Achieving value from diversity will make you and your business succeed, says Nick Salter
What does your grandma have to do with the way you work? Probably more than you realise. We all learned a lot from our grandparents and their lessons on life - maybe subconsciously - or from our parents, who in turn learnt from theirs - and so we find ourselves back to grandma. Her wisdom and quirky expressions shape our unconscious beliefs, as Laura Liswood, a world-renowned expert in diversity, told the IFoA Council in October. These lessons provide us with a point of view that in turn informs our perspective of others and ourselves.
But when grandmas come from different parts of the world, as many of our members do, their wisdom needs to be seen through a different lens for us as business professionals, to really understand and harness its true meaning and benefit. Take for example the loudest duck in China, the squeaky wheel in the USA, and the nail that sticks out in Japan.
Lost in translation
Laura's book, The Loudest Duck, brings grandma, the duck, the wheel and the nail to life in a way that brings home the real issues we face with diversity, and how we bring our own preconceptions into the workplace unconsciously.
Different grandmas say different things. In the US she says that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, in China the loudest duck gets shot, and in Japan the nail that sticks out gets hit on the head.
You will have probably already come to a conclusion as to what these aphorisms tell us. You might be thinking that what they all have in common is that they 'stand out' and possibly, by extension in our day-to-day professional lives, the person who stands out gets recognised, listened to or promoted faster. Well yes, in a sense you could be right, they do all stand out in their own way, but do they all get recognised in the same way? I'm not sure the answer to that question is yes. Speaking out doesn't always get rewarded; in some cultures it is positively discouraged.
So why is this important to us as actuaries and business professionals? In the culturally diverse world in which we, as actuarial professionals work, grandma's duck, wheel and nail are far from uncommon. We need to embrace this diversity and use it to our advantage to drive success in all that we do.
You may well say: "What has this got to do with me and where I work?" The best way to explain is to recount a story told to Council by Laura, which described from the duck, wheel and nail's perspective how a box ticking approach to diversity doesn't work.
I am sure the story will resonate with many of you. You are a manager in a business and you have built a small team of people with diverse skills, personalities and from very different backgrounds. Some might argue that you've metaphorically ticked the diversity box, but you need to recognise that perhaps what you have done is employed a duck, a wheel and a nail.
You and the team are hard at work solving the problem of the day. Now, I'm not a betting man, but the chances are that the wheel is getting all the attention because they are doing all the talking. Meanwhile, the duck and the nail are quietly getting on with the task in hand without joining in the verbal gymnastics because grandma told them not to speak up.
As the manager, you have probably unconsciously listened to all the wheel's great ideas, and come to the conclusion that the duck and the nail have nothing of value to contribute, and ultimately promote the wheel for all his or her good ideas.
So having carefully hired the diverse groups, all you are getting are the wheels talking and everyone else listening. At best, you haven't achieved the real cognitive diversity that your business needs to truly succeed, and at worst the ducks and the nails are likely to be unfairly evaluated and probably disadvantaged.
And that's my point. As a profession we need to not only listen to grandma, but listen to what she says through a different, diversity lens, if we are to attract, motivate and benefit from the wheel, duck and the nail sitting on one of our volunteer committees and boards. Equally, as a professional body, we need to promote the value that each can bring to the businesses in which they currently work, and may expand into in the future.
My most profound thanks go to Laura Liswood for such an excellent presentation to Council, which brought all this to light in such an innovative and engaging way.