Unlikely Bedfellows: Business Diversity Inspires Sustainability, Innovation, and Action

blog-business diversity-1.21.16When is breaking out of a paradigm a good thing?
Always. It allows business leaders to widen and deepen their access to resources. Small- and medium-sized enterprises especially can innovate more nimbly when they open up to diverse ideas and points of view.
When SME leaders embrace diversity beyond workforce demographics to include variety across industries, categories, and job functions, unexpected benefits arise. As they move to build positive and profitable sustainability outcomes, organizations often find new approaches from working with partners in different sectors and of different size. That type of diversity increases the overall mental and cultural dimensions of the workforce and can improve sustainability options.
What role does diversity play in adopting sustainability innovation and action?
When leaders make their values clear on diversity and its role in innovation, they can focus their team’s energies to change mindsets and achieve sustainability goals that enable their businesses to grow.
Neil Lenane, Business Leader of Talent Management and 23-year veteran at Progressive, is an avid advocate of diversity as a business success imperative. He states in Forbes that diversity is best framed as a cultural movement that supports talent in the quest to generate new ideas that strengthen a company’s market position. In a broader perspective, diversity can be leveraged to drive internal innovation, build higher performance, increase creativity, and ensure talent resilience.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg also says in Forbes that by embracing diversity in his management team, he is promoting innovative thinking and leadership that sparks organizational growth. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is mentioned as a secret weapon in complementing his management style.
While both of these examples refer to multicultural and gender diversity, the dynamics and benefits apply equally as well to situations where individuals from diverse industry backgrounds and functions apply themselves together to address common issues.
Here are Lenane’s four attributes of a great leader:
1. Great vision and can align and communicate that vision across the organization
2. Investment in people, particularly in their development
3. Builder and manager of relationships. S/he holds people accountable, empowers them to do great things, and is proactive in removing the barriers they face
4. Knows his/her business and can accurately assess risk and make the right decisions.
Why is a diverse group valuable to sustainability?
The support of a diverse cohort of businesspeople discussing sustainability regularly gives small business leaders connections and insights they might not otherwise be able to access. By building an ecosystem of support, s/he will be able to move the vision forward more swiftly, since their company’s smaller size gives them more fluidity. Additionally, other SME leaders bolster them, foster broader thinking, and prevent common pitfalls.
These SME leaders also receive support in their decision-making from fellow businesspeople striving for similar change and innovation in their organizations. For example, REV, a California-based sustainability training and education firm, is creating groups of diverse businesses and organizations within its Sustainability Circles programs that result in better outcomes. REV Sustainability Circles make a deliberate effort to bring together local organizations that are drivers in industry. They also vary in size and often in their level of sustainability sophistication. While initially participants may be unclear about what they could learn or have in common with other businesses, municipalities, or institutions outside of their sector or category, by the end of a Circle this aspect of the program is often cited as one of the most useful and rewarding.
Benefits of the approach include:
• Common practices unique to certain industries are shared outside of the typical cohort
• Diversity often forces people to defend/explain their common practices, causing them to re-evaluate and develop new ideas
• Diverse organizations sometimes find opportunities for collaboration with other participants for mutual benefit.
How to engage cohorts of organizations to generate idea-sharing and innovation
Based on the successes so far of sustainable leaders, the best practices commonly use a proven, four-step process:
1. Start with a common goal (in REV’s case, creating a sustainability action plan)
2. Focus on a specific area (e.g. water)
3. Ask participants to examine their own situation
4. Create group sharing and hypothesize outcomes.
Relevant REV Sustainability Circle Quotes
“Participating in the Circle actually energized me for the rest of my work. It’s really encouraging to step outside of your own routine and see what people are doing that is making a difference.” – Cathy Keating, VP of Field Communications, Shaklee
“The best part was learning what other companies have done or will do, all of the green ideas that came out of the Circle.” – Jim Clinger, Facilities Manager, The Ken Blanchard Companies
“A lot of large businesses are able to hire whole teams of sustainability consultants to make these improvements, but until this program, a lot of smaller organizations have been left to figure this stuff out on their own. REV makes it accessible. The Circle model also helps build community. Rather than working one-on-one with someone, you’re engaging with other local groups and are able to learn from one another and build a stronger network in the area.” – Adrienne Etherton, Executive Director, Sustainable San Mateo County
“Being a part of the Sustainability Circle is empowering; each session is packed with relevant topics and tools that get to the core of sustaining business. You come away with motivation to make a difference, strengthened by networking and idea-sharing among the Circle.” – Kent Hennings, DuPont Pioneer
Despite the obvious advantages, few businesses venture outside of their static industry box. According to management consulting firm Accenture, “several Accenture studies suggest that future growth opportunities will increasingly emerge outside a company’s traditional business.” Programs such as REV’s Sustainability Circles of localized business groups such as Chambers of Commerce are ideal opportunities for businesses to do so.

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