Achieving Diversity

This article I wrote appeared in the Winter, 2020 issue of FDI International.

Achieving diversity, equity and inclusion is a process. Leadership is a process. Anything involving learning and growth is a process. Simon Sinek talks about process in his video, “Love, Relationships and Leadership”. It is not flipping a switch or a point in time you can touch. The process for achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion is brought to our attention in a negative way far too often, yet we must be diligent in continuing the process to make opportunity more possible for everyone.

I want to be totally transparent. I once suggested to someone very much like me, who is a leader in his business, that I should write an article on “diversity” for his publication. He basically said I could not do that based on what I look like rather than who I am. I am a white, middle-class, heterosexual, married, Christian, male. That, however, is only a small piece of who I am.

So how does this connect to FDI International? For any form of economic development to be successful, more than demographics, data and metrics must be considered. It’s not only about “what” a community is but also “who” a community is. We know that talent attraction and retention has become even more critical, even in the middle of a pandemic. To attract and retain talent, our workforce diversity is important, if the focus goes beyond that to equity and inclusion.

Let’s look at these dei.extension.org definitions: “Diversity is the presence of differences across many population factors, often marginalized. Equity is promoting justice within the processes and distribution of resources by institutions. Inclusion is an outcome to ensure those who are diverse are welcomed and are able to participate fully in the decision-making processes.”

There are nearly eight billion different people in the world. Many of them read this publication (right Courtney!). Differences make us better! I believe someone who truly believes in diversity, equity and inclusion should seek out those with different viewpoints and experiences. It is only through understanding those who are different from us that we can respect them and their thoughts and further shape our own thoughts.

I grew up in Verona, WI. It is in rural Dane County and had not yet been consumed by Madison. My true “life” experiences related to the topic didn’t begin until I entered the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a very “green” freshman. I was selected to be a student manager for the men’s basketball team. That meant I worked in all areas of a collegiate basketball program.

The first black coach in the Big Ten Conference was hired at Wisconsin the same time I started in my role. When I talk about differences making us better, that was truly the case here. I worked alongside players and coaches with similar backgrounds to me and those where differences were very prominent. I learned that while those differences impact people, they do not define them. I had good and bad relationships, for a variety of reasons, with those from the varying backgrounds. It was a great learning environment.

One of my next career moves involved basketball again and there were more lessons for me. The world of sports is a breeding ground for people coming together to learn from differences. While an associate head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, one of my key assignments was recruiting student-athletes to get an education and play basketball.  Relationships gave me the opportunity to recruit in high schools that a university located where Platteville is couldn’t typically. You see, Platteville was even more rural than Verona.

One of our in-roads into the talent of Chicago was the fact that the Chicago Bears (National Football League) had their pre-season camp in our community. That helped open some doors in the city of Chicago. So did the relationships I developed during my career. The student-athletes I recruited alongside the head coach, Bo Ryan, represented themselves exceptionally well while at Platteville. Besides earning their degrees, they also won the first ever national championship. Our differences made us better. Our relationships grew out of respect and a strong work-ethic.

Relationships are important in the world of economic and talent development. The sale will not happen without the relationship. You must put on your own oxygen mask first and make sure the relationship within yourself is right. Then, you can develop those relationships with site selectors and communities to develop a sale. This leads to a better understanding of differences, the differences that make us better.

When I stepped into the non-profit world at United Way of Dane County in Madison, I got another lesson in diversity, equity, and inclusion. I was blessed to be promoted from the position I was originally hired to Vice President. I then had the opportunity to hire my replacement. During the process and reflecting on it later, I first went to a safe, comfortable place. That place initially was not focusing on those differences that make us better. My top candidate was someone who looked and acted much like me. When I shared the candidates with the President, someone who I would consider part of my inner circle, she challenged me to look again at my choices. I thought about whether I wanted to hire somebody who would have my same strengths or someone who would help me grow my weaknesses and strengths and, more importantly, get me out of my comfort zone, through fear and into learning and growth. I’m proud that she challenged me, and I made the right decision. The person I hired not only helped me better understand equity and inclusion, but also helped the entire team. Her differences made us better.

Recently I had the chance to speak at the Leadership Forum of the International Economic Development Council. It was in the same city where that hire now lived. We were able to re-connect and we spent three hours reminiscing about our experiences and how they help developed who we are. It didn’t matter what we are.

In my community, we are attempting to tackle diversity, equity, and inclusion head on. Early in the pandemic I was on a webinar with John Maxwell and Simon Sinek. It was shortly after the George Floyd shooting. Simon was relating how he was reaching out to his friends, one-on-one, to have uncomfortable conversations about the issue. I gathered a group of community leaders representing K-12, law enforcement, university, United Way, community foundation, arts, and our county diversity committee. We are having those uncomfortable conversations.

The challenge, as we all know, is how to reach the people in our community that need to hear the message about equity and inclusion. Following Martin Luther King’s words is a start. Our university has done an excellent job of recruiting a diverse population, especially in our environment. We all are committed to the fact that differences make us better. Now how do we make that real and invoke positive change. Certainly, communication is critical. We also all realize it is a process and not a moment in time where we flip a switch.

Now as I speak to groups about core values, strengths, inner circle, and the comfort zone, I share these experiences and lessons. Growth can only come through experiencing failure, fighting through fear, and meeting the process head on. Regardless of your background, you can make a difference and make sure differences make YOU better.

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