Remember the Battle of the Somme: Promote Inclusion Now
By David Everhart, President, Aperian Global
Friday night across Europe governments and citizens held vigils to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme. At 7:30 AM on July 1, 1916, whistles blew along the Allied trenches and thousands of soldiers went “over the top” and into the teeth of withering machine gun fire. Overall the battle lasted for five months and left over one million soldiers dead. Exactly a century later various factions and leaders in Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S. are again using fear of racial, religious, and cultural difference as a political weapon.
The U.K. just voted to leave the European Union. Part of the reason for this result was the failure of the country’s leadership to convince the electorate of the many advantages of remaining – a failure which will cost the senior leaders of both major parties their jobs. Right-wing nationalist parties in Europe are gaining ground after an influx of immigrants from conflict regions.
The U.S. Republican Party’s nominee for president gleefully talks about building barriers, both physical and legal, to exclude people based on nationality and religion.
We would all do well to remind ourselves and these peddlers of propaganda of the events that led to the Great War and subsequently World War II. Exactly now, in July of 2016 is an excellent time for leaders in both private and public organizations to redouble efforts to promote and build organizations of inclusion.
Thankfully, in spite of fear-based political rhetoric promoting a better world through intolerance and exclusion, we are seeing a strong trend from global corporations demanding not just tolerance (grudgingly putting up with people or behaviors we are uncomfortable with) but true acceptance (honestly respecting difference and seeking to understand.) This movement is being driven not just by humanitarian reasons, but because inclusion improves organizational performance. People who feel supported and accepted work harder and with more commitment than those who feel excluded. Organizations that promote inclusion, have a clear definition for what this means, whose leadership shows visible support through words and behavior for increasing diversity, and that provide learning and development at all levels are shown to achieve stronger business results.
I have a strong personal belief that the world is safer, more prosperous, and more accessible when countries and organizations focus on cooperation rather than on conflict. Economic interdependence reduces the likelihood of (and motivation for) violence and destruction. I am also convinced that the front line of this effort lies with trade and commerce. Diplomats and policy makers need to create the rule book and define the playing field (like the EU, NAFTA, TPP, WTO) but businesses, from small to enormous, are the key players.
Over the past thirty years I’ve watched and supported hundreds of teams overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to build manufacturing plants, supply chain organizations, R&D centers, retail operations in locations that the leaders at first did not understand.
I still remember an experience from the 1990s. My partner and I had just started our first business advising Japanese companies entering the U.S. market. I was standing on an assembly line with a 40-year old Japanese manufacturing manager from rural Japan who had just arrived in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He was there to manage a group of American workers who had recently been hired to operate the manufacturing line. Mr. “Yoshida” from Japan spoke no English and had traveled outside of Japan. “Ken” and “Shirley” were his new American employees with no manufacturing experience (both had come from local farms and jobs and had rarely left Kentucky). My partner had led a handful of these new American hires to Japan for a one-month training. One middle-aged man, “George”, had never spent a single night away from his wife before, had never been outside the U.S, or eaten seafood (certainly not raw, nor with chopsticks!). Both the Japanese and the Americans were extremely uncomfortable; some were frightened. There were a hundred reasons why the new plant should fail. It didn’t. Despite all of the severe challenges, two years later the plant was producing high-quality, high-technology parts for about half a million new American-made cars. It was not without its challenges, but the managers on both sides had grown to respect one another and in many cases had become true friends. Those who could not bring themselves to try to understand their foreign counterparts left the organization. Those who stayed had begun to realize that there was an entirely different way of thinking about work, about communication, and about relationships. Despite the circumstances this odd coupling of Americans and Japanese had formed themselves into a true team.
In the second example from the mid-1990s, I had just started to work with U.S. companies trying to build businesses in China. A Chinese consulting partner and I were standing in an empty field near Suzhou, China, scattered with weeds and piles of old brick and rubble with “Jeff”, the owner of a small American electronic components company. Jeff had decided that he needed to build his own manufacturing site in China or he was going to lose his U.S. customers to low-cost Chinese competitors. Jeff had been to Asia before, but was decidedly uncomfortable; he didn’t like the food, the hotels, nor the traffic, and struggled with managing the language barrier. He also admitted that he had had a lifelong mistrust of Communism. Still, Jeff was determined to learn how to build a business in China. He saw this as a matter of survival. Despite his discomfort and the seemingly overwhelming obstacles, two years later Jeff’s empty rubble-strewn field was a two-story manufacturing site producing high-quality electronic cables for computers. He employed about 200 Chinese workers and made trips quarterly from Ohio to Suzhou. Jeff had also developed a fondness for some local foods and learned a few words of Mandarin. His business was growing again and was profitable.
In thirty years working internationally, I’ve learned that effective global leaders never use culture or diversity as an excuse for non-performance. They figure out how to include diversity of thought and perspective as an advantage. The 100th anniversary of the battle of Somme, coming at a time of increasingly inward-looking and nationalistic sentiments, should be an excellent reminder to redouble efforts at promoting inclusion in all its forms.
David Everhart currently serves as President of Aperian Global. David conducts leadership development programs, intercultural management assessments, and executive coaching assignments for American, Asian, African, and European management teams at multi-national firms across multiple industry sectors.