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November 17, 2015

Trudeau’s Diversity – Good or Bad?

Ian's Morning Musing image

So what do you think of Harper’s cabinet? The Globe & Mail carried the headline Trudeau unveils diverse cabinet that looks like Canada and our new Prime Minster expressed “incredible pleasure” in providing such diversity.

Right now, I am not so sure I am.

I say this not because I do not believe in diversity. I do. I say this because I want the most competent person in each of the portfolios. Regardless of ethnicity, gender, race, disability, geographic representation and more, in the most important governmental roles in our country, don’t we want the best professionals possible? In any other profession, should diversity be our primary guide? Do I want the best surgeon from a remote region of Canada doing my open heart surgery because the hospital needed to be diverse and he/she was the best there was? Of course not, I want the very best surgeon in the field.

So I’ve asked myself, why did I think this way? Two immediate experiences jumped into my mind. Firstly, at an annual general meeting many years ago, there were nominations for new board positions which were going to be put to a vote. The chair talked about board diversity and a question from the floor, directed to him was, “are you reassuring us (shareholders) that you are recommending the very best directors available that will serve our best interests, and not just a diverse candidate?”

That question remains the same today. In a Letter to the Editor appearing in the Globe & Mail this week, something similar was posed: “Now imagine what would happen if a major corporation announced it was replacing its executive suite with people selected on the basis of gender and ethnicity, rather than competence and relevant experience. What would the Globe’s columnists write? How would analysts rate the stock?”

My second experience, probably about fifteen years ago, was when I proposed to the head of a specialized business in the finance industry that his executive team should be more diverse. He had already decided who he wanted to put in a particular role, but he threw out the challenge, “go find someone that I can consider,” knowing that the marketplace was small and diverse talent would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Bottom line, it was HR’s challenge to solve. His job was to run a profitable business.

So, with these thoughts running through my head, I wanted to test my reaction to Trudeau’s cabinet with a female business colleague for whom I have a great deal of respect. My comment sparked an immediate, almost impulsive reaction: “so would you be questioning a bunch of old white guys?” She had made a good point. Would I? Just for the record, we should all be evaluating cabinet level performance in governments, and that includes researching the backgrounds of such officials so that we have an educated opinion. For me, the very nature of diversity at executive levels carries a lot of emotional baggage. Bravely, the topic has a rung a chord in Trudeau’s thinking. That’s a positive step forward.

It is also somewhat refreshing that Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) CEO Mark Wiseman was given plaudits for setting himself apart by “attacking the issue of women in leadership.” It is nice that this CEO is being recognized, but banks have been working hard in this area for years. The truth is that progress has been slow. CPPIB’s solution is diverse hiring, develop and retain, and, “changing organizational mindsets and more flexible work schedules.” Is this a revelation to any CHRO? I hope not. I applaud all those CHROs who are fervent on this issue and are working hard on it, knowing it is an uphill battle, particularly when there is unconscious bias in play.

So, what’s my point? At the end of the day, we are looking for diversity AND performance. Trudeau has done a good job of luring many cabinet members and backbenchers who have professional accomplishments that should be admired and, may in fact, be superior to their counterparts in the last government. That is encouraging for sure, so I should be optimistic and hopeful.

As a proponent of the benefits from diversity, a cross-section of views and insights should also fashion better policy and more inclusive decision-making. However, I can’t help thinking that Trudeau’s push for diversity will long be forgotten if the government does not deliver.

What do you think? In government and in corporations today, can we have both broad diversity and performance? If not, why not?
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About the AuthorIan Hendry headshopt
Ian Hendry is the president of the Strategic Capability Network. In his Morning Musings, he provides insight on issues facing today’s business leaders and looks at subject matter related to upcoming SCNetwork events. He is also VP HR & Administration at Interac Association.


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