Diversity should be more than window dressing in business [Commentary]

"Those who do not embrace change will die."

How often do we hear cliches like that in business? They are the equivalent of baseball's, "We just got to play 'em one day at a time." (And allow me to slide in a springtime note of hope for the Orioles to carry Baltimore to the playoffs.)

But like most cliches, there's some truth there, especially in the professional world.

As our society has become more multicultural, the corporate world has also become more diverse — and complicated. One view seldom rules. Top-down military-style management is giving way to new models that increasingly embrace racial, ethnic and gender diversity.

Innovation is far more likely to arise from groups with disparate experiences and viewpoints; the like-minded lack the same sparks. The law mandates openness in hiring policies, but more than that, it's good business.

It sets up companies to reach a wider audience. Does anyone question the fact that salespeople who speak a customer's language are more likely to close sales? Of course not. Many companies have made great strides in hiring customer service representatives who reflect the diversity of their customers.

The best person for a job is not always initially the most obvious. Highly ambitious smooth-talkers may walk up and present themselves, fully expecting to be hired, but their ability to sell themselves does not guarantee success. If it did, every job would be filled with confident charmers. (I can say with authority that's the last thing any company should want, having managed astonishingly geeky — and incredibly gifted — accountants and quantitative analysts.) We need a mix of abilities, styles and personalities to effectively staff professional teams. More companies are learning that the best people come from all kinds of places, in every shape, size and hue.

What we all can do is try to ensure that, when a public company or Wall Street firm says they value gender diversity, they mean it. Many companies trumpet diversity efforts, using them not just for recruitment, but in the selling process. Thus I believe it entirely fair to ask what anyone means when they invoke diversity, of all kinds, and how real and deep their commitment goes. Ideally, you will see a mix of races, ages and genders — and in positions where their input has weight.

Perhaps the hardest thing to gauge is whether a company's diversity is truly meaningful and progressive, rather than window dressing. Many U.S. companies and foreign entities doing business here actively seek diversity within their ranks, including real gender diversity. And good for them!

I meet frequently with outside providers, people who want to sell things to us, who go out of their way to bring women and minorities to our meetings. They believe this will show us they "get it," and it can make for full conference rooms. But it is through their contributions that we can tell whose commitments are authentic. Legg Mason is hardly alone in this, but when we bring diverse groups to meetings, we expect each team member to have a say. We encourage it. They would not be with us otherwise. It's not enough to bring people in and tell them to sit along the side. Silently. Everyone can see it when it happens, and we all know what it means.

To women who want to move up, look for employers that really do "get it" and who offer meaningful chances to contribute — then take them up on the opportunity, and show them what you can do. For some this will mean large corporations, as it has for me; others may want to go smaller. You won't start at the center of the table, doing most of the talking — none of us did — but thanks to those who came before, you can find places that will welcome you more for skills than your skirt.

And to those who think they can continue to get away with paying nothing more than lip service to diversity, know that the world is watching. We will be happy to take our business elsewhere.

Stephanie Beran is managing director of Enterprise Risk Management at Legg Mason & Co., LLC. Her email is smberan12@gmail.com.

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