It's no secret that the retiring generation of senior business professionals in America today is disproportionately represented by white men. The progress of growing diversity in our business culture over the last few decades has left the impression that new demographic groups are only grudgingly invited to the party as each of them pass through a painful vetting process with the gatekeepers.

We wanted diversity management to become happily irrelevant, as best expressed in a singing Coke commercial of the 1970s. But what happened was that women and people of varying colors, religions and sexual orientations all had to wage their separate battles in order to gain any acceptance. We were unable to "teach the world to sing in perfect harmony."

Social scientists tell us that racism, or differentism of any kind, may have roots in normal group social evolution. New entrants have to be evaluated as to whether or not they are "with us" or "against us." Any new participant who exhibits unfamiliar traits is, until proven otherwise, a threat.

The future requires a better model of inclusion, of the sort being pursued at Big Four firm Deloitte's Leadership Center for Inclusion, which aims to put diversity front and center among the firm's global business priorities. It establishes a cultural and educational environment where a permanent conversation can be had about the moral importance and sound business practice of emphasizing the contribution of all.

 

FAMILIES OF CHOICE

While it is clear that inclusiveness is hampered by differing cultures in our profession, it is not the only source of difficulty. The last quarter century has revealed growing fragmentation in a number of other distressing ways that will only become more pronounced in the future. And none of them have anything to do with inter-generational conflict.

In the past, the need for human relatedness beyond our families used to be satisfied by participation in a relatively small number of institutions, such as work, church, and civic organizations. Today, the rise of global communication has made it possible for everyone to create and sustain connections with people and groups that aren't limited by geography. As a result, we can no longer keep employees in place indefinitely by proclaiming our firms to be the equivalent of families.

No longer connected by common white male culture, complementary value creation function, or even simple relatedness as human beings, our practitioners share less top-level leadership glue today than at any point in our profession's history. And it will take a new form of inclusion -- Inclusion 2.0 -- to pull us out of this downward spiral.

The leadership of nations (and the greatest global companies) tells us that unifying people of different interests and backgrounds requires a powerful statement of their common cause, not greater appreciation of their differences, as earlier attempts at inclusion might suggest. When an overarching goal intended to unify everyone is less resonant with social contract participants than each of the component groups' goals, there will be serious cohesion problems.

As an example, my daughter-in-law recently described a situation she had encountered at a conference she attended that was organized to further the interests of people with physical disabilities in higher education. She wryly observed that the previous night she'd taken "the gays" out for dinner for political reasons. As the wife of my own CPA daughter, I allowed her the self-referential joke.

But as with a lot of humor, there was an underlying lesson. She was trying to express her frustration at having the greater conference goal -- higher education for people with disabilities -- muted by the important (but component) goal of addressing the special interests of people with disabilities who were members of the LGBT community.

In a leadership environment where disproportionate emphasis is placed on component goals, the greater purpose can become secondary. Without the unquestioned pre-eminence of the principles of that higher purpose, efforts intended to unify people can actually devolve into divisive bitch sessions that will sidetrack the greater group's unity.

On the other hand, a good example of how a resonant statement of a higher purpose inspires people to forget about their differences and focus on group accomplishment is the practice of medicine. During my wife's recent cancer treatment, I spent a lot of time observing the cooperative efforts of a wide variety of medical professionals.

Far different from what one might observe in many of our business environments, the doctors, nurses and other health care providers, from department heads to administrative staff, were mostly people of color and women.

The reason is not that medical professionals are fundamentally more moral or tolerant than business professionals. It is because their jointly shared mission of saving the lives -- or making more comfortable the remaining lives -- of their patients is dominant over the separate interests of the medical oncologist, the radiation oncologist, the infusion nurses, etc. As a group, they have an important and clearly defined mission.

Crafting a leadership narrative that has a viscerally held common goal at its center is crucial to sustainable growth in our firms during the coming decades. It is that higher purpose that will help all of the members of the decision-support function to come together and lead our profession to make even faster progress at rendering our cultural and specialist differences irrelevant.

It's time for us to start doing better for one another, not based on our differences but based on what the global economy needs from us. When our profession starts to focus on what we should be accomplishing together, it is our differences, not ourselves, that will fade into irrelevance.

Paul Fisher, CPA, CGMA, is a former tax partner, author of the book Beyond the Days of the Giants: Solving the Crisis of Growth and Succession in Today's CPA Firms, and founder of New Giants Consulting LLC, which is dedicated to building the value-creation capabilities of the next generations of accounting firms.

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