Jim Holland  |  Leadership Development

This week I was reminded of the diversity in leadership while attending the International Computer Electronics Show (CES). With well over a hundred thousand people attending, I often found myself watching, listening and interacting with a very diverse group from all over the world.

Imagine being placed into a scenario where language, familiarity with local culture, traditions, beliefs, gender, background, personalities, business climate, business practices and opinions are all in the mix. From a leadership perspective, it could be a challenge, but an evolutionary experience in creating a dynamic and flourishing team.

Leading diversity is now an everyday occurrence. Each day, we interact and possibly lead people from different countries and locations, partners from other organizations, those who have relocated to an area from other regions or we work for or with a globally diverse organization.

Personally, I have worked with geographically diverse teams for two decades and have found the interactions and adaptability of most people to be very positive. My leadership style has evolved and adapted with each experience and I have created some great relationships and learned a lot about culture, styles and personal goals and expectations.

Over the years, I’ve found there are several basic principles that leaders should consider when working with diverse teams.

Listening – How often have you heard someone say, “You’re not listening to me”? In diverse groups, language may be seen as a barrier, but it’s really listening that’s often the issue. When my children were growing up, my favorite saying was, Listening is an art, and hearing is a gift. If we are to be successful leaders, we have to practice the art of listening with intent to understand.

Leaders must take time to ask more questions, consider insights and responses and work to overcome any barriers such as distance in communications.

Communications – Everyone has a style and preference when it comes to communications. I’m not talking about your favorite tool or device of choice. In diverse organizations, not everyone will have the same communication approach and leaders should consider how they can utilize the expertise of each person matching the comfort of their communications with their role and value to the organization. Some cultures find strength in one-on-one discussions, others in small groups and many learn in their youth that whoever is leading deserves respect and honor.

It’s the leader’s challenge to learn the patterns of communications with each person, and understand the cultural heritages that may influence participation, interaction and ongoing communication.

Trust – Developing and cultivating trust in diverse teams is a keystone to successful teams. There are two elements in building and growing trust. The first is overcoming fear. In any organization, people will reserve comments and interactions until they have confidence and a level of comfort in their leader. I’ve found that most people are looking for common association, acceptance and support. Until they are comfortable with the organization, team, expectations, role and their interaction, there’s some level of intrepidation. the second element is-  do they trust you? Heather Coleman-Voss recently shared in her post Just Trust Me, “Employees want to be trusted and respected for their work. Team members believe that their passion for their job, their work ethic, efforts and experience in their specific area should be recognized and rewarded.”

In culturally diverse organizations, leaders should consider how you can build trust with each person, taking time to:

  • Set expectations and communicate to everyone.
  • Do what you say you’re going to do and be consistent.
  • Live in the present, while having a vision or charter for the team.
  • Looking at you first before considering the challenges of others.

Acceptance – For any leader, accepting people for their contribution, character and capabilities should be first on the list. When leaders keep this at the forefront of their goals, it shouldn’t make a difference about a person’s heritage, background or culture. I look at it this way: if a person gives me their best and desires to work with my limitations, they deserve my acceptance. They also require my willingness to support them and promote their contribution on a continuous basis.

Some things to think about:

As a contributor, am I open when it comes to being the part of a culturally diverse team? What do I bring to the table that will make it successful?

As a leader, how do I leverage the cultural diversity in my team and do I seek for persons that bring this to the organization?

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

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Articles By jim-holland
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What People Are Saying

Mike Henry  |  11 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Jim, thanks for this thoughtful post. I think the trust, both ways is the key factor as you mention above. We must listen, communicate, seek common ground, and have integrity and transparency in our dealings and we must be accepting of others and their differences. Then we start to see that freedom-of-movement that comes when you have a trusting team. I like to say that trust lubricates relationships. It removes the friction of interacting with one another and that friction is greater the more different each of the moving parts are and the greater their velocity.

Thanks again for a great post!

Mark Oakes  |  11 Jan 2011  |  Reply


Great post

Leading diversity goes far beyond the presumed surface implications. Namely, diversity is the only reliable cornerstone of innovation. Without a wide cross-section of participants (sex, age, cultural background, ethnic background, etc), innovation is hard to achieve.

The very essence of this group [Lead Change] presupposes that leaders navigate and capitalize on change to create a better tomorrow. Change, however, without innovation isn’t possible. This is why diversity is key to the mission.

William Powell  |  11 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Such an insightful post Jim!

I think one of the biggest challenges in a diversified working environment is finding the common ground between organizational culture and the numerous influences of individual societal cultures. Communication and quality listening skills make such a difference.

Getting to know people as people, not cogs in the great machine, is rarely more important than when you are faced with different cultural influences.


Eileen Kugler  |  11 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Lots of great insights. I would suggest taking “acceptance” to the next level of “valuing.” While listening<q and accepting<q are important, valuing<q and learning from<q are essential.
Eileen Kugler
Twitter: @embracediversiT

Georgia Feiste  |  12 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Thank you! I am working with a local church to define their values as a congregation, and this is a topic that has come up recently. We spent over 3 hours discussing the relative merits of the following words and their meanings:

Tolerance, acceptance, inclusive, and embracing. The team all wanted to step into the power of the word embracing, but could not move beyond the word inclusive. They did not think their congregants would be comfortable going futher than that, nor did they think the leadership of the church would step into it.

What strikes me, is how can you create the human connection without all the traits and skills you speak of, and without embracing the humanity of each individual. I saw another post yesterday dealing with much the same issue, from a different direction.

Very thought provoking. Thank you.


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