There’s been lot of focus of late, and for good reason, about diversity. It’s about time companies talked purposefully about addressing underrepresentation and enthusiastically accepting the value of a diverse workplace. But an area of diversity that’s still not being discussed is diversity of career and work experience. Not only has it been left out of the conversation, but it’s also generally viewed negatively. As in, if you haven’t spent your career doing exactly what we do here, then don’t bother applying.
There’s no denying that specific, vertical experience is helpful when solving very specific technical problems. Just as you would seek a medical specialist for a specific ailment, if you’re dealing with complex enterprise software, for example, it makes sense to have people working on it who have done a very similar task. However, more general business and marketing leadership is different – and in these cases, diversity of experience can not only be beneficial, but can be a game-changer. Nevertheless, so many companies and industries are made up with entire work forces who have risen through the ranks the same ways, done the same jobs, faced the same challenges, even know the same people.
Career diversity can be the superpower you need. It provides a host of benefits for employees and employers alike:
- A more diverse work experience can lead to more varied skills and a wider tool-kit: People who have worked in other industries and in different roles are exposed to different kinds of challenges and problems and have different types of deliverables. This leads them to develop skills that can be helpful when added to new roles. For example, I know a marketer who began in design and production. Now that he’s leading Marketing, he leverages his design chops to add great value in strategy and creative efforts.
- Career diversity turbo-charges creativity, insights, and innovation: Creativity and insights are all about making connections between disparate ideas and being able to see known things in a new way. And those with more diverse backgrounds have literally experienced more different things to connect to and bring together. Thus, they’re more likely to view the existing category challenges from new perspectives.
And innovation doesn’t come from some “bolt out of the blue” – instead it’s about drawing inspiration from your experiences and contexts. That can be harder to do if you and the rest of the workforce have all experienced the same context and view the world through the same industry-focused lens. But “outsiders” with more varied work experiences may be able to look at a persistent industry issue from a new angle. For example, Albert Einstein’s first job was in the Swiss patent office, where much of his work focused on issues related to electricity. This of course ended up leading to his world changing ideas around light, space, and time when he became a physicist and University lecturer.
- It can aid in complex problem solving: It’s no surprise that big, disruptive category change has consistently come from new industry entrants, vs. existing companies. The homogeneity of existing companies can result in stagnation. Diverse backgrounds among talent means more diversity of thought, and diversity in thought drives growth, ideas, and change.
And big, thorny, complex problems may be approached by industry insiders the way they have been trained to or they always have, while having diverse background and skills allows employees to think about them in new, different ways and draw on their more diversified problem-solving experience. In fact, these “outsiders” might even have had to address similarly disruptive challenges, even tangentially, in prior roles.
- Diversity helps you adapt to and address change: Adaptability, especially in today’s fast changing new normal, is a critical skill set. And those employees who have experienced change and have adapted to new companies, geographies, and industries have a leg up on those who haven’t. And data shows that this adaptability bred by diversity is especially important in contexts that involve a great deal of change. Thus, in this ever-changing business landscape, with new demands, new competitors, and disruptive innovation, it’s helpful to have talent that’s adapted before.
- Career diversity breeds empathy: Great leadership is about empathy – one needs to connect with and manage a wide range of people. Diversity of experience helps you cultivate empathy. If you’ve walked in the shoes of more types of people and been in more diverse situations and contexts, you’re likely to be better able to understand, connect with and inspire teammates better.
Isn’t it time that companies viewed career diversity as a part of their overall approach to DEI? And aren’t those companies that always seek an “insider” who has spent a career in the same industry/role/skill set doing themselves a disservice?