Thoughts on Building a House for Diversity
This speech was given by Antoinette M. Bailey, President
Boeing-McDonnell Foundation and Vice President Community and Education Relations,
The Boeing Company at the Third Annual Cultural Diversity Conference at the Missouri
Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Lincoln University, Jefferson City, Missouri on
Friday, March 17, 2000.
Id like to begin by retelling a story that was told in the late 70s and
early 80s, when there was great pessimism about the ability of U.S. companies to
compete in the global marketplace. Bear in mind: This was before E-Bay, Price-line,
Amazon, and all the other dot.com companies. It was before the World Wide Web. It was
before the invention of the microprocessor. Americans were under siege or so we
felt at the time from everything from high-priced oil to low-priced
automobiles and appliances from abroad.
So here is the story. Three businessmen a Frenchman, a Japanese man, and an
American are lined up before a firing squad. According to ancient custom, each is
granted a final wish. The Frenchman says he would die happy if he could sing La Marseillaise
one more time. He does . . . and he sings this old revolutionary song so well that it
brings tears to the eyes of the riflemen. Even so, they take steady aim and shoot the
The Japanese businessman is inspired by the patriotic example of the Frenchman. He
expresses his desire to give one last speech on Kaizen, the Japanese word for
encouraging incremental improvements in the production system. However, before he can get
started, the American rises and insists that he be the next to go. "I will die
happy," says the American, "if I dont have to listen to one more lecture
on Japanese Management."
When Kenneth Seeney invited me to speak at this gathering, I must admit that my first
inclination was to say no. I was not sure that I wanted to be the instrument of subjecting
all of you to one more lecture on the importance of diversity. Diversity, with a capital
D, has become one of the buzzwords in American businesses and society . . . and anything
that buzzes is likely to be a source of annoyance, whether it is a swarm of
mosquitoes, or the insistent and indiscriminate use of certain words and phrases.
Beyond that, I was not sure that I would be the right person to connect with you as an
audience. To be perfectly frank, you are looking at the consummate urban dweller. I enjoy
the beauty of nature and I appreciate the fragility of our environment, but I have never
pitched a tent, climbed a mountain, run a fast river, or done many of the other things
that many of you probably take for granted.
However, as I was pondering all this, it dawned on me that we do share a passionate
sense of conviction about one thing.
With this audience, I dont have to point out the importance of another kind of
diversity, which is to say, bio-diversity. You know the terrible dangers posed by
pollution and wasteful management of natural assets in the destruction of habitats and the
extinction of many forms of life. You are the real experts when it comes to appreciating
the beauty that exists in the larger mosaic of life. We are a species that relies on
insects to pollinate many of our crops and we can thank the accumulated masses of bacteria
that lived over billions of years ago for our primary sources of energy (oil and gas). We
owe the very air we breathe to the photosynthetic activities of those same bacteria.
As a native Missourian, I know that this is an extraordinary state in terms of
ecological and biological diversity. It has everything from swamp lands and river delta on
the east to tall grass and plains on the west. It has a northern portion above the
Missouri River that marks the farthest advance of the glaciers, and a southern portion
that includes an ancient volcanic mountain range and an uplifted eroded plateau that is
famously known as "the Ozarks." You in the Missouri Department of Natural
Resources, along with your colleagues in the Department of Conservation, are the true
stewards . . . and champions . . . of this amazing diversity.
So my message to you this morning is really very simple. It is to bring the same kind
of thinking . . . and the same kind of dedication . . . to diversity, in the purely human
and organizational context, that you already do to diversity, in the biological and
The same thinking applies in both spheres. We value diversity in the biological realm
because we know that there is strength in diversity. Greater diversity means a superior
gene pool through greater variation and complexity. It means both more competition and
more cooperation between species. It means greater adaptability . . . along with stiffened
natural resistance to disease and great disasters of one kind or another.
We at Boeing value diversity for the exact same reasons. We are a company with a
population of nearly 200,000 people, with operations in 27 states (most assuredly
including Missouri), and with customers in no fewer than 145 countries. But we do not
assume that diversity is something that comes with the territory in being big and being
active around the globe. To the contrary, we are spending a great deal of time, money, and
effort to become more diverse at all levels of our organization. This is not simply
or cynically a matter of compliance. We want people to think and act differently .
. . to act with greater speed, agility, and creativity. Those attributes are required in
an increasingly complex and demanding global business environment. In a self-interested
way, we, too, have come to the conclusion that there is strength in diversity.
How do you encourage diversity? Above all, how do you encourage it in an
organizational setting, such as Boeing or the DNR? Large organizations are different
from the habitats found in nature in the sense that they are (and Im not intending
to be gender-specific when I say this) man-made constructs. They are what we make
Perhaps we should examine the key word a little more closely. According to the
dictionary, "diversity" simply means difference, unlikeness, or variety. Like
the proverbial snowflake, each of us is different in some way, unique. However,
again like the snowflake, we are also incredibly alike. For all of the differences between
people, far less than 1% of our DNA separates any one human being from any other.
