Cover Story: Championing Diversity – Minds Wide Open

When Air New Zealand wanted to attract more talented young people to career in aeronautical engineering, the company ran campaign via social networking site Bebo – and within three months was talking to 1500 people in the target Gen Y group.
The move provided platform for the company to “listen carefully to young people and understand what is important to them” which helped inform an ongoing and successful campaign to excite youngsters about sector that, both nationally and globally, had held little appeal for them. This initiative not only earned Air New Zealand top placing in this year’s EEO Trust Work & Life Awards but typifies the sort of approach other successful companies are taking to the challenges of change. They approach them with minds wide open.
It’s probably no coincidence that the CEO of another award winner, NZ Post’s John Allen, sees “intellectual curiosity” as being inherent in good leadership. That’s because it’s the precursor to adaptation and that’s trait companies need to foster if they’re to thrive in business world bombarded by technological, demographic, climatic and cultural change – not to mention current economic uncertainty.
What is certain is that demographic forces already in play will help to accentuate what is an increasingly globalised workforce. As recent KPMG study points out, the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation and lack of Gen Ys to replace them has already resulted in the contraction of the labour pool in many developed countries and that trend is strengthening.
The study argues that the labour shortage will result in what it calls “global skills convergence” – net flow of skilled and unskilled workers migrating between the developed and developing worlds as barriers to entry continue to diminish. Companies, it suggests, “should be ready to manage their workforces in this new reality”.
And managing these future workforces with the tools developed for those of the past isn’t going to cut it. As Juana Bordas, author of Salsa, Soul and Spirit: Leadership for Multicultural Age, recently put it, “We’re still leading as if our companies were filled with white men and that is clearly no longer the case.” Her book argues that successful businesses will be those that can implement multicultural leadership that incorporates the influences, practices and values of diverse cultures in respectful and productive manner.
It’s certainly an issue that is gaining increasing prominence in New Zealand companies. Introduced into the EEO Awards structure last year, workplace diversity attracted an overwhelming response – which is why it’s been entrenched into the awards structure and now encompasses two categories, explains EEO Trust CEO Philippa Reed.
“One goes to an organisation that exemplifies making the most of diverse workforce right across the board – so it’s more holistic approach. The other is more about diversity in action as it applies to specific initiatives.”
Managing diversity, as the companies entering this year’s awards illustrate, is very much about listening to people with an open mind, valuing their input, then finding ways to incorporate it in practices that validate their contributions and cele­brate difference. It’s an approach that helps to create happier, more productive and more innovative workforce.
“Diversity is business imperative – not an HR intervention,” says Felicity Evans, general manager human resources for ANZ National, which won the Workplace Diversity Award.
“Increased diversity and opportunities for our people leads to increased diversity of thought and innovation. It just makes good business sense.”
The 11,600-employee company launched its ‘Diversity and Inclusion Strategy’ last year with three strategic intents.
‘Diversity in leadership’ is about increasing the number of women in senior roles – at the moment there are 66 percent in the workforce but just third in management. ‘Flexibility’ focuses on balancing the demands of employment with life outside work. ‘Respecting and connecting with the community’ refers to networking groups (there are seven so far, ranging from Asian and Indian to working parents and ‘the very early lunch club’), volunteer days and language or cultural events.
Behind this diversity drive is the recognition that diversity of staff composition (between them, staff at ANZ National speak more than 70 languages) means more diversity of thought and innovation that the company can tap into to benefit its customers and help attract talent. Two other drivers were the need for staff to reflect the increasing diversity of New Zealand’s population and the need for focused strategy and infrastructure to “drive the diversity mindset” through the organisation, telling the diversity story from business perspective.
Shifting the focus from diversity as HR initiative to ensuring that the business as whole owned and drove the agenda was one of the challenges, says Evans.
“The other key challenge was moving the internal perception that diversity is just ethnicity, age and gender. It encapsulates many other elements.”
While the programme is still in its infancy, informal feedback suggests its benefits include better balance, increased job satisfaction, greater opportunities for employees to pursue personal and career goals, more flexibility for older or returning workers and improved well-being.
Well-being is very much at the heart of diversity for Mercy Hospice which, along with Wesley Community Action, was highly commended in the Workforce Diversity category.
Its 80 staff make up United Nations of hospice care, and recognition of different cultural values can also be hugely important for the patients in their care. This is reflected in structure and HR strategy that values cultural diversity. Staff who will add to the organisation’s cultural mix are actively recruited and they’re encouraged to learn more about each other’s cultures.
Mercy’s mission and values – compassion, respect, quality and advocacy – underpin the working environment and culture, says HR manager Anne Reid. “We live those values through our staff behaviours and enhancing different cultures forms part of these values.”
Practising diversity is also very much part of the work ethos at Wesley Community Action – Wellington-based charitable trust that provides range of social services, including aged care and youth programmes. It’s not just about ethni­city, gender or age – but about respecting ­difference. The ethic of the workplace, according to director David Hanna, is about helping people reach their potential rather than any particular focus on demographics. “The day-to-day evidence of diversity practice is the balance of fairness with consistency; being flexible and humane.”
For example, diversity is embraced in what Wesley calls “strength-based practice” which is all about exploring the strengths of individuals and marshalling those abilities to drive positive progress. Apart from range of individual support mechanisms – for example, helping new migrants settle – it also runs special projects designed to boost the skills and attributes of its team. One of the latter, the Partnership Project, aims to build the relationship between management and employees with an emphasis on respect, commitment to each other’s success and greater trust.
With workforce of 200 supplemented by around 70 volunteers, Wesley will never stop exploring how to tap into talent and ideas to add value to the organisation and its goals, says Hanna.
“We will continue to act as we have done in an open-minded way to ensure that all those expressing interest in working for us are treated with respect and fairness.”
A similar spirit of exploration is evident in NZ Post’s effort to discover why it is missing out on leadership potential by not having more women in senior management roles. Of its 10,000-strong workforce, 61 percent are women but of all its employees at senior management level just 20 percent are wome

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