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Al Vivian on the evolution of diversity and inclusion

February 15, 2012

Linkage’s Marketing Director Sarah Breigle sat down with BASIC Diversity’s CEO and President, Al Vivian at the 2011 Global Institute for Leadership Development (GILD) to discuss how the field of diversity and inclusion has evolved and what inspires his diversity and inclusion work. Here is their conversation:

Sarah: How has diversity evolved in the last decade to include both diversity and inclusion? What does it mean now versus what it meant 20 years ago?

Al: The big difference that you will see in the industry is that 10 years ago, maybe even 20 years ago, the topic of diversity was looked at only from the prospective of race and gender issues. And in particular, with regard to race, it was still from the mindset of black and white only, when in reality it was always much larger than that.

Practitioners are now looking at the whole spectrum of diversity, which includes race, gender, generational issues, educational background, geographic location, linguistic styles, and languages–it has become a tremendously large field. At my firm, BASIC Diversity, we describe diversity as “The combination of all the things that make us individuals”–to include culture. Cultural diversity cannot be avoided and must be included in the spectrum as well. Organizations must also create an inclusive environment. Diversity deals with representation or the demographic mix. Inclusion deals with creating an environment where every segment of that diverse demographic mix feels included and engaged.

What common leadership challenges do you see in your work?

I am glad you asked that question. At BASIC Diversity, we look at the entire field of diversity, not from a management perspective, but from a leadership perspective. Management is about policies and procedures; but leadership is about motivation and inspiration. What every organization must grow to realize is that diversity and inclusion are essentially leadership initiatives. Every organization must ask itself: “Have our leaders created an environment where every member of the team feels included, valued, and engaged?” Because in the end, it doesn’t matter how good your management skills and policies are if your people don’t feel valued. That’s leadership! Additionally it must cut across every culture and demographic group. We encourage questions like:

• How do you inspire and motivate across cultures?
• How do you show your people a vision, and then get them hooked on that vision?
• How do you inspire your people to want to do the right thing, so that they will create an inclusive work environment that will engage all of its people across every difference?

Can you describe an “ah-hah moment” that helped define who you are today?

That is a great question. I have a lot of “ah-hah moments” and I go out of my way to put myself in “ah-hah moment” situations. I am a true believer that if you are not constantly learning, then you are going backwards. So, my goal is always to become comfortable, being uncomfortable.

I think for me in the diversity arena, one of my biggest “ah-hah’s” was fully realizing that people are genuinely good. Unfortunately, when dealing with cross-cultural interactions so many people have this mindset of “our group is right/good; that group is wrong/bad,” when in reality, people are genuinely good.

There are a lot of really good people out there with a lot of bad information, and because we are afraid to have conversations about our differences, primarily due to the fear of offending somebody or ending up in a lawsuit, we do not have those conversations at all. Well, people do have those conversations, but only with other people who are just like them.

Often times, individuals will talk to people in their own cultural grouping about the “other”, but rarely do they sit down with the “other” and talk about our interactions and how we should work well together. I encourage having those conversations with people who are not like ourselves. So, my biggest “ah-hah” was learning that there are very few bad people out there. Most people are good people who are operating in a state of “unconscious incompetence.” In other words, they just don’t know what they don’t know. When you give good people knowledge, most good people will step up to the plate and do the right thing, especially, if you can show them the wisdom of how diversity and inclusion will improve their ability to do their jobs, and/or how it is going to help improve their lives, then you’ve got them. And when I do that, when I get people to see that it can improve their life, it makes it easy for me to do my job. And by the way, I am still shocked that I get paid to do my passion.

Tell me more about BASIC Diversity.

BASIC Diversity is one of the oldest diversity consulting firms in the country. We were founded in 1974 by my father Dr. C.T. Vivian, who was a member of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s executive staff. When the movement ended, he realized that there was still a lot of work to be done in the area of race relations, and began conducting a race relations seminar. To this day, our Race Awareness Workshop is an integral part of our business. Of course, we have consistently updated and revised it. As a result, it has been evaluated as the most effective race relations seminar in the country. When I joined the firm we only did training, and this seminar was all we had. But recognizing that diversity is more than just race, my goal was to expand our product offering, and the reach of our company as a whole. Now, we offer both training and consulting on gender relations, generational issues, and other areas encompassing the whole spectrum of diversity.

Thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to talk with me today.

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