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A. B. Wilson Communications

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.

I’d like to begin by retelling a story that was told in the late 70’s and early 80’s, 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 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 Frenchman dead.

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 don’t 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 don’t 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 environmental context.

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 I’m not intending to be gender-specific when I say this) man-made constructs. They are what we make them.

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 didn’t 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. It’s 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.

Thomas’s 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 wouldn’t hurt, he adds helpfully, "if you’d 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. That’s 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 wouldn’t 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 concerned citizens.

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. That’s 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. What’s 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 individual parts.

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.

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Andrew B. Wilson

26 Taylor Place Drive
St. Louis, MO 63108
Phone: (314) 361-1195

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