Three things you must do to get diversity right. (a Grit Project exclusive)


Want to achieve organizational excellence? Join the club. Organizational excellence comes from an empowered and diverse team, but getting there takes work. In nearly every organization I have a chance to speak with, from financial services to the restaurant businesses to healthcare, diversity is an area of interest and of focus. After serving as one of the first women to fly the Apache helicopter in the U.S. Army, I’ve experienced what works — and what doesn’t — as a leader. Here are three of the most critical actions to take as a leader to ensure a successful integration of a new group or strengthen an already diverse team, and reap the benefits of a stronger organization as a result.

1. Assign mentors to new members of your team, especially those in minority positions.

When Nilanjana Dasgupta from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst conducted a yearlong study of women engineering students and mentorship, she found that those students with women mentors were, as Ed Song reports in The Atlantic, “more motivated, more self-assured, and less anxious than those who had either no mentor or a male one.”

The 2017 LeanIn McKinsey report on Women in the Workplace found that, “Women are less likely to receive advice from managers and senior leaders on how to advance, and employees who do are more likely to say they’ve been promoted in the last two years. Similarly, women are less likely to interact regularly with senior leaders, yet employees who do are more likely to aspire to be top executives.” A study mentioned in Fortune’s Broadsheet by Humanyze did not find the same concerns about access though their study was significantly more limited in both scope and scale. Even so, lesser numbers of women in more senior positions even in the second study suggested at least problems with unconscious bias.

Both studies suggest that mentorship is critical, and a champion can make all the difference. These kinds of relationships happen naturally among many in the majority group of an organization, but less so for minorities. If you have underrepresented groups on your team or in your organization, find mentors with whom these employees can relate, check in and learn. Things that are measured are things that are done, so set up a way to check in on these mentorship programs to ensure their success.

2. State and enforce a zero-tolerance policy for harassment.

A team can only operate at peak performance if each of its team members are enabled to be their best. Harassment blatantly undermines individual — and thus organizational — potential. It’s also illegal, but you already know that.

While most recent news headlines have focuses on the egregious and criminal behavior of those in the film industry, more and more abuses of power and specifically instances of sexual harrassment and assault are being revealed in a number of industries suggesting what many would agree is a systemic and cultural problem. The U.S. Military continues to have problems with sexual harassment, with Marines United being the most recent and visible example, but military leaders have yet to fully own the problem and have not universally condemned it. Until they do, it will continue to undermine warfighter readiness.

It’s not only the military that has these problems; they’ve come to light in both Silicon Valley and a number of universities as well. In every case, it is not only a failure of decency, but of leadership. Male leaders must set the example for not only their actions but their stated policy. Leadership climate starts at the top. A strong leader states and enforces a zero-tolerance policy for harassment of any kind.

When the Australian Army revealed an internet scandal victimizing a number of their female soldiers, Chief of the Army Lieutenant General David Morrison made a statement on video demonstrating his barely contained anger. With studied restraint but extreme emphasis, he said, “Those who think that it is ok to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues, have no place in this army… if this does not suit you, then get out… I will be ruthless in ridding the army of people who cannot live up to its values.”

That is the policy, the leadership, and the message a strong leader must have in order to optimize the performance of every employee, and thus the organization itself.

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3. Tell stories including all members of your team.

This may be one of the most powerful and under-considered ways to make diversity work. Consider the stories you tell in your organization, whether they are told through verbal presentations, written communications, or photos hanging on the walls. Do those stories represent or include everyone in your organization? Perhaps a diverse team is new for you. Is there a way you could include outside stories demonstrating key principles that include examples of people of all different backgrounds and sexual orientations?

Jonathan Gottshall’s The Storytelling Animal and Kim Cron’s Wired for Story are two of the recent books exploring the power of story in both culture and leadership. Both consider the way our brains take in information, which is not as bullet points or logical arguments. Modern neuroscience is showing us what ancient wisdom traditions have always known; that story is the most powerful way to convey a lesson.

Politicians and marketers, the two most powerful forces outside religion, know this too. Marshall Ganz at Harvard is known for the work he did on the Obama campaign among others, including corporate marketing work. His formula for stories that work is including the story of you, the story of us, the story of now. What’s key if you want to ensure diversity is that leaders tell stories with which every member of their teams might relate and, importantly, in which they can see themselves.


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Shannon Huffman Polson is one of the first women to fly the Apache in the US Army, a leadership speaker for Keppler Speakers and an author. Her memoir North of Hope was released in paperback on August 1, and she publishes profiles of The Grit Project on, where she is a Top Leadership writer. She can be found at The Grit Project checklist is yours at



Shannon H. Polson, Author, Veteran and Founder

LEADERSHIP. GRIT. PURPOSE. The Grit Factor AVAILABLE NOW: Founder: Committed to veterans and women in leadership.