Turning diversity into an organisational strength
DURBAN - There is strength in our diversity.
South Africa’s history of brutal division – which systematically deprived non-white people of economic and social opportunities – denied our nation the opportunity to reach its full potential.
More than 25 years after the first democratic elections, we continue to struggle with the bitter legacies of colonialism and apartheid, yet we are in a better position than ever to build a winning society.
The reason I say this is that democracy, at last, gave us the opportunity to turn the diversity of our nation into a strength rather than a source of division. With a progressive constitution that recognises the rights and the value of every person – irrespective of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity or disability – we can harness the potential of every person in the nation.
Yes, there are some tensions and sources of division in our society, but we have come a long way. Setting aside the noisy echo chambers of social media or the well-publicised antics of racist estate agents, most people are starting to value each other’s perspective and differences. In addition to our shared heritage, there is a growing appreciation for different experiences and views.
It is especially heartening for me to see how comfortable young people from very different backgrounds are in the workplace. In our own offices, we see constant sharing of knowledge and experiences, and each of these interactions between open-minded individuals is another building block in a more just and tolerant society. And for each organisation, this level of diversity can be an asset and a competitive advantage.
Embedding diversity into the purpose, team and boardroom
Looking at our own business, we have embedded diversity into our core purpose and our ways of working. We founded this business on the belief that there are many marginalised people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have much to contribute. But this starts with levelling the playing field and acknowledging they did not start the race on the same footing as their more privileged counterparts.
To combat youth unemployment, it is necessary to use mechanisms such as learnerships and employment equity to include the excluded in the economic mainstream. As we have helped our clients to do this and as we have done it in our own business, the lesson is that the perspectives, skills and thinking of previously excluded people drives growth and creates opportunity.
Diversity needs to be led from – and exemplified – by the senior management team. They will show how diversity harnesses different skills and approaches to solve problems. This type of leadership brings out the best in employees. It empowers employees to share their ideas, to be confident in who they are, and to work with their colleagues to bring out the best in everyone.
To remain relevant in today’s fast changing world, organisations must be agile, innovative, resilient and tolerant of nuance and contradictory ideas. These factors are linked with diversity in leadership, thinking and demographics – and are closely linked to organisational performance. Embracing differences creates a place where all can thrive and perform to their full potential.
Athabile Jojo is the Chief Executive of Diversity Empowerment
BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE