# 27: The Diversity Fable
Story behind the Passage
Diversity is something that has been occupying me for many years. Actually, I AM DIVERSITY on two feet. Whenever I call someone whom I have not talked to for a while, this person usually says at one point: “You are doing so many different things!” Well, I have learned to not say much about this in response. It might be true from the other person’s perspective but usually when people say this, I have not even mentioned all the things I am doing. And the point is: Only people who only do one thing, at least in professional terms, say this. All entrepreneurs I know usually do a lot more than I do.
In any case, it took me half a lifetime to fully embrace this internal diversity and to finally scale it to the max. I am still not there yet. There is so much more “execution” potential. But I am learning. And being surrounded by people in the startup community really boosts this energy. Of course, that in and of itself does not lead to any results. Still, the just-do-it-spirit of the tech scene is a nice antidote to the “wait-and-see” and “let’s be careful and think about everything” mentality that Germany is particularly famous for. And that also gets me to the passage above.
This opening story of the book Building a House for Diversity by R. Roosevelt Thomas sets the stage for an inspiring and at the same time pragmatic narrative. If you want to learn about the core principles and problems of diversity (management), the story of the giraffe and the elephant offers a rich pool of insights. But the term “story” is actually wrong. As is mentioned on the cover, the story is a fable and fables are written and told for an explicit purpose: To make you learn. The reason why I have chosen this book today is because I am currently thinking a lot about the question of: Who wants to learn what from whom? And who needs learn from whom? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions very often do not overlap. This is where the trouble with diversity starts already when applying it to the startup world.
“But to tell you the truth, I’m not sure that a house designed for a giraffe will ever work for an elephant, not unless there are some major changes.” To get to the point right away: This is exactly what most employees are going through RIGHT NOW — even before Covid. The digital revolution is rapidly changing the entire work world and many employees from the ‘older generation’ (as old as myself >40) feel as if the house they live in, i.e., their company, is being torn down. Interestingly, therefore, the newcomers are the ones who are welcomed while the established ‘inhabitants’ feel out of place, even pushed out.
With respect to large companies that hire members of the Generation Z, this might be true. But it is not true for startups. What I mean is that the intersection between startups and corporates still is a mess, to put it bluntly. Yes, we hear so much about young digital companies pushing the digital transformation forward. But honestly, everybody working in the startup environment knows that this is hardly the case when it comes to direct partnerships between startups and corporates. As someone rightly pointed out today in a conversation about this: “The cultural problems persist.”
Diversity is all about culture. The way you are raised, the language you speak, the values you have — all these aspects and many more determine how you see the world. And, as it seems, corporates and startups see the world in completely different colors. In most cases, this leads to the fact that they do not work together in a way that sustainable value is created. For a while, I thought this was o.k. Why not have startups as versions of AGILE coaching teams in companies that above all bring cultural change to corporates? Do they always have to build new technology? Is that really what corporates are looking for when they work with a startup?
By now, I have slightly changed my open-mindedness regarding the goals of these collaborations. This might sound sad but I do think that the cultural impact startups have on corporates indeed is the biggest value that they can create right now. Corporates do not live the diversity paradigm yet — at least many of them do not. It is not ‘normal’ to see a bunch of outward individualists working in corporates. But this visible diversity is highly important for bringing about corporate cultures that have the potential to innovate. Do I want to sell a “corporate change project” now, or what?
Not at all. I am just a bit sad that we humans are just so afraid of everything that is different; of anyone who does not look, think, and speak like us. These are the major reasons why we are not so happy about diversity and therefore intuitively try to avoid it. Especially in diverse crowds, we are most likely to meet opinions that are different from our own and we therefore also run into the risk of meeting criticism on our ideas more than in homogenous circles — at least, we think this is the case. Now, is there anything new about this?
