Diversity is one of the questions that shape the social and political agenda intensively. However, from a corporate strategy perspective, the topic has hardly been addressed to date. Marc-David Rompf talks to the organization and change experts Dorothea Derakhchan and Christine Solf about the contribution diversity makes to competitiveness and innovation, the prerequisites for successful female leadership careers and why a heterogeneous mix of voices makes a good choir.
Marc-David Rompf: Mrs Derakhchan and Mrs Solf, to come straight to the point, why do companies run special programs to promote women?
Dorothea Derakhchan: Because they’re vitally important. Promoting women is not cosmetic, it’s not a matter of fairness and it’s more than simply meeting legal provisions. It also goes beyond the rather one-sided political debate that we’re having at the moment. Instead, the promotion of female talent and management careers for women is much more a strategic decision that has a major impact on corporate success. More and more companies are now recognizing this fact.
What’s the strategic value of these programs? What changes in companies where women hold an appropriate share of key positions?
DD: Heterogeneity, diversity and ambiguity – these aspects shape our entire lives today, resulting in complexity, but also presenting new opportunities. If companies fail to mirror these developments internally, they will lose the connection to their environment and the ability to understand an increasingly heterogeneous customer landscape. The unilateral orientation towards efficiency, unambiguousness, synchrony and competition are traits of the ‘old world’, in other words, typical of highly homogeneous and hierarchical cultures. This approach will not come to terms with the new reality. By contrast, diverse teams can perform much more successfully thanks to the acceptance and integration of various perspectives, ideas, approaches and experiences.
Christine Solf: Diversity is the source of innovativeness and creativity. Such teams successfully harness complementary abilities and strategies to achieve common goals and to create future scenarios that are much richer in substance.
Does this mean that companies are missing out on strategic potential and growth opportunities if they fail to focus on diversity in a targeted way?
CS: Yes, that’s absolutely right. It means companies miss out on actual opportunities and potentials. They lose out on talent and innovativeness as well as the rewards of cooperation and empathy. The way people think and act in companies needs to be well balanced, not one-sided.
DD: This balance makes a vital contribution to increasing value and competitiveness. It also improves resilience in crises and rapidly changing situations. The intriguing question of what mix is beneficial for a team has to be constantly reappraised in terms of specialist backgrounds, cultures, gender and personality types.
What approach to cooperation should be adopted in such a team or company? What’s different?
CS: It enables cooperation that intelligently combines the best qualities from various worlds. For example, focus, strength, assertiveness and persuasiveness with openness, interpersonal skills, the willingness to engage in dialog, empathy, intuition and trust. These are the ideal conditions for innovation, creativity and commitment.
If the creative powers of all participants are identified and geared towards common goals, we experience a completely different energy in the room. This can produce joy in working together, a common sense of purpose and not least success. One extremely important thing to bear in mind is that a little bit of humor goes a long way to creating good team spirit, especially in heterogeneous teams, and helps to harmonize differences in a light-hearted and fun way.
DD: It’s like in my gospel choir. First every voice practices on its own with the choirmaster. The high-pitched voices alone sound very airy and light, while the low ones sound very sombre. But when all the voices sing the song together, it’s always a moving and poignant experience because they combine to produce a harmonious, balanced and integral whole. The key thing here is that everybody listens properly, attunes to the others and then gets the best out of themselves – for the good of everyone. The experienced managers orchestrating the voices obviously play a crucial role here. At the end of the day, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. However, if one tone dominates, or if everyone is forced to sing in a mid-range pitch, then this outcome is not achieved.
You’re advocating the co-existence of differences?
CS: Precisely – and making the effort to take advantage of diversity. To make a positive impact, I firstly have to make it visible and ‘open to discussion’. That can start with management taking a closer look at things and making their selections more consciously. Or teams beginning to take an interest in what actually makes them tick together.
For instance, it’s not about denying or camouflaging gender-specific strengths and weaknesses. That would be naive. It’s more a question of reflecting on and combining them in an optimal way. That’s a complex and arduous task to begin with and requires all participants to engage in self-reflection and to treat one another honestly and truthfully. It requires genuine contact, strong communication, the ability to deal with conflict and clarity. Diversity should be taken seriously and it signifies the end of naivety – for women as well as men.
It would seem that this harmonious choir has rarely been heard thus far. Why do male voices continue to dominate the upper corporate echelons?
DD: There are a number of reasons. Firstly, there is resistance to change and inertia in organizations, teams and from individuals. They’re like an immune system fighting everything that could pose a threat to the established structure. The prevailing rituals, balances of power, cultural elements and values make us feel secure. This leads to the continual reproduction of the existing order. These patterns are almost always invisible and often reproduced sub-consciously. They’re also incredibly powerful.
It also results in managers, often called Thomas or Michael, almost always paving the way for the next Thomas or Michael to succeed them – and only in exceptional cases an Elisabeth or a Barbara. Companies find it hard to break down these reproduction mechanisms. The proportion of women obtaining university degrees has doubled in just a generation. Yet the share of female management executives in Germany has only risen by 1% over a 10-year period. Nine out of ten executive board members and seven out of ten managers are still male. Similar figures are also found in India and Turkey, for example.
CS: As a result, there is also a lack of female role models. Lots of women shy away from setting clear career objectives and becoming more high-profile and successful. They make a career-oriented choice of study or profession much less frequently than men, they are all too often underpaid and under-appreciated and work behind the scenes and in support functions. They do not use networks strategically enough and seek mentoring and support less often. Women often struggle to “square the circle” as a female in companies and to reconcile professional skills, likability and assertiveness. These patterns have to be broken down to provide women with professional development opportunities that are not structurally restricted. That’s exactly what our ‘iLead. Make it your Game’ program at Accenture aims to achieve. Women showing potential go on a development journey with sponsors from the top management and with the support of coaches.
Dorothea Derakhchan is a trusted advisor for management executives and works as a corporate consultant. She is the founder and owner of Almadera Consulting, a boutique company specialized in coaching, consulting and training, and an associate partner of the personnel and organizational consultancy dla.
Prior to the foundation of Almadera, the economist spent many years working in various management positions at an international DAX-30 company. She possesses extensive expertise in the fields of developing teams, future scenarios and guiding principles, offers purpose workshops and provides training on trusted advisory and mindful leadership. In her role a as an executive coach, she supports her clients to deploy untapped potential in individual transformation processes. In her group coaching programs for female managers, she supports women in developing a strong female leadership identity.
Dr. Christine Solf creates unconventional development programs for talent and executives. As a senior manager of the dgroup, which is part of the corporate consultancy Accenture, she supports digital transformations focusing on organizational development and the introduction of new working and management methods.
The sociology doctorate holder specializing in system theories applies this focus in her consultancy work in a sustainable manner. She refers to her approach as #nag&nurture: analyzing situations with an unobstructed view and looking at where change would be beneficial in order to then support it resolutely. Diverse, complementary teams and the development of female managers are a key issue in ensuring that more untapped potential can be deployed and that the profile of role models and best practices is raised to encourage other people to venture something new.