Building on Diversity

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March 10, 2017 by Mike Hillwig

Sometimes, it’s the lessons you don’t intend to teach that have the most impact.

More than a decade ago, I worked for a construction management company. We were a Boston-based company that had national reach. If you have ever eaten in a restaurant known for their cheesecakes, eaten the pizza named for a western state, or shopped in the retail stores of a computer company named after a type of fruit, you’ve seen my former employer’s handiwork.

Construction companies are a ripe target for lawsuits involving sexual harassment. The stereotypical construction worker is a a heterosexual white man. The company’s CEO had a genius idea. He wanted to change the company at its roots by embracing diversity. Keep in mind that the company’s headquarters was in Boston’s South End, which has a long history of being the hub of the gay community.

Our CEO went to the HR director with a simple challenge. He wanted her to hire the best and brightest people from all walks of life. He wanted women working in the field, not just in the office. He wanted people of color, and he wanted gays and lesbians. This company was going to embrace diversity and turn an instrustry on its ears. Diversity was about to become the heartbeat of the company’s culture.

In order to do that, the company brought in diversity consultants to help, and they required every employee to spend at least five days a year in some type of diversity training or workshops. We had employee resource groups of all kinds, men, women, people of color, LGBTQ, ESL (English as a Second Language) and so on.

I spent a lot of time working with the LGBTQ group. Around 2005, someone in our group suggested that we ask the company to sponsor Boston Pride. Imagine for a moment, just thinking about asking the CEO of nationwide construction company to sponsor an LGBTQ festival–it was crazy. We spent weeks building a business case for why this would be good for the company. We were ready for any questions and had answers to any concerns he might have.

Finally, the day came. Three of us walked into the CEO’s office and asked if he would be interested in sponsoring a Pride event. His first question was the one we weren’t prepared to answer–how much money we wanted. At that point, we meekly asked for $5k, and he laughed. That’s when Tom said something that blew me away. Paraphrasing here, he said “Look, our headquarters is in the heart of the gay community. We want to hire the best and brightest of all communities. If we’re going to walk the walk, we need to put our money where our mouth is. You’ve got $10k. Make us look good in the community.”

It’s probably worth pointing out that at this point, marriage equality was a big deal. Massachusetts was the only state in the nation that offered marriage protections for LGBTQ couples. Supporting the gay community was risky, brave, and bold. It was also the right thing to do. That’s exactly why the company did it.

With that, the meeting was over. Our CEO had just made a ton of resources available to us. We had a marketing opportunity ahead of us. That’s when we went to Kelli, our creative director, who took the challenge head-on. She came back the next day with a few concepts. What ultimately won was “Building on Diversity.” We had a stack of hard hats in rainbow colors, and it was genius.

With my coworkers

I’ve never been so proud to be part of a Pride celebration. We were probably one of the first construction companies to sponsor a Pride event. And the community took notice.

Why do I bring this up in a technology blog? In my last post, I mentioned that I had to hire a new team last summer. At the forefront of my mind was diversity–how do I get the best and brightest? By embracing diversity, I was able to build an amazing team.

  • Great post, Mike!

    I’ve sought diversity when building teams throughout my career. It’s been easier to accomplish when I was a manager, part-owner, or owner.

    It’s relatively easy to get folks to see the value of different perspectives and points-of-view. It’s sometimes harder to get folks to buy into people who are truly diverse. My argument is, “I don’t want people who “are capable of thinking differently*, I want *thinking* people who *are* different.”

    Cool post. Linking to it.

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