Certainly, there is nothing new about these findings. But I still had to repeat them before mentioning that diversity by far is NOT a given among the young generation of startup founders. “What,” you might ask now, “how can she say something like this? Startups are so diverse!” Well, I am not talking about internationality or gender identity. I am talking about ‘boring’ things such as age, for example. Yes, of course, there are always some people working in startups that have crossed the line of turning 40 or even 50 already. But that is not what I mean. What I would like to see more of is true inter-generational dialogue between experienced entrepreneurs and executives in corporations and startups.
Of course, those with experience act as investors and angels in the startup world. But that is not what I mean by talking of inter-generational diversity. I am talking about really reaching out to people outside one’s own bubble. Corporate managers are examples of this. Many of them have never been to a startup incubator and, for sure, many of them see no purpose in this. So, this mutual disinterest does not get us anywhere. If it were only disinterest based on personal hostility and both parties would not need each other anyways — who would care? But I do think, the two need each other desperately. You want a reason? Well, just think of the entire Covid debate in Germany and the lack of digital equipment and also software in schools. Who is supposed to build all the tools that we are missing to catch up with the leading nations in the world?
For sure, startups themselves hardly have the necessary infrastructure to scale their technologies in a way that all industrial sectors benefit from their inventions. This is why corporates indeed are those who should try to build bridges. But honestly, very often, I completely understand that patience can come to an end. And the same applies to startups. I understand very well that the “management establishment” sucks from the perspective of many who have grown up with a diversity mindset that truly taught them that people are different and that exactly this multitude of perspectives creates value — value that is very much needed in our economy.
The unfortunate circumstance that personal communication between both sides is quite difficult sometimes could be overcome by finding other means of mediation. As it seems, however, that does not work . And here, I really see the ball in the court of startups. Why the hell are there hardly any efforts to translate technology into a language that can be understood by the “other” party? Why are people working in corporates simply seen as remnants of the past or even idiots that nobody needs to talk to in startups? Guess what, I am happy to repeat this again and again: Nine out of ten startups still fail (in Germany) — where are you going to work after being thrown out of your own startup? Yeah, right… Maybe it makes sense to not go to war against corporates all the time.
It is not so smart to celebrate diversity while not walking the talk. And walking the talk would mean: Actually engaging with the other side. Such an exchange automatically starts with communication. And every language has its own code. Yes, startup founders have mostly grown up with social media but is that a reason for not reading the newspaper or watching the news? And I mean: world news, including politics and business news from outside the startup bubble. This information is in fact crucial for understanding one’s own business story in the bigger context of society. But there are, of course, many other elements that are characteristic of “old world communication.” The point is: The media and the knowledge go together. And if there is no interest in the “Other,” a common language will not be found. What does all of this have to do with the House for Diversity?
Obviously, the assumption or even the fear that changing a house according to the needs of individuals might still not suffice to really make someone feel at home who is simply too big or too different. Yes, there is always a risk that things do not work out. But I can only encourage everyone to at least give it a try. And I especially appeal to startups here. No matter how hip and funky one feels, diversity is not an invention of the current digital business generation. In fact, Roosevelt Thomas, the inventor of diversity management and author of the fable, developed his thoughts in the 1990s. And since then, corporate managers (the giraffes) achieved a whole lot to change houses, even though, there is still much to do. The point that I am trying to get at is: If you want to trigger change in others. If you want to encourage others to learn from you. You need to take the first step. You need to talk to them in a language that they can understand.
I want to close with a very positive example of ‘old-fashioned’ communication. When ordering books, I usually look for used ones first. As you might know, used books usually come with at least two stories between the covers: One is the actual story of the book content. The other is the story of the previous book owner(s). In the case of Building a House for Diversity, this story came in the form of a dedication at the beginning of the book. Obviously, my book had once been a gift by one executive to another. The note says it all, as you can see in the picture.
When did you last give someone a book as a gift with a personal dedication?
1) Which dimensions of diversity matter most to you?
2) If you are employed by a corporation — would you ever consider working for a startup? If you are a startup founder or staff member — would you ever work for a corporate? Why (not)?
3) Imagine you are in the position of a diversity manager in your organization — would you rather change the house or the elephant?
Learn more about Silke’s 365 Days Blogging Challenge