Do Mindful Leaders Make Associations More Diverse?

Diversity sparks innovation, new research says. But what sparks diversity? It may have a lot to do with leaders who are willing to question their assumptions.

Diversity struggles at associations are nothing new. Nor is the urge to identify the ROI of diversity. (Go ahead and Google it—3 million hits.) But a recent study sheds some new light on how diversity and innovation intersect. It also suggests that when we’re talking about improving “diversity” and “innovation,” we may actually be talking about something else.

Two-Dimensional Diversity

The study, conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation, found that “companies with inherently diverse employees and leaders who behave inclusively were likeliest to open a new market in the last year or expand their share of an existing one.” In an article on the study in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, three CTI staffers explain that diversity has two dimensions to it. What they call inherent diversity (such as race, gender, and sexual orientation) works in tandem with “acquired” diversity, such as cultural fluency, generational savvy, global and military experience—things that might generally be categorized as “cultural sensitivity.”

Good leaders listen. Moreover, they make a point of listening to a variety of people.

Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), few companies in the CTI study claim such diversity: Just 22 percent. Yet there’s a strong upside to pursuing it: Organizations with “two-dimensional” diversity are 75 percent more likely to capture a new market, and 45 percent more likely to improve their market share. The bottom line isn’t everything when it comes to diversity, but less diverse organizations may be leaving money on the table.

Learning to Listen

Good stuff—even if we might quibble over how CTI is defining fluid issues like “capturing new markets” and “improving market share.” For that successful 22 percent, diversity starts with leaders. As the article authors put it, “because they give diverse voices equal airtime, [inclusive leaders in the study] are more than twice as likely as non-inclusive leaders to unleash value-driving insights. Because they make sure that each team member gets constructive and supportive feedback, they are nearly twice as likely as non-inclusive leaders to elicit breakthrough ideas.”

In other words: Good leaders listen. Moreover, they make a point of listening to a variety of people.

I like this point, because it stresses that diversity is more than just a hiring process. Diversity sparks diversity on nonprofit boards, but working behind that diversity is a mindful decision by leaders that a) they will recognize that they themselves hold a particular and likely narrow mindset about what’s best for an organization and that b) they will make an active decision to find people who have different mindsets and hear their ideas.

A Case for Mindfulness

That’s hard work. A CEO can keep busy enough just making sure the processes that are already in place run smoothly. The CTI study authors write that their research makes a “compelling argument for diversifying leadership,” and I agree. But what it’s really arguing for is mindfulness: A constant awareness of your blind spots and active efforts to address them.

As Associations Now‘s Daniel Ford pointed out last week, two things that distinguish top companies are a willingness to spark collaboration across business units and a push to have employees to learn outside their areas of expertise. Mindful leadership has its advantages, and though I haven’t seen a study on this particular point, I suspect that leaders who are mindful in this way will prove to be leaders of more diverse organizations. They’re the ones who are willing to ask a simple but tough question: Who am I not listening to?

What do you do to cultivate diversity in your organization—and mindfulness in your leadership style? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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