There is no substitute for having a full tool chest of talents and using the right talent for every job. Such diversity applies to business as well. For too long, the term “diversity” has been disparaged—and, rightly so in those cases where it became a synonym for ‘quota’ and ‘set-aside.’ Yet, business has many challenges, and diversity provides the robust toolkit that’s needed to address them all.
Looked at this way, a diverse workforce isn’t something to be managed; it’s a competitive advantage to be exploited to its fullest potential.
Right for Business
In his book, The Future of Value, Eric Lowitt writes of the five great advances in post-World War II business. The first was a focus on quality. Then came the business process reengineering movement, which encouraged companies to assess work on an end-to-end basis and to eliminate non value-adding activities. More recently, we have worked through the huge opportunities and challenges associated with globalization and the Internet.
Lowitt’s fifth business imperative is recognizing the bottom-line value that can be wrung from social awareness. “Diversity [is] part of the overall goal of proactively managing environmental and social performance to drive economic performance,” writes contributor William Sarni in the book’s foreword. In other words, business ethics can be used as a competitive strategy. “If you are running a business,” he says, it’s “the right business thing to do instead of the right thing to do. There is almost no other alternative for businesses to thrive in today’s highly competitive global marketplace.”
That challenge looms especially large for transportation and logistics, disciplines which leverage the contributions of so many different worldwide communities and cultures. What works in Peoria might not be good for Penang. And, if your staff can’t relate to world cultures and lifestyles, you’re at a distinct disadvantage.
Language of Success
Recently, our firm was given an assignment to move goods between a components warehouse and a factory in Asia. Simple stuff, but there was a long, two-lane bridge along the delivery route. Several weeks before ‘go live’ day, the local government decided to fight traffic congestion by banning truck traffic on the bridge during peak hours, exactly the time when our customer was depending on us to make deliveries.
The ban was discussed only in local, Chinese-language newspapers. Had we been working through a third-party agent or had our staff not been fluent in Chinese, we would have been blindsided by the ruling. Instead, we had an early warning that the project was at risk. Our local staff knew the right way to respond, too, with the local authorities. They were able to make our case to the government and gain an exemption, all before our client even realized that the project was at risk.
In another case, a client unknowingly scheduled some critical shipments overseas during that country’s religious holidays. Our staff, some of whom practiced the same religion, was able to make arrangements to work around the prayer times, when customs agents would be available.
Sometimes, the problem can even be as simple as a language barrier, as when our company’s Filipino staff coordinated some Manila activities in fluent Tagalog. From the first “Kamusta?” over the phone, we had credibility with our partners.
There’s no doubt that creating and nurturing a diverse workforce is much harder than running a company of white men in grey flannel suits. People are naturally drawn to others who look, think and behave like they do. It takes effort to learn about, attract and promote excellence in all of its forms. It can be done without compromise, though. Our own company is a minority firm, from the boardroom to the loading dock—and from North America to Asia and Latin America.
Because of this, we face issues that companies of our size didn’t consider just a few years ago. We work globally, so all of our communications—from employee newsletters, to S.O.P. documents, legal contracts and even marketing materials—must be translated into multiple languages.
I’m not talking about Google Translate, either. Cultural sensitivities have to be taken into account, so each communication is a job for professionals. For instance, when we first translated our tagline, “Supply On Demand,” into Thai, the words chosen by a U.S. translator were technically accurate but completely bewildering to native Thai speakers. A revised slogan that our local, on-site team produced now translates to something like “good deliveries, on time.” Okay, so that doesn’t do anything for me. That’s exactly the point! I’m told it’s very slick in Thailand.
Globalization and diversity have meant a rethinking not just of sensitivities and language, but also such business basics as compensation plans. Years ago, we designed a profit sharing plan for our U.S. staff that we planned to extend as we expanded to new worldwide locations. We quickly found that the quarterly profit share we were giving to each U.S. employee, a fair recognition of their contributions to the company’s success, would in some cases double or triple an overseas employee’s wages. Is it good for a worker to be able to gain that much through a profit share? Is it right to have so much of your salary at risk?
We also found that in some countries employees expect a generous end-of-year bonus as a basic part of salary expectations. The profit sharing plan is great, they told us, but we still want a December bonus equal to several weeks’ salary. So, we were forced to rethink the program again and design it in such a way that it could be adopted fairly and universally. Eventually, we solved the problem, but it was much more difficult than we could ever have imagined.
Discover Partner Value
The same diversity commitment that produces such strength within a company also applies across an entire supplier base. If your prime vendor list looks like the Fortune 500 directory, you are missing out on the insights and agility that smaller companies or those that come from a unique perspective can offer.
In the supply chains where we work, customers increasingly recognize the strength that can be gained from a diverse vendor base. Multinational providers bring great stability, discipline and scalability to the supply chain. Smaller players can add speed, responsiveness and flexibility. And that local, Chinese-speaking supplier is the only one who can tell you the bridge will soon be closed to truck traffic during rush hour.
Though we are far from a Fortune 500, we now are beginning to require our buyers to consider small and diverse suppliers on every strategic purchase. Our senior management team has set overall goals for inclusion, and we’ve found some fantastic partners by challenging ourselves to discover excellence in all of its forms. We’re better for the effort, not just in our consciences but on the bottom line, too.
Make no mistake: Cultivating true diversity creates enormous challenges and complexity, both within a company and across a supplier base. Yet, that complexity provides a whole new world of opportunity and competitive advantage for those who are willing to take on the challenges.
That metaphorical toolkit you need to carry to any job is a lot larger and heavier than it used to be. We spend a lot more time learning about new tools—how to use each one and what unique value it offers. Still, in a globally competitive environment, this is the only approach that produces strong, enduring value. This is how business wins in the 21st Century.
Grant Opperman is president and chief strategy officer at D.W. Morgan Company (www.dwmorgan.com), a certified minority-owned transportation and logistics provider with offices located in the world’s major manufacturing and distribution hubs.