Diversity drives innovation and business results

modified March 14, 2019 - in

Trying to come up with the title for an article is often the most difficult, as was the case with this one; so hopefully it grabbed your attention enough to read further and understand what I mean. The point I hope to make is how too often in the professional world people become too familiar with their industry and/or their job and develop tunnel vision. Their ability to comprehend what is possible is diminished the longer they stay within their guardrails, providing validity to the saying, "you only know what you know," as they become more seasoned and experienced. It is their lack of diversity preventing them from innovating beyond what they know.

I've been fortunate over the years and experienced diversity in both my professional and personal life. Growing up on the DC Metro Area and an area where there was a mix of ethnicity, race, and wealth; I lived, engaged, and learned the importance of looking beyond what was most familiar to me, often adjusting my views, my values, and my appreciation for what I didn't know or taught within my immediate culture.

Over the course of my professional career, I experience virtually the same; but, it wasn't a deliberate path. I grew up in a generation where my parents preached the necessity of going to college, picking a career, and slogging along an anticipated path pledging loyalty to my career...and often to my employer. But my generation was going through a change where employers were no longer as loyal, and employees were learning diversity as a means of survival. As for me, I had no real clue what I wanted to be when I grew up, so just picked an area of interest and ended up with a degree in Radio, Television and Film. I even landed a job right out of college with a major market radio station...but, after four months found myself hating my work and out of a job.

So what did I do? I thought about how I got to that moment and realized retail was potentially a better career path; as I had begun working in retail at 16, was good at it, and it paid well enough I could be self-sustaining. What I didn't realize at the time, was this profession was about to provide me more diversity in my professional career than perhaps any other.

Early in my chosen career, my friends (most of them with advanced degrees) would kid me saying, "You're still in retail? When are you going to get a real job?". To which I would just laugh and play along since I didn't yet understand where I was heading. But, over the course of the next 30 plus years, I experienced more and I learned more than so many other professions, about the diversity of both business and society. And it was during this journey I also learned how silo's exist within industries, even the most innovated; creating and inability for many to see beyond their own front yard.

Let me explain...

Early in my career, my focus was within the physical environment, the stores (there was no internet yet); and I would argue, I learned more about running a business than most people learn through advanced studies in school. Many people don't consider what it takes to run a retail store. It requires a combination of skills across many disciplines, including; business planning and forecasting, basic accounting, sales training and selling, human resource management, customer engagement and service, inventory control, operations and logistical management, security and loss control, and endurance (forgive me fellow retailers if I left out something).

My point? Diversity. I had to learn to work across multiple disciplines and understand the dependencies and relationships in order to be successful within a profession many people view as a pathway to something else.

But my diversity training was just getting started. Following a lateral move into merchandising and buying (which was in the stone age, so we didn't have computers doing much work for us), I began developing advanced skills in analysis, open-to-buy planning, pricing and markdown strategies, allocation and distribution strategies, sourcing and product development, and more. This part of my journey began my exposure beyond my front door and across the globe. I was both traveling domestically and internationally; learning more about people, cultures, and differences in general and business related behaviors. It didn't matter whether I was traveling to the other side of the world or just to the state next door, I was surprised to learn there were so many differences in how people lived, worked, and played; and how important it was to consider this when planning my business goals and objectives. It was less about what was right or wrong, and more about how and why; and the more I opened my mind to ideas of others, the more I grew and expanded my abilities and desire to learn. I began to understand the saying I noted in the beginning of this article and found the more I learned, the less I actually knew...I was learning and applying diversity.

Diversity was always there impacting my path. I learned from other cultures, countries, and regions; and began to challenge a common phrase from more experienced people, "you can't do that..." with the reply, "why not?". I would later expand this thought by telling people who worked for me, "please don't tell me you can't do something; instead, tell me what you can do and then we'll decide whether or not we want to do it." It was my past diversity training which brought me to this thinking, developing an understanding that we are only limited by the walls we either create or are locked within.

