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If I were a theater, my marquee would say, “Improve productivity, profitability and retention by unleashing the talents of MORE of your workforce.”  My purpose and passion are about the power of appreciating and leveraging difference.  I know—from research and personally—that businesses get better results if they maximize the rich diversity of today’s workforce.

The research says that better decisions and better projects emerge from diverse groups than from homogeneous groups.  While it’s “comfortable” to be, play and work with people who look and think like we do and come from similar backgrounds, that comfort does not translate into new ideas, learning or creativity. The research of Katherine W. Phillips and her colleagues was recently featured in an on-line publication of the Kellogg School of Management (, entitled “Better Decisions through Diversity: Heterogeneity Can Boost Group Performance.”  The research showed that the comfort of homogeneity can “hamper the exchange of different ideas and stifle the intellectual workout that stems from disagreements.”  The tension that arises when a “newcomer” joins a group results in “more careful information processing.”

I experienced another side of “heterogeneity” as a corporate executive.  I learned how being different can undermine engagement.  I spent most of my career as a lawyer.  I helped business do better by complying with the law and avoiding falling into costly legal problems.  I was the first woman at the C-level of a well-known public company.  While I knew my gender made me “different,” I didn’t focus on it.  I focused on doing my job and doing my best.  In fact, I worked to mask my differences—to fit in.

Because I was different from the others at the top, I got asked to participate in “diversity” programs.  I was a senior sponsor of our women’s group, took on the mission of creating support among aspiring and talented women and became involved in designing “diversity training.”  It was in this role that I began to understand how being “different” can affect engagement.

The team designing the diversity training was, as is usually the case, diverse.  Surrounded by people distinguished in one or more ways from the white male heterosexual norm (people of color, gays and women), the light bulb went off.  When one is putting energy on observing what the norms of an established group are and making sure one’s own behavior isn’t too far “out of line,” one can’t operate as naturally or as well.  Energy that could be going into creativity and quality is being spent on “fitting in.”  I began to see how much my own difference had cost me in terms of focus and energy.

As an executive, I knew I was on to something that could help the business.  If we could tap that energy and put it back onto quality work, wouldn’t people do better work?  Wouldn’t people feel greater loyalty to the company? I understood that, to redirect that energy, we needed to create a culture where people felt heard and valued for their own ways.  I didn’t know the term “inclusive culture” then.   I do now—and that’s what I’m committed to creating!