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Transforming, Innovating, Growing: The case for leaders with diversified careers

By Eric Michrowski

HBR recently published a study on Transformational Leaders. One of the conclusions that caught my eye was that most of the leaders that had successfully transformed an industry or business had very diverse backgrounds (think Amazon’s Bezos who came from a Finance background). They mention the importance of leaders that come with outside experience and that are brought into a business to drive change.

Throughout my career and consulting experience I have always advocated the value of incorporating very diverse backgrounds and creating development paths within businesses that support such diversification. Regrettably, most companies do the very opposite. They recruit exclusively within their industry, hire the vast majority of candidates from the same professional designations/academic circles and create entrenched career paths that encourage anything but diversity of thought and experience. To make matters worse, the automation of recruitment platforms has only further reinforced this lack of applicant diversity by creating filters on keywords.

The following are a few examples of dysfunctions that I have seen over the years based on this over-reliance on similar career paths:

-Financial Services firms tend to recruit from other banks. Not only does that reinforce a standard way of thinking between key banks but it also tends to remove competitive differentiation through Culture. Due to the high mobility between financial institutions, there often are few cultural differences between the top banks. Such practices often lead to restricted innovation and market differentiation.

-Consulting firms often create specialization by industry which then tends to foster purely incremental improvements, missing the mark on Transformational change. While this appeases many executives who perceive that this familiarity and market expertise will bring a deeper understanding of their business, does this not limit the creativity of some of the solutions that are identified?

-Utilities and Telecoms tend to recruit purely within their engineering disciplines which then creates a focus on technology and product-oriented innovation, often missing the mark on building great innovative service cultures..

These are only a few select examples that I have seen over the years, and this approach to talent is shared across sectors. On the other end of the equation, you have highly creative and innovative organizations such as IDEO that encourage very diverse backgrounds are a core tenant of driving an innovative culture.

The HBR article focused on Transformational Leaders, but I would advocate that these characteristics are vital to any leader that can drive organizational change, innovation or lift organizational performance. In fact, I would propose that organizations that are trying to build nimble, agile, fast-paced and innovative cultures should consider such talent decisions as part of their transformation. And in today’s context of fast disruption, who wouldn’t have woken up to the need of building such characteristics into their culture?

In my experience, such diverse backgrounds have helped drive significant leaps in performance.

The best HR Executive of a Fortune 500 company I ever met was an engineer turned entrepreneur with a high affinity for people. One of the most rapid transformational programs that I got to observe was led by a leader with a background in logistics who transformed an investment banking operations swiftly once he realized the linkages between logistics and the movement of financial instruments. One of the most innovative process transformation leaders that I observed had a background in the arts and music.

In recognizing the need to build agile, nimble, change-ready and innovative organizations, how are you aligning your talent strategy for critical leaders? Are you seeking out of industry experience at all levels to inject a new perspective? Are you finding non-traditional recruits into more junior roles to infuse new ideas?

When you seek advisory expertise, are you biased towards case studies and experience in your same industry or are you seeking out innovative and creative experience from other sectors? Are you seeking niche and creative expertise with demonstrated knowledge of solving difficult problems across sectors?

As you think of your own career, what are you doing to diversify your experience across sectors and knowledge areas, taking charge of crafting your own personal brand of problem-solving that is agnostic to an industry or traditional career path?

Since Propulo’s beginning, we have held a strong commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. This commitment is not mere words but has consistently translated into action, results and broader representation at all levels in addition to being a strong competitive differentiator. Diversity has long been a gateway to the world, and to growth. We believe that it represents a powerful recipe for success both for us and our clients as it allows us to bring better solutions that reach a broader population of workplaces and yield to higher success. Further enhancing our ability to Improve the World of Work.


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