Times of historic social change shape people – especially the young – in the most profound ways. A sense of purpose can ignite a burning desire to break down the walls of past wrongs. At the same time, a wave of inspiration can sow the seeds of value-driven leadership modeled by people who have achieved tremendous success despite the odds of failure.
Growing up in South Africa during the end of the nearly 50-year-old system of apartheid, I have met many people who have navigated such epiphanic moments. Whether it was my father, mother, employer, or family friends, every person I encountered in my childhood showed me the potential that every human being has to be what they aspire to be.
Finding Inspirational Leadership That Sidelines Adversity
Throughout my childhood, I was taught to value hard work, respect for others, and strong willfulness. My father, who was a successful dentist and business owner in his own right, was best friends with a local entrepreneur in my hometown. Starting a business without a single banknote to spare, he worked diligently with his brothers to create one of the largest private holding firms in South Africa.
On the surface, my father’s friend appeared to be an industrious man, who went from living in a small, two-bedroom house to owning a mansion, a helicopter, and an enviable collection of luxury cars. I was in awe of his success. However, I didn’t truly appreciate his entrepreneurial journey until I was old enough to work for him as a production scheduler.
Every day I worked at the firm, I learned two valuable lessons about entrepreneurship:
- Losing is never an option: Creating a successful business with very little to spare is not a matter of luck. It’s truly the result of pouring every drop of energy, money, and creativity into achieving a specific goal. For my boss, this mindset was important because he had everything to lose and everything to gain.
- Entrepreneurial thinking opens up a global view of human potential: Whether a business has a workforce of 20 or 200 people, every employee counts. No matter how big the company grew, it was important to acknowledge that every person has the potential to make the business better, stronger, and more competitive.
- Understanding these pillars of entrepreneurship shaped my view on the relationship between leadership and the value of human talent. But it was my mother and her friends who exemplified how transformational and freeing this sense of willful determination can become.
After a career in nursing, my mother led a union of female farmers. Over time, the group built a thriving community focused on providing opportunity to women who live under circumstances such as poverty and hostile discrimination. Together, they harvested cotton in the fields, converted fibers into artisan cloth, performed delicate needlework, and negotiated with sellers to sell their wares. And none of this hard work was done in vain – if fact, the union is now internationally known for its quilting products.
Testing the Value of Diversity and Inclusion When the Stakes Are High
These boyhood lessons of mine carried on long after I graduated from secondary school. They guided me through every trial I experienced when helping a wide variety of people come together to magnify their talents.
For example, when I took up the opportunity to open a 250-seat steakhouse while in university. This was perhaps one of the most exciting and frightening times of my life. Everything I owned depended on the success of this new venture. Given my experience, for me, it was natural to seek out the best talent possible.
The customer experience never discriminates
My staff was so diverse that we represented 9 different cultures and 13 languages. I hired people who were the best in managing the kitchen, grilling steaks, mixing cocktails, serving and busing tables, and more. Not once did I judge whether a candidate could do the job successfully based on their gender, race, religious beliefs, social status, or political leaning.
And you know what? My bets in hiring and workforce development paid off. As it turns out, the customer experience never discriminates. When you have the best people on your team, the products and services you sell will keep customers satisfied and loyal.
Refining the Critical Points of Diversity and Inclusive Leadership
Many years have passed since my venture as a restaurateur, bringing a range of leadership opportunities in the technology and financial industries. But no matter which company employed me or which role I accepted, three foundational truths have played a central role in my approach to workforce development and management.
- All people thrive best with constructive feedback: Whether or not they are doing a good job, employees deserve to know if they are performing well, require additional training, or should reconsider their career path.
- Everyone has strengths – even your worst performers: Forward-looking leaders are the ones who know how to draw out every team member’s strengths and build the team to magnify them.
- Recruit people who are completely different from the leadership team: Customers are diverse and depend on a business’s openness and capacity to innovate new ways to cater to their needs. And for this reason, it is essential to develop a workforce of diverse skills, perspectives, and education.
These pillars of diversity and inclusion helped me discover, attract, develop, and retain some of the most credible talent available. Our sales teams have been recognized as one of the best revenue generators in the company. We are innovating new ways to connect with customers and help them build a workforce experience for today and tomorrow. Plus, our company is benefiting from our ability to tap into our individual potential and personal purpose to deliver the best products and services in the market.
It’s up to leaders to see the potential for greatness in everyone
By smashing the labels that society places on people, I am doing what I can to help further the human revolution for greater workforce diversity and inclusion. And thanks to the friendship and mentorship of the people I have known in my youth, I understand how institutional bias forces organizations to miss out on the best people and why it’s up to leaders to see the potential for greatness in everyone.
Andre Robberts is head of SAP SuccessFactors for the UK and Ireland.