Managing Diverse Teams

By Ashford Chancelor

Diversity is ever present in most aspects of our society today but, even then, can come to you in unexpected forms.

I worked in Washington, DC for twelve years and was no stranger to diverse environments. DC was a melting pot of people of more than 170 nationalities and ethnic groups, making it one of the most diverse cities in the United States. In addition, I had traveled to 35 countries on six continents and so had experienced first-hand many different environments – from the jungles of Brazil to the cultural and financial capitals of Paris and London to the deserts of Abu Dhabi.

None of this had prepared me for the assignment I was about to undertake.

During my last year in DC, I was fortunate to serve as the CFO for an organization engaged in scientific research into the spectrums of light (e.g., radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays) with a multitude of applications in the military, communications, manufacturing, and medical industries).

The accounting staff was incredibly vibrant with people representing linages from Vietnam, Croatia, Spain, Bhutan, Jamaica, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. As such, the group represented strata in gender, religion (Christian/ Buddhist/ Islamic/ Hindi), and ethnicity. To me, originally from a small town in west Texas, it felt like a very small microcosm of the UN General Assembly.

Leading and managing this group required me to be extremely aware of both the commonalities and inherent differences interwoven into the very fabric of our relationships with each other.

For example, one day I received a call from HR with the message that the woman from Bhutan had been very disturbed by a conversation she overheard between the men from Afghanistan and India.

They had made some derogatory comments about the role of women in society and she had been highly disturbed by what she heard. The precepts held about women in sectors of the Indian and Afghani culture are, many times, not congruent with the prevailing culture in the U.S.

I had to approach this situation with delicacy and emotional awareness as I sought to address this with the men, as I knew the role of integrating themselves into a culture into which they were not born is an arduous and unfamiliar task in and of itself.

We had a heartful and careful conversation as we all sought to understand the differences of the cultures in which we were raised and while integrating those into the world in which we now lived.

It was the first of many conversations to come and they were not all easy but, over time, and with the tenaciousness of our desire to reach common ground, we were about to create a framework of understanding and mutual respect.

Another aspect of my journey of learning occurred unexpectedly one day. There was an office immediately adjacent to mine that had been empty for a long time (even devoid of furniture). It had a large window that allowed passersby to peer into the interior, but the space was always completely dark.

One morning, I was rushing to a meeting when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw very distinct movement in that dark room. Startled, I whirled around and, through the window, saw someone crouching on the floor.

When I realized what was going on, I smiled.

Earlier in this writing, I noted that many faiths were represented in our accounting department. The person in that room was Muslim and was kneeling on the floor on his prayer rug. All Muslims pray five times in a day, wherever they are in the world. They face the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca.

He, without any fanfare, had created his sacred space, a place of complete privacy, which was not easy in that busy and cramped office. It was a perfect and elegant solution.

I had to establish both respect and trust with my team, to create an atmosphere of confidence in which we could discuss these difficult issues that were always going to arise in this rich and diverse team. That took time and a lot of focus.

I also had to be very vulnerable with them. At that point in my life, I could not know every aspect and nuance of the multiplicity of the cultures, religions and ethnicities embedded in the life streams and experiences of our team. I was bound to make mistakes and, upfront, I asked for forgiveness if I unknowingly violated or impinged on their beliefs. I asked for them to be my teachers in this area. That helped build and strengthen trust between us.

We, as a nation, culture and world are expanding swiftly in every direction and at a rate never anticipated by any of us. As a part of that, we are integrating the rich diversity of civilization rapidly. It is upending long entrenched belief systems that have held sway for what seems like eons.

It has been a rocky and tumultuous road as everyone has experienced.

A great benchmark to this current struggle is Ken Burns’ documentary on the women’s suffrage movement. I highly recommend this. It took Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton decades to overcome virulent and dogmatic opposition to a woman’s right to vote – a basic human right. Through persistence, tenacity and a patience only found in people who have that calling and life purpose, they got there.

Despite what may be our current experience, the basic goodness of humanity is still intact. Some people can adapt and change quickly, and others require more time. We need more compassion, communication, understanding, and patience with each other.

We will get there.