The retail healthcare team
It’s all over the news, media, and socials.
Inclusion. Diversity. Racial Harmony. These are now universal buzzwords.
But we still live in a very tense environment where demonstrations on race, sexuality, gender are on the rise. Many ethnic minorities complain that they are being used as ‘trophies’ to tick the diversity box such as being persuaded to be included in the company photoshoot to give the pictures a gloss over ‘show’ on diversity.
But such niceties don’t usually wash.
Minorities see through this, and though they may play along, the real power of diversity is lost when we go through these surface-level tick-box exercises.
When sought out correctly, diversity really does have the power to positively change and enhance every aspect of company performance - financials, employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and ultimately, company harmony.
But it all starts within. Deep deep down in the crevices of our hearts.
We like to think that we are rational beings. That we look at the facts, competencies, weigh options and come to a rational decision. But we don’t.
Our decisions are often coloured and influenced through lenses of our biases, and what we really believe deep down.
And in unguarded moments, what we really believe spills out. Political correctness makes a speedy exit when the chips are down.
This is not an article about racism. Or sexism. Or sexual preferences.
It is an article on how every one of us can harness the power of diversity to work for the greater good.
In 2000, when I moved from Ghana to Plymouth, England to begin my pharmacy career (before I branched into consultancy and writing), I had no idea what to expect. Plymouth, a lovely quaint city down in the Southwest of England was 92.9% white, of which 90% were British white1
Plymouth Culture Plan Data Report 2021
Initially my days were unpredictable: like when I was stopped by the city’s newspaper, the Plymouth Herald just to be interviewed randomly on my way from work, or when some patients in Cornwall (another county deep down in England’s Southwest) refused to allow me to dispense their medication, or when my family used to be followed by the security guard every time we went shopping. Back then, inert racism was an everyday occurrence. My cousin was even called the “devil” in the bus by a child who had never seen a black man in a suit!
But two decades on, the change has been nothing short of revolutionary. My best friends are all white. My goddaughter is white, and Paul and Kate (my close friends) are godparents to my teenage son.
I had now worked up to a position of privilege, and racism, though always lurking in the background, was no longer a primary issue for me personally.
Last year, I was invited, as a consultant, to work in a pharmacy that had almost been closed due to a string of bad performances, regulatory lapses, and staff discontentment.
I walked into that company that day to a staff meeting of a different kind of diversity.
There was an openly gay customer service assistant, an openly bisexual woman, a single mother, and a straight-talking member of staff who was on the spectrum.
Now, I was walking in as the leader.
And that’s when I knew I had a decision to make.
I am not a bigot, not by a long shot. But I had never worked with such a diverse team- and the nature of the job, pharmacy retail, meant that for the financials and all associated metrics to be turned round, this would have to be a closely knit group. And it was around the time of the George Floyd incident.
So, I called the first meeting. Not to talk about customer service, or financials, or the traditional pep talk. But to address the elephant in the room.
I asked for help.
‘’ I am black, from African origin. I have never worked closely with a gay or bisexual team member. And I know you’ve never worked long term with a black professional. I am here to learn. I need you to tell me what if feels like to be a gay woman or bisexual woman working in healthcare; and if you want to learn, I can tell you about what if feels to be a black professional in a city which is 92.0% white. Tell me about the terminologies, the challenges, the issues’
You could feel the palpable relief in the room.
So, we spent the next days or weeks sharing our experiences. I got to meet their partners, I learned about how Stephanie1 struggled to invite her gay partner to work, or how they couldn’t hold hands in public. I learnt about Veronica - young, vivacious, kind, and creative but who struggled with her bisexuality and suffered abuse from her partner. Or Jessica, who had been bullied throughout her 25 years working in healthcare because her previous managers failed to realise she was on the spectrum.
And they also learned what it was like to be black professional leader in a white-dominated city, with a strange accent.
Something changed that day.
Later, Stephanie told me how she and Veronica had dreaded my arrival because they heard I was a Christian, an African, and black.
And I was convinced of one principle.
Diversity empowerment is crucial for the success of any organisation.
Later, we took things even further and hired additional staff.
A practising Muslim and Kurdish immigrant, who spoke little to no English, and an Eastern European woman who had brilliant customer service skills but had English as a second language.
The results were stunning.
Sales doubled in just under a year. The pharmacy gave over 20,000 COVID vaccinations, 30,000 PCR and antigen tests, and prescription figures rose by 75% in that same period.
And over 10,000 of these vaccinations were delivered by Benaee Amin, the Kurdish girl who 6 months earlier, spoke very little English.
How did we achieve this? In this article, I want to distil 8 principles for leaders, entrepreneurs and business owners that are crucial to turn diversity for good in any organisational setting:
1. Search your own heart and brutally confront your own prejudices to diversity
As the CEO or leader, the buck stops with you. And your staff and employees aren’t stupid. They will see through the tick boxes, surface trophies and empty vases you present, and consequently, they will not bring their authentic selves to work, inevitably adversely affecting performance. You need to do some serious soul searching and confront openly the brutal truths hidden deep in your subconscious on racism, sexism, faith and religion, and any form of bigotry. When I confronted my unconscious biases, I was shocked at my own narrow thinking I was after asking my daughter to give me feedback on my attitudes to diversity. I had to make quick changes to my deeply rooted attitudes when she pointed them out to me.
