By Galia Barhava-Monteith Director Professionelle, an online community dedicated to Professional working women in New Zealand
Philippa Reed, the CEO of the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust (EEO), kindly invited my Business partner Sarah Wilshaw Sparkes and me to attend their inaugural Diversity Day at the end of August. And what a day that was. Wonderful, thought-provoking speakers challenged us to really think through the importance of accepting and celebrating diversity in modern workplaces. Even the hard nosed, non-pc participants couldn’t argue with the business case of taking diversity seriously by the end of the day – but more on that later.
As I was sitting there, listening to these amazing speakers and enjoying the opportunity to take part in this event, I was also thinking our members @ Professionelle and how I could share my experiences of the day with them. And then the right angle struck me! It was: networking as a vehicle to bring greater diversity into our individual lives.
My close colleagues and friends are probably bored to tears by my going on (and on and on) about the importance of networking. I am new to networking, you see. In my first few roles I was never encouraged to take part in networking events; in fact I think it was almost frowned upon. When I had my big corporate role, I was also a mum and then it was a matter of not wanting to take time away from my family to take part in these events.
I have given some thought to why professionals like lawyers, consultants and accountants are somewhat reluctant to network. I believe it is to do with the charging-by-the-hour model we are socialised into. Basically, it ain’t work unless it’s chargeable!
Now, that Sarah and I are building a new business, which is all about networking (albeit online), we have been doing a considerable amount of it. And, it works, it really does. The more we put ourselves out there, the more we build relationships and new and exciting opportunities turn up. What we’re also seeing is that those people who take the time to network, are the ones who find out or are approached about opportunities, simply because they become a known quantity and build their personal brand in the process.
I have to admit I hadn’t given diversity as such a great deal of thought before this EEO Trust event. But as I listened to the speakers the business case for diversity became abundantly clear to me. What really struck me was how bringing diversity into our own individual lives is extremely relevant and can increase our resilience and our prospects as individuals.
Diversity and Innovation
The first speaker of the day was Frans Johansson, the author of the Medici Effect. In a nutshell, Frans’s book and his speaking illustrate powerfully how diversity breeds innovation. His messages were clear and engagingly simple:
1. All new ideas are really combinations of existing ones – but to become a new idea the combination has to be unique.
2. The single strongest correlation to innovation success is the number of new ideas generated and pursued.
3. Cultural diversity is the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to driving innovation.
Frans’s examples illustrated his case beautifully. The one that stuck with me is that of L’Oreal’s acquisition of SoftSheen, a small haircare manufacturer in the US which focused on the African American market. L’Oreal is a French company that according to Johansson makes a point of employing a wide range of ethnicities and is deliberate about encouraging cultural diversity. As a case in point, at the time of the Softsheen acquisition, L’Oreal was run by a British man!!
Armed with a new research lab to investigate the properties of African-American hair and the insight that a billion people outside the US had this hairtype, L’Oreal quickly became the leader in this ethnic haircare category.
To get ideas flowing people actually need to talk to each other. According to Alan Bertenshaw from Matisse, the futuristic workplace environment is all about encouraging people to talk to each other and collaborate as part of their working lives. Gone will be the days you’ll have to book a meeting room three days in advance so that you can have a conversation with your boss.
His thesis was that the modern workplace is designed to “encourage accidental bumping and fortuitus encounters.” It is these encounters that will increase productivity, cross functional communication and yes you guessed it, diversity of thoughts ideas and experiences.
By this stage, I was convinced, and I realised that for me as an individual, it was through networking that I have brought diversity into my life. In less than a year I have quadrupled my personal network. I did this through being open to people’s ideas and suggestions, seeking new people out and welcoming new approaches. In the process, I have discovered how energising and supportive some people are which has made me re-evaluate who I spend my time with and why.
Yes, there are times when I feel I should be doing chargeable work rather than meeting people or corresponding via e-mail. But when I look back, it is through that persistence on valuing networking that we’ve had the biggest and most personally gratifying breaks.
Finally, the case for networking as a vehicle for bringing diversify to our personal life was sealed for me during the presentation on resilience given by Dr Sven Hansen from PricewaterhouseCoopers
Diversity and Resilience
I am not going to attempt to re-cap Sven’s presentation on engaging resilience to build vitality. But what really stuck with me was that resilience is 100% learnt. Resilient people bounce back from set-backs; have a bias for action and wide and diverse networks. His acid test was how many people are there on our cell phones who we could call tonight if we needed support. What he also emphasised, was to be honest about how many of them are not our immediate colleagues.
There was, of course, much more to the day. But as I listened to it all, I became more and more excited about the concept that we as individuals don’t need to wait for our workplace to do encourage diversity for us. We can do it ourselves in a very deliberate way.
Now, I don’t think that all networking opportunities are created equal. However, as Sarah has been heard to comment, you can’t predict which approach will lead to the big payoff – but they all have the potential to bring something, sometime. We’d add here that we see giving as an important part of networking; we always try to look for what we can bring to the other person. What goes around will eventually come around.
What we can and should always do, is be open to the prospect of meeting and engaging with new people who we might not normally seek out. In the end, it is through these encounters that we might come up with the next big idea/career move, find ways to implement it and meet our new best friend in the process!