An Insider’s Perspective on Leadership in an Ultra-Diverse Office

Some of my colleagues at CCL EMEA

I love my work. The kind of work I do is fascinating: research on leadership and diversity. I could write about this all day. Yet the most fascinating thing of all is that I can experience this diversity every day in my own office of CCL EMEA in Brussels. Amongst the roughly 60 people in our office, I count 28 different nationalities, almost as many different languages, and pretty much all other forms of diversity that you can think of. When I think of the current debates about diversity, I realize that I am experiencing what most would consider the future of work in Europe, and eventually in other regions in the world. For me it’s a dream come true.

Well, most of the time. Without the right leadership, this dream can easily turn into a nightmare. Diversity doesn’t only bring harmony – often enough, diversity brings conflict. The most powerful approach for benefiting from diversity, rather than living in a diversity nightmare, is leadership. But how can you lead in such a diverse environment? I asked Dave Altman, who’s recently made the transition from leading in a US-based environment to heading up our diverse EMEA office.

Dave shared with me three observations about leading in this diverse environment:

  1. First, you need to really believe in the positive impact of diversity. If you don’t believe in this with all of your passion, over time you will get frustrated with all of the obstacles and the conflict that results from not taking advantage of diversity. No matter how hard you try, those obstacles with always reappear again,  so without a passionate belief about the values of diversity and the daily commitment to ignite that belief in others, you will not have the resilience to counteract these side-effects. More importantly, you won’t be able to harvest the benefits of a diverse workplace..
  2. Second, empathy. Empathy is more than perspective-taking. Empathy comes from a deep desire to understand the perspective of others, and emotionally connect with them. This doesn’t mean that you need to adopt other people’s values or belief systems. Rather, it means that you need to connect with them on more than a cognitive level. Sometimes, having empathy for someone whose values are totally opposite of yours is demanding and feels like the last thing you want to do – and those are exactly the situations when empathy is most needed and most beneficial.
  3. Finally, as a leader, you need to accept that diversity is not positive in and of itself.  Leaders needs to focus on  creating an environment that helps people engage with others in meaningful interactions – interactions in which diversity is valued and adds tangible  value to the processes and outcomes that are important in that context. Surely it is much easier, more comfortable and more reassuring to interact with people who are like you – but this leads to group think, poor decision making and inability to tap into  opportunities available to diverse groups working well together. As a leader you need to be a role model to engage with diversity every minute of the day and have the developmental mindset that others can do the same.

Dave was helped in his transition from the US to Europe by taking our new 360-degree feedback assessment, Global6. Global6 is not competency-based; thus it helps leaders realize there is no right or wrong way of leading in the global context. Dave obtained insights into the different expectations people around the world have of him as a leader, based on their own viewpoint. Due to these differences, he cannot be effective as a one-size-fits-all leader in a diverse environment, and instead focuses on being adaptable, flexible and agile.

What are your experiences with leadership in diverse environments – what has helped you and what did you learn? I would love to hear from you.

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About Gina Eckert

Regina (Gina) Eckert joined the Center for Creative Leadership in 2006 as a researcher in the EMEA region. Gina's academic background is in social and work psychology. Her work focuses on global and cross-cultural leadership, managerial development and careers of women and men across countries, and leadership for organizational responsibility and sustainability. Currently, Gina is managing research into Careers in 21st Century Europe and the creation of a new 360-degree instrument, the Global Leader View.
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