2. Be open to learn and avoid stereotyping
This flows from the previous point. In a recent Harvard Business Review article: ‘How leaders can better support Muslim women at work’1, the writer highlights how differences within the Muslim women need to be acknowledged: ‘Instead of assuming all Muslim women are the same, ask how your colleague prefers to be greeted or wait to see whether she extends her hand or offers a hug’. And as I said earlier regarding my experience, you already have the best FREE teachers if you are willing to learn. Your employees.
3. Make reasonable adjustments to foster authenticity> Devout Muslims usually pray five times a day, some of which may fall during working hours. Single mothers with young children may need time to pick up their kids from school if they have no carers, especially if they have no family. One of my employees, is an Eastern European single mother with a young son who she needs to check on regularly during working hours. We offered to give our gay employees a few hours paid leave during a local pride parade. One of our employees struggles with customer facing roles due to a hearing impediment and being on the spectrum. So, we limit her customer-facing roles and allow her to do most of the back-end operational stuff, where she absolutely flourishes. Make reasonable changes to allow better integration.
4. Ruthlessly police and eliminate any form of bigotry, bias, racism, and sexism right from the beginning.
In his New York bestselling book, The Earned Life, author, and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith talks about the concept of referent groups. It is the principle that each of us feels emotionally and intellectually connected to a specific group of the population. Knowledge of a person’s referent group, to whom they want to impress, whose respect they crave- is crucial to understanding why they talk, think, and behave the way they do. The key is this: you don’t have to agree with their referent group, but if you appreciate the influence from such groups, then you are less likely to be astonished by their adherents’ choices or dismiss them as ‘idiots’. Benaee’s referent group is Islam and her dad. My referent group is my Christian faith. Jessica’s referent group is her mom and dad. Stephanie’s is her pride at being gay. Another’s referent group is her political party. It’s my job as leader to fiercely protect the employee and their choice of referents groups and make sure everyone else does. And that should be guarded ferociously, fairly, and wisely. Because your job, as a leader, is to drive company performance, and make sure every single employee can bring their authentic self to work. And a big part of that is to make sure every single employee’s ‘allegiance’ to their referent group is protected, heard- and respected, but not at the expense of another’s.
5. Embrace the culture, language, and milestones of each employee:
The culture in the office needs to foster an atmosphere of genuine, non-judgmental curiosity. Curiosity about their religion, culture, country. We are learning to speak Kurdish. And Romanian. Once a year, on Christmas eve, we have an office banquet where everyone brings their unique food. The company celebrates Eid with our Muslim employees, enjoys Diwali with our Indian colleagues. As well as the traditional Christmas end of year office party. We meet their families, celebrate their milestones with them in their own unique way. Engagements, Birthdays, Festivals.
This is what I call the power of the ‘AND’. English AND Muslim. Ghanaian AND English. Bisexual AND a COVID nurse. And because they are made to feel proud of their culture, they inadvertently invite their friends, families, and wider community as customers. For instance, up to 35% of our new customers have been ethnic minorities, and we have a larger than normal population of LGBTQ customers. And perhaps more importantly, the perception of the locals has been noticeably positively impacted by this diversity. Customers regularly travel hours, passing other similar retail outlets to use the services of this retail organisation.
6. Encourage 360-degree integration One thing that kills company culture very quickly is the allowing of what I call ‘sub-cultures’ to form within the company. Humans, like water, gravitate towards the path of least resistance. Integration is hard work. And if the culture of its not actively fostered it will quickly die. As leaders, we must not allow sub-cultures to form where people of similar backgrounds, ethnicities, etc are allowed to permanently ‘huddle’ together at the expense of everybody else. This is obviously controversial, but integration and diversity work both ways. 360 degrees. For instance, racist jokes whether from ethnic minorities or not, are forbidden.
7. Recognise your base:
Japan’s buildings in earthquake prone areas are some of the most resilient in the world, and a recent BBC article explores why1. It’s because of their capacity of the buildings to dance, as the ground moves beneath them. In other words, the foundation is strong, but the buildings are agile. For diversity to work, the foundation of the company must be universally strongly rooted in respect, transparency, openness, and love. Respect for the ideals of the company, but also for the society in which the organisation is based. So paradoxically, a strong uniform foundation is the only way to establish true diversity.
8. Unity does not imply Uniformity:
Unity signifies singularity of purpose within an organisation. Uniformity is not necessary to achieve unity. Forcing uniformity, in thought, actions and deeds is a sure one-way street to inauthenticity, and by extension to resentment, which will inadvertently affect performance. As Jeff Gennette, CEO of Macy’s who is openly gay said on a recent interview with TIME magazine, ‘Equity is a very important component of how you get to an inclusive environment. An executive team is like a stadium. Who’s on the playing field making the calls, driving strategy? You must have an inclusive environment where everybody feels like “I’m showing up with all my ideas and experiences’’. Until everyone feels valued, you’re not going to maximize the potential of your brand that’s serving the most diverse population this country has ever had
In my own experience, wherever I have coached, consulted, or worked, the results of harnessing diversity have also been reflected in every single customer survey.
Positive reviews have gone through the roof. And staff regularly give feedback on how fulfilled, valued, and happy they feel.
And this spills over invariably into the company wallet.
The proper use of diversity has the power to transform a company for good in every single metric.
But it needs to be harnessed right.
— Steven N. Adjei