The true test of diversity within an organization . . . or across a whole society . . .
is whether people build upon their differences . . . or whether they are divided or even
destroyed by them. Part of the greatness of our country is contained in the motto that is
stamped on our coinage E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many One. Conversely, in a
place like Yugoslavia, the tragedy has been the failure of a people who are racially and
in other ways the same to bridge their differences in religion and history.
Skin color, gender, age, and sexual orientation are some of the obvious and important
differences between people. But there are many other differences in background, history,
and habit that are also profoundly important . . . and that must be addressed in any
organization that wants to reap the benefits of diversity.
About ten years ago, I was a co-leader of a study examining why it was that so many
promising young African-Americans seemed to veer off course . . . in terms of their career
development . . . within a few years of being hired. These were people who had earned top
grades at top universities . . . and who appeared to be every bit as qualified as their
white counterparts at the outset of their employment. What we found was that promising
African-Americans, unlike promising whites, had been largely ignored by their white
supervisors. This happened not out a spirit of viciousness, but more out of avoidance. The
white front-line managers simply didnt feel comfortable dealing with young black
people. So they seldom tried to challenge or engage them.
This brings me to a favorite book . . . and I recommend it to all of you. Its
called "Building a House for Diversity." The author is R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr.,
and we have retained him as a consultant in building a house for diversity at Boeing.
Thomass book begins with a wonderful fable about a giraffe who wants to befriend
an elephant and who therefore invites the elephant into his house. After some quick
carpentry to enlarge the basement door in order to admit the elephant, the giraffe goes
off to answer a phone call, telling the elephant, "Please make yourself at
home." But every time the elephant moves, there is a large scrunch or crashing sound.
When the giraffe returns, he is amazed at the damage that the elephant has done and is
quick to offer advice. Sign up for weight-watchers, he urges the elephant. And it
wouldnt hurt, he adds helpfully, "if youd go to ballet class at
night" . . . in order to become "lighter on your feet."
There are three clear morals to be drawn from the interaction between the giraffe, as
the insider, and the elephant, as the outsider. The first is the silliness of expecting an
elephant to assume the same dimensions as a giraffe. If you are serious about diversity,
you should build your house with that in mind. But that is not the easiest of tasks. As a
second moral to the story, you should expect a certain amount of tension and complexity.
And finally, each of us must be prepared to move outside our original comfort zone if we
want to embrace and promote diversity. Thats the third and biggest moral from the
story. There is no such thing as a diverse organization created by executive dictate. It
is something that will come into being only through the willing and active behavior of
supervisors, managers, and people at all levels.
But I suspect that most of you have already learned those same lessons in managing the
great physical resources of this state. It wouldnt occur to you to think that every
stream was the same or that every forest was the same. You accept the need for positive
actions dictated by unusual soil conditions or other localized differences. Say there has
been substantial erosion of topsoil in a place of rich farmland. That could be an action
that would elicit some kind of counter-action on your part. And I trust that we can all
agree that the maintenance of a clean environment requires the concerted efforts of all
When I as an African-American, female, corporate executive speak on the
topic of diversity, I know that there is always going to be an unspoken question on the
minds of many listeners. They will wonder: What does she really think? If I could take
away her script and read her inner thoughts, what would they be?
I will try to answer that question with particular reference to race.
Frankly, I am worried. What makes me apprehensive is the growing gap in the perceptions
of white Americans on one side and black Americans on the other. It is as though the
giraffe and the elephant have each been blinded to what the other sees as reality. White
Americans, for the most part, believe that race is no longer much of an issue in our
society. They see the nighttime television dramas in which individuals from all races get
along as buddies and excel equally. Thats how it is in real life, right?
Wrong, I would tell you. While I cannot pretend to speak for black Americans as a
whole, I can tell you that a recent Gallup poll indicates that 50% of black American
believe that they have been discriminated against within the past 30 days . . . when
shopping, dining out, working, using public transportation, or interacting with the
police. Whats more, I can cite studies showing that, with similar educational
backgrounds, black males earn less than 75 percent of what their white peers take home.
Our journey toward greater harmony and justice is not yet over.
Having already given you the dictionary version, I would like to close with my own
definition of diversity. To my mind, diversity is not merely the absence of
discrimination; more fundamentally, it is the powerful presence of a sense of teamwork and
community . . . one that brings all kinds of people from different backgrounds together .
. . with the end result of creating a whole that is much greater than the sum of the
My challenge to you who are already fighting on the side of the angels when it
comes to the environment is be equally bold and energetic in bringing that kind of
teamwork and community into play . . . in making the Missouri Department of Natural
Resources a true house for diversity.