Diversity Drives Better Business Outcomes: A Q&A with Sonia Aranza

It’s up to the C-suite to create inclusive organizations where a diverse workforce thrives and drives innovation and profits.

By David Ward August 27, 2019
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​Sonia Aranza has dedicated her adult life to delivering one simple but compelling message: Diversity is a leadership competency that provides a competitive business advantage.

Aranza, a global diversity and inclusion strategist who was born in the Philippines and raised in Hawaii, is a recognized expert on the importance of working effectively across differences and leveraging diversity.

Drawing on her personal background as an immigrant, her upbringing in Hawaii’s multicultural environment and her academic studies in cross-cultural relations, Aranza has worked with leaders at organizations including Boeing, Sodexo, NASA and the U.S. Army, helping them leverage diversity and create inclusive work environments where everyone can thrive.

Aranza also mentors college students and emerging leaders to help prepare the next generation to succeed in an increasingly diverse environment. She contends that when leaders work effectively across all dimensions of diversity—including differences in thoughts and ideas, race, ethnicity, gender, age, language, nationality, physical/mental abilities, religion, sexual orientation and socio-economic class—organizations can gain a strong competitive advantage. Aranza is a featured speaker at the Society for Human Resource Management’s Inclusion 2019 event, Oct. 28-30 in New Orleans.

Of age, race or gender, which presents the greatest diversity challenge right now?

Diversity is not a cafeteria where you pick which issues you prefer to address. The urgency of one dimension over the other is relative. Exclusion literally hurts, no matter which difference it’s based on.

The bigger issue is workplace culture. I define “culture” as a set of attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and values shared and passed on over time. The key is to understand the workplace culture and what needs to shift to create an environment where workers of all ages, races, genders and other dimensions of difference are valued. Challenges will change. Values do not.

There are currently five generations in the workforce. What can HR leaders do to ensure that age diversity becomes an asset and not a liability?

Each of the five generations in the workplace brings a different set of experiences that inform their diverse work philosophies. It’s important to understand and demystify those differences and learn to leverage them. HR leaders must be deliberate in creating cross­generational teams and other opportunities for collaboration across age groups. This will help workers learn to value and utilize the differences that each brings.

How can diversity and inclusion truly become organizationwide goals?

Top leadership―from the CEO down―must make the business case for diversity and inclusion. The world where we do business has changed. This marketplace, the workplace and the workforce have all changed. Everyone must be committed to creating a work environment where everyone thrives. Leaders must walk the talk and make diversity and inclusion a core value.

How do you reassure the C-suite that building a diverse and inclusive workforce does not mean having to change the corporate culture they’ve worked hard to establish?

C-suite leaders should not require reassurance. They should be the first to step up and lead an organization’s transformation in a diverse and complex environment. Corporate culture is not stagnant. Effective leaders understand the importance of resilience and agility, and they must be willing to adapt and change as necessary.

Some question the effectiveness of diversity training. Any suggestions on how to make sure training works?

It has been said that “training” is for animals while “education and development” are for people. Semantics aside, providing “diversity training” is just one component of a bigger effort to shift culture. Effective diversity training cannot be a stand-alone. There must be follow-through and accountability. When done right, there’s great value in effective diversity training because it provides employees with a shared reference, language and understanding of the issue.

How can an inclusive and diverse workforce help organizations move beyond groupthink and develop an environment where creative problem-solving becomes the norm?

Inclusive leaders create inclusive organizations where a diverse workforce can thrive—places where a diversity of thoughts, ideas and approaches is encouraged and everyone shares in problem-solving. That produces greater engagement, more innovation and better outcomes.

You’ve long been an advocate of inclusion and diversity being catalysts to innovation. How can HR make the C-suite aware of that?

When an organization has people with diverse perspectives and approaches, ideas and innovation flourish. That positively impacts the bottom line. Companies that do not leverage the advantages of diversity and inclusion will not thrive. If you don’t understand the impact of diversity and inclusion on innovation by now, you’re already behind.

But it’s not HR’s job to make the C-suite aware of that. It’s the job of leaders to open their eyes to the irreversible demographic changes taking place, the battle for talent and the competition for market share. HR supports and executes the vision that comes from the top. If necessary, HR can be a catalyst for change. However, if leaders don’t get it, HR will face an uphill battle. Leaders must lead!

Some studies have suggested that while diversity is on the rise, it’s largely a result of companies “checking the box” rather than acting out of genuine commitment. How is that concern best addressed?

Leaders must understand that “diversity” is about representation while “inclusion” is about engagement. Diversity without inclusion will fail. Both diversity and inclusion must become core values that inform how an organization exists and operates. This applies to everything from recruitment and retention to creating an environment where workers can unleash their talent and contribute to organizational success.

How can HR work with the C-suite to ensure that organizations listen to, reward and retain talented workers of diverse backgrounds?

When a culture of diversity and inclusion starts with C-suite leaders, talent will be heard, rewarded and retained. In other words, workplace culture starts with top leadership. HR is there to implement and support that culture, but diversity and inclusion must begin with top leadership.  

Interview by David Ward, a freelance writer based in North Carolina.

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