Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, describes how learning about diversity from today’s children can dramatically strengthen a company.
By: Gary Shapiro
Too many of today’s business leaders – many of whom came of age in the ’50s and ’60s – grew up cloistered in communities filled with people of similar economic status and cultural background. But our country has changed from just white males dominating business and government. We have women, immigrants and people of color as entrepreneurs and leaders, weaving a fabric that enriches the national experience, our innovation and our success. Indeed, diversity is now a competitive strength, as it encourages new ideas, innovation and thinking outside the traditional box. As our country becomes more heterogeneous, we would be wise to take a lesson from our kids, whose increasingly multicultural childhood experiences are instilling an appreciation for diversity, self-evaluation and teamwork that will serve them well in business.
My older sons consider it a point of pride to have a diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural group of friends. Unlike those of us who grew up in a more segregated time – whether the segregation were government-backed or simply a de facto social norm – young adults recognize that different perspectives, ideas and passions strengthen a group and the individuals in it.
The same is true for businesses. Though American culture celebrates the individual, it’s more often the case that a team of experts is needed to make an enterprise successful. Thomas Edison, romanticized as the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” is a great example of this truth. Though many picture Edison as a laboratory loner, he in fact ran a “highly organized, multipurpose facility staged by a 40-person team of scientists and technicians.”
The tech industry provides great examples of the importance of diversity, in background as well as in education. By 2001, Google had graduated from startup status, but its young founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who met at Stanford as grad students, operated the company based on how they interacted as friends — as an ongoing academic argument with some name-calling thrown in for good measure. For Google to grow and build on its initial success, the company needed someone at the helm who knew how to run a world-class business – Eric Schmidt.
Page liked Schmidt because he had experience as a programmer and coming off a stint as CEO of a multinational tech company, and he had the management skills that Page lacked. Installing Schmidt as part of the management triad supplemented Page’s vision for Google as well as Brin’s skills at strategy, branding and relationship-building.
When Schmidt became Google’s CEO, he built up an executive team and a sales force. In 2004, he successfully took the company public. Although he stepped down as CEO in 2011 to became Google’s executive chairman of the board, Schmidt has been a driving force behind Google’s position as the second most valuable company in the world, with $29 billion in revenue and more than 24,000 employees.
Diversity means more than just valuing every individual’s input. It requires an honest assessment of one’s own shortcomings and expanding comfort zones to acknowledge real differences among team members. Embracing diversity not only brings new perspectives to the table, it also trains us to be more introspective and accepting of our own shortcomings and weaknesses. When we recognize that it’s okay to be different, we realize it’s also okay not to be perfect. At the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, I try to recognize my own weaknesses and hire employees who can compensate for them and complement my strengths. I encourage other supervisors within the organization to do the same.
It rarely, if ever, helps to say, “I’ll just improve on my weaknesses.” In some cases, that might be true. But more often than not, those weaknesses won’t improve, and the enterprise will suffer as a result. Page and Brin understood the value of a different background, different training and different strengths than their own; they were necessities that helped grow Google and, ultimately, take the company public.
Our kids are growing up in a culture that values true diversity of background, life experiences and skill. As a result, they’re developing richer friendships, maturing faster and learning important life lessons earlier than their parents did.
As in life, a business’s diversity of backgrounds and opinions can mean the difference between success or failure, enabling leaders to challenge preconceived notions and equipping enterprises with a wide range of tools for success.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.