Once there was a giraffe who built a new home with soaring ceilings, tall doorways and narrow hallways. He saw his friend, an elephant, passing by. He thought the two could work together on some projects in his new woodworking shop. So the giraffe invited the elephant into his house.
The elephant had liked working with the giraffe before and saw this as an opportunity to get to know the giraffe better. The elephant walked up the front walk but could fit no more than his head through the doorway. Fortunately, the giraffe had made the door expandable for his tools, so he removed bolts and panels to let the elephant enter. He felt very accommodating.
The two shared woodworking stories, then the giraffe's wife beckoned him upstairs to take a phone call. The giraffe told the elephant to make himself at home. The elephant decided to explore. But as he moved through the doorway, he heard a strange crunch. Since he could not go through the door, the elephant thought that he would join the giraffe upstairs. But the steps began to crack beneath him, and he fell. As the elephant sat there bewildered, the giraffe came downstairs and asked what was happening.
The elephant said he was trying to make himself at home. The giraffe looked around and noted that the doorway was too narrow. So the giraffe decided that the elephant was too big and advised the elephant to exercise. Also, noted the giraffe, the stairs were too weak to carry the elephant's weight, so he advised the elephant to take some ballet classes and become lighter on his feet.
"Perhaps," the elephant said. "But to tell you the truth, I'm not sure that a house designed for a giraffe will ever really work for an elephant, not unless there are some major changes."
As readers no doubt have guessed, the giraffe represents the group in control at a business. This group controls the house, the design and the rules. The elephant is the other — often women and people of color — who the controlling group invites in and welcomes but who will always be an outsider unless the business takes affirmative measures. The giraffe did not build the house with the elephant in mind, and adjustment becomes difficult. (The concept of giraffe and elephant comes from "Building a House for Diversity: A Fable About a Giraffe & an Elephant Offers New Strategies for Today's Workforce," by R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. and Majorie I. Woodruff.)
Diversity is meaningless without inclusion. At the end of the day, will the house accommodate and be adaptable for all? Here are some thoughts for executives leading Texas businesses.
• Diversity must be hitched permanently to inclusion. Being invited into the house is nothing without the freedom and support to move freely throughout the house. Do not invite talented people into the company if they will not have a full seat at the table and a sense of belonging. Businesses must stay tuned, focused and sensitive to underutilized human assets. Are leaders dusting all the corners of the house, or are they only polishing the floor in the entry? Do all employees receive mentoring and training, or just those who are most like the group in control?
• What consideration did architects give to the actual and potential residents who will enter the house? A diverse and inclusive house that retains residents must have a broad, inviting and inclusive view from all windows. Unless the giraffe and elephant apply the wisdom of crowds —that large, diverse groups generally come up with better solutions than small, homogenous groups, famously discussed in James Surowiecki's book of the same name — and find creative solutions to their conflicts, they may have to go their separate ways. Respectful flexibility and inclusion are key to retention.
• A homeowner who ignores critical maintenance and renovations can ultimately destroy the building and squander his investment. Those who cannot live comfortably in the house or who are excluded from some rooms will grow so uncomfortable they will leave, taking with them all the skills they bring to the household and all the investment made in them.
• Blaming people when problems are structural blinds execs to creative solutions. The giraffe and the elephant see different sources of the friction in their relationship. The giraffe is horrified by the destruction the elephant created. He wants to fix the elephant, because the giraffe believes his house is as it should be. However, the changes the giraffe demands require the elephant to abandon his unique qualities and become more like the giraffe. In essence, since the elephant does not fit in the giraffe's house, the giraffe wants to change the elephant, not the house. Sound familiar?
• Enlist a diverse crew for renovations. Consider a joint project of differing parties and perspectives. Could a crew of elephant and giraffe architects build a house that would accommodate both? Business leaders should examine who sits on their diversity and inclusion leadership teams and committees. Those are the main teams that will build a house of universal accommodation that produces an unequivocal and indelible (my favorite words) sense of belonging.
Future at Stake
Texas businesses that reject diversity and inclusion because they create tension and take money from profits — as well as are difficult, expensive, time-consuming and complex — have decided not to grow, flourish and bloom. Deciding not to create an environment where all can learn, grow and thrive permanently compromises retention of talented professionals. Often, those who focus only on the bottom line miss the long-term economic and intrinsic value of true diversity and inclusion.
In contrast, companies that unleash unfettered potential in service of collective goals build long-term value: personal development of human assets, valuable return for the business, and creative and diverse service for and to clients. Businesses that internally and externally reflect that they unconditionally accept the differences among team members and that give unconditional support and training to all equitably will impress clients, who will come to respect each and every talented professional who works for the organization.
Sometimes execs demand to know the business case for diversity. I respect the bottom line and the fact that the businesses must be profitable. However, diversity, inclusion, respect, training, mentoring and coaching are compatible with — and in fact boost — the bottom line.
Each and every supervisor in a business must recruit, mentor, train, sponsor, promote and believe in all those working for them. Further, each executive must lead and be the indelible and deep change that is necessary and overdue. Diversity without inclusion is meaningless, and diversity without inclusion and without accountability is a tragedy. If not now, then when? If not by the business leaders of Texas, then by whom?
• Businesses designed to accommodate the group in control often will not fit others unless the company takes affirmative measures.
• Link diversity to inclusion. Retaining talent requires creativity.
• Consider the wisdom of crowds when renovating a business to resolve conflicts. Examine who sits on the business' diversity and inclusion leadership teams and committees.
• Look at structural problems instead of seeking to place blame for problems.
Pauline Higgins is senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County.