Corporate Culture: Successfully Leading Heterogeneous Teams Into the Future

Automobile engineer discussing with colleagues in car factory.
Research and practice prove that professionally managed diverse teams achieve stronger results than uniform teams. Managers are therefore well advised to address this issue and create a corporate culture that unites and leverages the many facets of diversity.

For some years now, gender roles, prejudices and social stereotypes have been increasingly questioned – the world has become more diverse and tolerant. Yet we are only at the beginning of a development. It will take a lot more time and work before we live in a truly diverse and inclusive society.

Management and leaders should keep up with this development. Not only for moral reasons, but also because society expects it of them and diverse corporate cultures offer a decisive competitive advantage. Companies that miss this train may sooner or later run out of talented employees and lose some of their customers.

But how does successful diversity management work? Science and educational institutions have recognized the trend and are increasingly addressing the topic to help managers implement successful diversity strategies. One example is the “CAS Leadership & Inclusion” course offered by Rochester-Bern Executive Programs. The continuing education program explores communication and inclusion issues as well as leadership of self and others.

Diversity – much more than gender

What does diversity mean? Diversity is not only about gender, but the term includes different aspects: “In Switzerland, until now almost only the gender issue – man/woman – has been researched. But diversity has many other dimensions: Racism, sexual orientation or people with a migration background, to name just a few,” says Prof. Dr. Fabiola H. Gerpott, Professor of Leadership and Lecturer at Rochester-Bern.

The following sections provide an insight into several aspects of diversity and inclusion and are based on stories told by lecturers in the “CAS Leadership & Inclusion” program. They all include fates of people and show what diversity means in general, where the challenges lie and how the topics are relevant for management and leaders.

Racism: “I had to admit to myself that we are not there yet”

Where does Switzerland stand on the issue of racism? Angélique Beldner, news journalist at SRF television, explores this question together with Martin R. Dean in her book “The Summer I Became Black.” Her conclusion: “I had to admit to myself that we are not at a point where skin colour does not matter. I wanted to become aware of my experiences around skin color and face them.”

She explains that racism in Switzerland – fortunately – is usually not lived as directly and offensively as for example in the USA but is nevertheless present. Often it is hidden and only shows up on closer inspection. Typical examples are statements like “…but where are you really from?” or grabbing black people’s hair without asking permission.

Melanie Luu, Content Specialist at the advertising agency Jim & Jim, feels the same way. The successful young woman from Zurich was already confronted with racism against people with an Asian background as a child. She was called a Chink or even aggressively approached. The stereotypical image of Asian people has accompanied her all her life: submissive, quiet and always friendly. Luu has sometimes consciously tried to resist this stereotype: “I always felt I had to be louder than others in order not to sink.”

In the workplace, racism and prejudice can have devastating effects, especially when it prevents people from reaching their potential or the company culture suffers. Angélique Beldner and Melanie Luu tell their story in the “CAS Leadership & Inclusion” and show how to question one’s own perspective in order to avoid hidden racism.

Sexual orientation: The coming out of a CEO

“Sexual orientation is a private matter and plays no role in the company”. Sounds simple, but in reality, it is not self-evident. Adrian Berchtold, CEO at Ruckstuhl AG, publicly admitted his homosexuality at the age of 36. The reason for his coming out was an advertising letter from Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious community that considers homosexuality a sin.

“I’m gay, and therefore not a better or worse supervisor”, Berchtold says. With his coming out, he not only wanted to free himself, but also to set an example. A sign for all those young people who feel and go through what he felt and went through. In addition, he wants managers to reflect about the topic and realize that a person’s sexual orientation does not matter.

Migration background: From refugee to chief physician

In a foreign country, without language skills and financial means – this is the situation of many refugees. Prof. Omer Dzemali, now chief physician at the Clinic for Cardiac Surgery at Zurich’s Triemli City Hospital, was also in this situation in 1992. He was studying in Sarajevo when the Balkan war broke out and he had to flee the country.

Dzemali came from nothing and has worked his way up step by step. Along the way, he got support from different people in a variety of ways, for which he is very grateful. “I was lucky enough to repeatedly meet people who supported and encouraged me. You don’t forget that,” Dzemali said.

His story has made him who he is today and also shaped his leadership skills. With the motto of “A high quality specialized patient-centered cardiac surgery,” Prof. Dzemali has been able to build an outstanding team around him through a modern leadership style. His clinic is a leader in the field of minimally invasive cardiac surgery.

Diversity Management – A Success Factor

What can leaders learn about diversity from these stories? In a nutshell: Diversity is both a great opportunity and a challenge. Research by Prof. Dr. Fabiola H. shows: “Diversity in a team can have a strong positive effect if management deals with it properly. The effect, on the other hand, is negative if diversity is simply imposed in an ill-considered manner”.

An important element for successful diversity management is psychological security. All employees must feel comfortable in their individuality. They should dare to express opinions, ideas and even criticism openly. “Social norms and unwritten laws in teams define what may – or may not – be said and how,” explains Philippe Ammann, Swiss Air Lines Captain, Leadership Instructor. A company in which employees do not share their thoughts cannot succeed in the long term and is the antithesis of successful diversity management.

How to do it right and how multi-layered diversity and inclusion are, is covered in the “CAS Leadership & Inclusion” from Rochester-Bern Executive Programs. The continuing education course is aimed at managers and shows how heterogeneous teams can be successfully led into the future.