I have grown quite weary of the politics driving the “Diversity” discussion. Let’s begin with this and see if we can agree on a jumping-off point: Giving special preference to any individual, class, or group to the advantage or disadvantage of another is wrong. Sounds reasonable, yes? Regrettably, many companies are creating operating environments where the opposite is true and conscious bias has replaced unconscious bias as the more prevalent behavior.

No right-thinking person would argue that the organization’s diversity discussion doesn’t have merit; it does. The problem is that people are having the wrong conversation. They are either knowingly or unknowingly discussing politics, not advancing diversity. I’ll frame the debate, you decide…

Diverse Workforce Reality Check

There is no doubt that we live in a diverse world. Unless you live on an isolated mountaintop, it would be difficult to get through the day without being impacted by issues of ethnicity, race, gender equity, age, sexual preference, religion, physical appearance, mental and physical challenges, socioeconomic disparity, educational disadvantage, etc. This is the real world. The world we must live in. The world we must operate in as business leaders. However, from my perspective, the issue is not whether we recognize or incorporate diversity, but rather how it is dealt with that matters.

The Business of Politics and Diversity Practices

As I mentioned above, no right-minded person can argue against the advantages of a diverse workforce. That is precisely why diversity has been hijacked by those with a political agenda (this applies to those of all political parties and ideologies). Many leaders have simply surrendered to the pressures being brought to bear by ever-growing legions of lobbyists and special interest groups on both the right and left.

Most executives on a leadership team are good people who want to do the right thing. They want to be viewed as leaders who care about people. Rather than embody that ethos, they have regrettably drunk the political Kool-Aid. Let me be clear: an executive’s job is to be a leader – not an activist. A leader’s job is not to play politics, but rather to care for their team and customers while setting the table where a rich and productive culture can flourish. Translation; the creation of a diverse culture. Their job is not to create a politically charged culture where chaos ensues and pits one group against another.

Aside from certain non-profit, NGO, social impact, philanthropic, and religious organizations, most for-profit businesses should be apolitical enterprises. However, the current political climate has made it difficult, if next to impossible, not to embrace every social agenda that comes down the pike.

When a leader’s first thought about a new hire is, “the board [or human resources] says we need a diverse candidate”, Houston, we have a problem. I don’t want to make a segment hire; I want to make a full, 360 human hire. When leaders have the talent bat effectively taken from their hands by those with other agendas, competing at the highest levels becomes ever increasingly more difficult.

So what do I look for, and what do I encourage our clients to look for in a new hire? I want the best, most talented person in the market. Big splash talent, 10 pound brain, self-aware, outcomes-oriented, growth mindset, situationally aware, future-oriented, forward-leaning, thoughtful, resilient, curious and creative, courageous, and honest. A person who can build and lead teams, solve problems, and spot opportunities. Experts who will come into the organization and make everyone around them better. Notice I didn’t say anything about diversity?

If the person I’ve described above is a Vulcan with pointy ears, a weird haircut, and unusual eyebrows, guess what? They get the job. I don’t care what their pronouns are, or who or what they identify as. I care that they have the qualities noted above.

The best talent and most capable leaders trade on their qualifications, track record, and performance – not their ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, etc. I’m interested in candidates who can clearly articulate how they can add value to the enterprise, our team, and our clients, not the ones only seeking to extract value for themselves.

A diverse and equitable corporate culture should be based on shared values aligned to common business strategy objectives. No person should be denied employment based solely on their diversity segment, but likewise, no person should be given a person solely on their diversity segment. Furthermore, I am sure that any diverse candidate does not want to be selected to tick a box or support a corporate metric.

Reframing the Conversation on Diversity and Inclusion Efforts

Let’s shift the conversation away from litigating privilege, injustices, rights, and mandates, and focus more on creating amazing workplaces by recognizing quality contribution and commitment. Stop talking about differences as a bad thing, and start talking about how differences make us better by creating advantages and opportunities. When diversity becomes more about uniting than dividing, less about lawsuits and more about creating real opportunities, more about inspiring challenging conversations and less about shutting them down, and more about creating equal application of standards than the regulation of advantaged tiers of standards, then the topic of diversity becomes a more interesting conversation.

A Case Study in Diversity and an Inclusive Workplace

What I’m espousing is more than theory and rhetoric. It’s based on first-hand experience. The best case study in inclusion and diversity I can think of is my own firm. Our company is one of the most diverse and global organizations you’ll find anywhere. We have a global workforce with teammates that span virtually every diversity segment. At first blush, it would appear that we wouldn’t be able to agree on anything. The fact of the matter is that we disagree on many things, and that’s one of the things that makes our culture so vibrant. That said, we’ve aligned on the most important thing; our values.

We have not only collectively established our company values, but we strive to operationalize them on a daily basis. As I like to say, “We eat our own cooking”. Mostly what we believe in is one another. We care for and about one another and have each other’s backs. Differences in age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other “diversity segment” are viewed as strengths. While we talk about diversity, it’s not at the forefront of every conversation, but it bubbles up in every conversation and community engagement, because of the diversity of thoughts and experiences our teammates bring to the firm. We care most about the things that matter; people’s attitude, energy, character, commitment, and contribution.

We have created a safe workplace not by forcing people to walk on eggshells, not by having safe spaces where imposed restrictions gate our creativity and innovation, and certainly not by only hanging out with people who look, think, and feel the same. Our safe workplace is a comprehensive approach based on trust that we are all here for the right reasons. That we’re on the same team working under the same vision, underpinned by a set of values that will lead us to the accomplishment of our shared objectives.

When we add a new teammate, we look at the whole human being. Sure, we absolutely look at their track record of leadership, judgment, how they work with others, and the quality of work they produce. But aside from those obvious things, we look for how they’ll make us a better team and how we’ll help them grow as teammates. We also push the boundaries of our candidate pool that naturally draws talent from a variety of backgrounds by challenging the experience requirements for each role and push the limits of adjacencies.

We thrive on the diversity of thought, intellectual curiosity, a growth mindset, self-awareness, and the willingness to embrace dissenting opinions, new thinking, and better thinking. If everyone within an organization looks alike and thinks alike, that organization has unknowingly sentenced itself to mediocrity and eventual irrelevance.

Bottom Line: Prioritize a Partner that Embraces Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Running a top executive search firm, I can say with great certitude that Talent begets talent, and blending occurs naturally when good decisions are made for the right reasons. When you force the diversity agenda for the wrong reasons (no matter how well-intended), productivity suffers, walls go up, fissures form, and resentment grows. Just hire great people who care, and they’ll attract others who feel similarly. It’s really not that hard.

When it comes to hiring and the topic of diversity, my best advice to candidates is this: Don’t make your case by playing the diversity card; play the I’m qualified card. If you’re not qualified, don’t try to work around your lack of qualifications with the diversity argument; go get the qualifications/experiences you need to compete and gain a competitive advantage. Compete on your merits, not why your lack thereof should be overlooked. Compete on the entirety of who you are as a human and let your diversity shine through as a unique quality that shapes your distinct point of view. Compete on your differences, but don’t use diversity as a hammer looking for a nail.