My Aha Moment On Diversity And Inclusion

Whitney Johnson

“The reason you’re so well-regarded by clients is that you provide great service.”

I was a stock analyst at Merrill Lynch. It was my job to put a buy or a sell on media and telecom stocks in the emerging markets. I was Institutional Investor-ranked, a coveted distinction, the gold medal in that sphere. As an analyst, you want to hear compliments like “detailed financial models,” “spot-on earnings estimates,” “meticulous forensic analyst,” “great stock picker.” To have a colleague attribute my success to “good service” stung, like a slap.

Was that what observers thought I did well?

Yes, I built good financial models, a table-stakes skill in the Wall Street sandbox. I’d also learned to analyze an income statement and balance sheet, a subject not covered while earning my BA in music. I’d also had to tune up my writing skills to compose compelling buy or sell opinions on stocks.

But plenty of people could calculate or write as well or better than I did. My advantage was in providing great service. Many of my clients and colleagues remember a trip I organized to visit Carlos Slim, one of the world’s richest people. A conversation in his private library about his favorite books gave investors insight into what motivates the controlling shareholder of America Movil, a stock I covered. What set me apart was that I could and would reach out and facilitate an introduction to this influential man.

Diversity. It’s a subject fraught with tensions, laden with complex and sensitive meanings.

Does it really make a difference?  Does increasing it mean more women? More people of color? More young? Old? More of whomever or whatever has been traditionally marginalized as “not the norm”?

There have been experiments, sadly inconclusive, seeking to demonstrate the advantages of greater diversity in education and business and society.

But that’s the realm of social science.

For biologists, this question was answered long ago. Diversity is one of the most powerful forces in nature, a fundamental requirement for evolution. Furthermore, it is apolitical. It has no philosophy or platform. It doesn’t care what any committee, study group, or research report has to say. It just cares what works. It is completely controlled by scientific laws. And those laws dictate that diversity drives evolution.

Diversity also drives corporate evolution. Businesses whose employees play to their strengths through personal disruption have a competitive advantage. With each jump to a new learning curve, we iterate. The next generation “you” is slightly different, better adapted, more innovative. Said Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” If you want to disrupt, diversify.

But here is where I think human beings get stuck. We value diversity, but we don’t value how we, ourselves, are different. Think of the cuddly little koala that sleeps up to 20 hours a day. One might have serious doubts about its ability to survive. However, the koala can do what almost no other animal can: it subsists on eucalyptus leaves which have minimal caloric and nutritional value. What if it did not want to eat eucalyptus leaves? If it didn’t value this superpower? Far too often that is what we do in the workplace. The very things that could help us really contribute, we don’t value in ourselves. Whether it is being young or old. Of color or not. Woman or man. Good at numbers, or people.

We make the greatest contributions by doing what’s required to get the basic job done, and then focusing not on how we’re alike, but on whatever it is that makes us different, what we can accomplish that others overlook, bypass, or simply don’t have the ability to address. On Wall Street, I was diverse, different, one person among a lot of people who were primarily good at numbers, which I did well, but not remarkably so. What I did best was tune in to our clients. Once I understood that this not only contributed value, but that I valued being the only eucalyptus eater in town, I was in a position not only to survive, but thrive, fueling evolution both of the firm, and of myself.

This blog is part of our Defining Moment series. At SAP, our higher purpose is to help the world run better and improve people’s lives. We are committed to diversity and inclusion in the workplace and moving #BusinessBeyondBias. To learn more about the future of diversity and inclusion, visit www.successfactors.com and watch this video to hear from other leaders on the topic. 


Whitney Johnson

About Whitney Johnson

Whitney Johnson is recognized as one of the world’s most influential management thinkers and was selected as one of the Thinkers50 in 2015. She is best known for her work on driving corporate innovation through personal disruption. She is formerly an Institutional Investor-ranked analyst for eight consecutive years, including at Merrill Lynch, and is the former president and co-founder of a boutique investment firm with Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen. Johnson is the author of the critically acclaimed Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, one of Inc. Magazines Top 100 Business Books in 2015. She is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, a LinkedIn influencer, co-founder of Forty Women over 40 to Watch, and was named one of Fortune’s 55 Women to Follow on Twitter in 2014. You can follow her at @johnsonwhitney.