Now let me take this a step further and how I see this lack of professional diversity limiting our true innovation across many industries and markets.

Over the course of my career, I transitioned into many roles in both the B2C and B2B worlds, and have performed in almost every possible job/role in the life cycle of a product. I've also done this across industries, often negating the question and/or challenge from people within the industry regarding my industry specific experience. In fact, this is my primary point...that is, people who grow in a single industry or business channel, often don't realize they are missing the diversity they need to innovate and grow.

Here are a three examples to chew over and either agree or disagree with me (always like hearing from those that disagree, as that adds to my diversity):

  • Most recently in my career, a little over three years ago, I received a call from a recruiter of my current employer explaining they were looking for retail industry experts to help understand and expand the practical application of Artificial Intelligence in retail/wholesale businesses. What an exciting concept, one industry that services others, looking to bring in relevant expertise and input from people outside of their channel in order to innovate and grow. That is what I call, building diversity in the professional channel and creating opportunities to think more about what "can" be done over what "can't". I've been able to contribute significantly in this effort, but I find the industry I work in as a whole is stuck within their silo. What do I mean by that? Well, when I engage with people who have invested their entire career within the software solution provider channel, especially those holding senior roles; I find many, not all, but many are locked into a concept of only thinking within the bounds of what they know. And many conflate their exposure to different industries with being experts in those industries; which in turn, prevents them from thinking outside their lanes. This lack of diversity limits their ability to innovate and scale in context to the actual end users. So when some companies call on experts like me from a specific channel to help them, their own lack of diversity may limit their ability to effectively listen, adapt, and apply the resources they acquire. Consequently, we have lots of companies in my current channel who can provide exceptional technical expertise and assistance, but severely lacking in providing the practical or functional business experience. That's because they lack the diversity and/or empathy necessary to think outside their channel.
  • At one point in my career I migrated into the retail banking business when I was recruited by a senior executive at bank to come help shed light on how to expand retail banking. Made perfect sense to me when I considered the reality of how retail works - a physical location, a product, and engaging with the customer. There were and remain some unique complexities with banking, but nothing that can't be addressed; however, what I discovered and what turned out to be a significant hurdle, was the incredible lack of diversity in the industry as a whole. This created an inability to see anything outside of their four walls. Almost everyone I worked with had begun and expanded their career within the banking/financial industry; and subsequently, especially at the senior level, lacked the ability to consider any ideas beyond what they knew. There existed (and still exist) a sort of incestuous culture, creating and inability to comprehend concepts beyond their immediate surroundings and experiences driven by their lack of diversity.
  • Finally, when I made my first move from the retail channel to the wholesale channel, I brought with me the analytical skills I developed while working as a buyer/inventory planner/product developer/analyst. What I first discovered was an industry that believed based on history and experience (especially people with only wholesale experience) there was little room for innovation and/or creative thought; they tried this or they tried that and it never worked. The reality was, most had not ever really tried anything beyond what they knew; they lacked the diversity in their careers to understand the potential beyond what they knew. So when I introduced the concept of more carefully planning out their assortments in order to minimize their inventory exposure, while also improve their production efficiencies...well, the response was disappointing. Most felt they could just make samples, go out and sell based on the samples, and then produce to orders. What they failed to realize, because they lacked diversity, is the market was changing; time to market was shrinking and the need to better understand assortment planning and inventory management would be paramount to their survival.

Ok, I may have beat a dead horse on this topic, but I was struggling with how to spell this concept out in a shorter article and decided to just let it be whatever length it needed to in order to make my point. I hope this makes sense, as what I see in almost every industry is the lack of diversity (especially at the senior or executive levelis most often the reason companies are not innovated and/or don't succeed long term.

And perhaps the motivation to write this article comes from my work in my current industry. I'm working in potentially one of the most exciting channels, with some of the smartest and most innovative minds; and yet, I'm seeing a disconnect in what is possible being applied to what is practical...

Maybe because too many people lack the diversity to truly work beyond what they know.

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