Diversity of thinking: The key to successful management

04 August 2015


Too many managers globetrot without their thoughts budging an inch; make sure you are not one of them

Andrew Kakabadse

Groupthink is dangerous. Look at your organisation; people have different views on what constitutes success; stakeholders regard the organisation through different lenses depending on where they are.

Even in the best-aligned businesses there are an array of perspectives into where the organisation is going and what success looks like.

If success has multiple meanings depending on where you view the organisation from, then how it can best be pursued will also look different from different angles.

Think about creating a three-dimensional map. It may not be obvious from the top of the hill that an area below is covered by marshland. The same is true when trying to create a strategy.

It is only through understanding diverse viewpoints that leaders can hope to see the full picture. The need for diversity of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age and class has a high profile in management circles. But it is diversity of thinking that is the most overlooked source of a competitive advantage.

Open your mind – get that critical edge

In Shanghai, we asked a group of executives: what does a leader, new to China, need to know about the Chinese? The answers varied: knowledge of Chinese history, culture, people and Shanghai.

However, one opinion stood out: to do business here, you need to have diversity of thinking. Why? Because understanding your – and others’ – competitive advantage creates your critical edge.

This advice has been repeated across the world by some of the highest-performing leaders. When global leadership firm Heidrick & Struggles interviewed 100 leaders from 14 countries, the message was clear: it is not knowledge of national cultures but diversity of thinking that is key.

Diversity of thinking allows organisations to see the world through their stakeholders’ eyes. It enables them to capitalise on their market.

Diversity of thinking comes from a desire to search for something new and escape from routine and predictability.

Leaders with such a passion often hold many interests and are able to converse across a number of subjects. Their presence attracts welcome attention as they are able to impress, quite unintentionally, with their knowledge.

“John is an interesting person to do business with,” one Chinese executive said in describing a visiting US chief executive. “We do not just talk numbers, but have conversations across many fields. My people find his insights into the Chinese psyche most attractive.”

Diversity of thinking comes from truly global experience. But it is not enough simply to travel. Leaders must seek it out.

There are many executives who spend their lives criss-crossing the globe without learning anything of the world. The key is your willingness to engage with the personalities, hopes and fears of your clients.

Kevin Lobo, chief executive of Stryker Corporation, was born in India, grew up in Montreal and has worked in the US and Europe.

“The term we use in sport is a home game and an away game,” he says. “If you haven’t been in away games frequently, then you tend to think you’re right; you tend to be defensive, and more ingrained in your approach. If you have spent a lot of time in away games, you’re more open to suggestions.”

Leaders who embody diversity of thinking are willing to engage in dialogue. Listening first and making managers feel they have been heard is an integral part of diversity of thinking. That does not mean that evidence and opinion are taken at face value. But it should mean that they are taken into account.

This is all too rare. Our research notes are littered with concerns about the lack of diversity of thinking at the top of organisations. If successful organisations are those that welcome and encourage diversity of thinking, then ignoring the opinions of senior managers is misguided. Worse still, it is likely to lead to disconnection between the people who create the strategy and those who make it work.

Selecting the right people for the top team is critical. Attracting a team made up of people with diverse skills enables the team to avoid groupthink and to make the right decisions for the business.

Diversity of thought is the key selection criteria.

Want to find out more about diversity of thinking and how to learn more about management from other cultures? Attend the CMI's course on intercultural communication.

Andrew Kakabadse (www.kakabadse.com) is professor of governance and strategic leadership at Henley Business School.

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