The Limits of Diverse Representation: Why It’s Just Not Enough

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion

This is the fifth in a series of insights adapted from the new book “Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact,” co-authored by Dr. Ernest Gundling and Dr. Cheryl Williams. To order the book, please visit Amazon.

View part one of this post (The Problem With the “Canned Culture” Approach to DEI) here. 

Many companies are attempting to bring greater diversity to their executive ranks. This is admirable and important, and there is still a long way to go for most executive teams. However, just selecting a diverse executive team does not guarantee an effective approach to realizing the potential strengths of diversity, which do not materialize automatically.

Diverse Representation is Not Enough

Diverse representation can lead to intractable disagreements between interest groups or complaints from constituencies that believe they have been short-changed, drawing attention away from other strategic priorities. There also may be questions about the appropriate basis for representation in the executive ranks. Should representation be calculated based on national demographics (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender), the demographic features of prominent communities near the headquarters location, support for the most marginalized groups, relative global market share of various countries, growth rates of domestic or international markets, numbers of qualified candidates in the succession pipeline, or some other factor?

In addition to diverse representation, which remains an ongoing challenge for almost every enterprise, it is important to build executive teams that can fully utilize their diverse mix to both diverge and convergegenerating creative ideas together and also aligning around implementation. This requires providing a series of career opportunities that diversify the experiences of present and future leaders themselves, regardless of their backgrounds, so they can practice mutual empathy, weigh different perspectives, and serve both as skillful advocates and as catalysts for bringing ideas together in novel ways. 

Decades of research have identified a key capability of high-performing global leaders from any background that is variously described as “cognitive flexibility,” “frame-shifting,” “agility,” or “dexterity.” One classic approach to cultivating this vital trait has been the multi-year assignment abroad in which an individual becomes a fish out of water and must learn to adapt to this unfamiliar environment, discarding previous assumptions and patterns of behavior along the way. Jarring and disorienting experiences of “culture shock,” often accompanied by severe setbacks, tend to foster greater creativity and a more agile and nuanced approach to culture—including differences both within and between cultures. Former expatriates frequently report that their experiences abroad have better enabled them to lead diverse teams at headquarters. 

Diversifying Experiences

Experiences that foster flexibility and adaptability among leaders are fortunately not limited to assignments abroad. A range of more or less structured and life-changing experiences can be leveraged for their developmental value. These experiences transgress the usual rules and boundaries that exist in our minds, stimulating individuals to look at different viewpoints and to adopt new problem-solving techniques. According to an intriguing article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, so-called diversifying experiences are:

“Unusual and unexpected events that… violate normality, break cognitive schemas, and promote a thinking style characterized by cognitive flexibility.”

Here is a list of options, starting with relatively simple examples, along with comments suggesting related assumptions that could be challenged along the way to cultivating a more agile mindset.

  • Virtual reality game (“Physical objects are not moving in the way they are supposed to.”)
  • Conversation with an immigrant work colleague (“I had no idea about what she went through to get here, the struggles she has experienced, or her impressions of me.”)
  • Attending an employee resource group meeting (“I thought that everyone in our company felt that they were being treated equally.”)
  • Stretch goals (“I’m not going to get there with the old methods. I have to find a new path.”)
  • Action learning project (“People from other functions brought perspectives that were very different from mine.”) 
  • Design thinking project (“Customers reacted very differently to our prototype model than we had anticipated.”)
  • Disruptive technology development (“This technology will change the basis of competition in our industry.”)
  • Leading a global team (“I learned that I need to do a lot more to draw out the opinions of all team members.”)
  • Assignment to a new function (“I am going to have to develop a new skill set to be successful in this role.”)
  • Expatriate assignment (“Most of my team members quit, and I was not going to meet my objectives; I had to hire new team members and find a different way to manage people in this country.”)
  • Encountering prejudice (“I thought that I was a valued member of this organization, but it seems I’m being regarded as a second-class citizen with limited possibilities for getting ahead.”)
  • Crisis management (“This event wasn’t supposed to happen and is not in my job description; I’m not prepared for such a huge, high stakes role.”)
  • Personal events (“Becoming a new parent turned my whole world upside down and altered my priorities.”)
  • Family tragedies (“Living through a serious illness has changed the way I live each day.”)

The items listed above are very different, and some may be desirable while others just occur as part of our lives. However, each entails a struggle with circumstances that were at least in part unanticipated and inconsistent with the person’s prior experience and assumptions, while offering the possibility for an active response. Leadership development can create or tap into such experiences through job assignments, training, coaching, mentorship, peer exchanges, story-telling, relationship-building among team members, and other means.


Organizations seeking to build executive teams with broader representation should ensure that the leaders they select have benefitted from a rich set of diversifying experiences as well. Flexibility and adaptation are habits that can be cultivated and enhanced, along with resilience in the face of adversity. These behaviors help to ensure that team members advocate energetically for their own perspectives while also listening, learning, and integrating the viewpoints of others, enabling the team as a whole to realize the full value of its diverse membership.



About the Authors

Ernest Gundling, Ph.D
Co-Founder and Managing Partner

Dr. Gundling has worked with numerous Fortune 500 firms and is a sought-after keynote speaker and executive coach. He has lived in Asia and Europe, including six years in Japan. Dr. Gundling holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. from Stanford University; he also serves as a Lecturer in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of six books, the latest co-authored with Dr. Cheryl Williams, Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.

Connect With Ernie on LinkedIn

Dr. Cheryl Williams

Cheryl Williams, Ph.D., aims to reconcile global workforce requirements with the rapidly-evolving areas of inclusion, equity, and belonging. Her experience with cultural intelligence, gender equity, and race relations, serves as the cornerstone for her research and client work.  Dr. Williams is also Professor Emeritus at Concordia University, Irvine, California (CUI). She has worked in over eighty countries spanning Europe, Asia/South East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa/Southern Africa, South America, and North America. Dr. Williams holds a Ph.D. from Florida State University, and M.S. and B.S. degrees from Purdue University. She co-authored Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.

Connect With Cheryl on LinkedIn