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What Mad Men Can Teach Us About the Importance of Diversity

AMC’s popular series Mad Men started its final season this past weekend and although fictional, the series depicts some of the realities around a lack of diversification in the workplace during the 1960’s. The agency is led and largely staffed by Caucasian men; the few women (also Caucasian) in the office are generally part of the typing pool or some other lower-level (read: non-participatory) position. Although fictional, the agency portrayed is actually pretty spot-on when it comes to how business was run half a century ago. And while we might be able to say that in the intervening 50+ years we’ve vastly progressed as a country in terms of diversifying the workplace, we still have some work to do, particularly when it comes to company leadership. According to a report done by McKinsey & Company, companies with greater diversity in their leadership rankings were more likely to be in the top quartile in terms of financial performance.

The importance of diversity in the workplace can’t be overstressed. With our country’s shifting demographics, especially as more people identify with multiple sub-segments of traditional groups, B2C businesses need to not only accept but reflect the differences among their target audiences and will do well to shift their thinking to be able to understand how to more directly impact different consumers.

So the question becomes how can companies develop a more diverse leadership organization? In solving that, it’s important to look at two different types of diversity that exist within individuals. A recent study by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) proposed that inherent diversity (the traits a person is born with like skin color and gender) combined with acquired diversity (traits a person gains from experience and learning) creates 2-D diversity. The study suggests that, without this mix, companies are missing out on opportunities for greater innovation and performance because the work is being driven solely by people who think alike and see the world the same.

The CTI study further shows that part of what stagnates growth in diversity at companies is a general corporate culture that doesn’t allow for new voices or new thinking. A company might say that employees are welcome to speak up, but if leaders don’t actively encourage it, many voices simply stay silent. Also, when people don’t feel able to make decisions, the default is what’s always been done, which won’t generate innovation and change. Leaders should be open to new ideas, no matter how wacky, and their employees should feel safe presenting them. Create a feedback loop and prove that you act on what you hear and that you can suggest actionable and helpful feedback to your employees. Finally, leaders should be sure to share credit for success—and failure. Nothing is as deflating to an employee who has worked hard to hear her boss take all the accolades, and similarly, it’s difficult for employees to bounce back and learn from mistakes when they don’t feel their leadership supports them.

To excel in your business, your company must create transformative change in its thinking. To do that, it’s best to empower your employees to dig deep and create previously unimagined solutions. And if you think that won’t work, think again: even in the white-male-driven world of Mad Men, they found that a woman’s voice did best in marketing products to women. If they can find “out of the box” advancement there, your company can too.