I had an interesting challenge the other day. I was asked to speak to 350 people in the construction trade. They were mostly men and by the time I spoke they were all still standing up after two previous speeches. And the topic … equality and diversity in construction.
Have you hear builders snore in an upright position before?
So I said to them give me three minutes before you snooze. And bless them, they did. And that’s because there really are three very good reasons that “difference” can give even a construction business a real competitive advantage. And I am increasingly using the term “difference” these days. We are working on its transformational effect on organisations and as a way of getting them to think freshly. The beauty of it is that using “difference” is a real and productive route even into an industry like construction that hasn’t always taken equality and diversity very seriously.
And I am not talking about compliance here — Of course no one wants to run a business where people are treated badly and unfairly. No one wants to spend their time in court rather than on site.
But beyond compliance, there are three advantages that “difference” can give you:
- it gives you a competitive head start in pitching
- your company will perform better if you recruit for and manage difference well
- you will be far better equipped for the future in a fast changing world.
The head start you get in pitching is that, if I was to procure a major project from you, I want to know that, with your business, I am hiring a firm that cares about its people, develops their talent and is the kind of company that minds about its values. Everybody has got a policy on equality and diversity, but the companies that stand apart are the ones are actively doing something about it — opening up opportunities for women in construction (engineering really is something you do with your head not your hands, so why do so many women graduates do Law instead?) or creating real apprenticeships for young people.
That way I will also know that I am getting a company that will care about the customer. You’re more likely to bring the project in on time because your staff actually mind about me, because they care about the company. It’s a sign that you regard your people as your greatest asset. And what’s more it’s important to show that you are also paying attention to your supply chain (notorious in construction for being where the failures happen). Look what is happening to Apple and the accusations about labour conditions in China. Being able to demonstrate that you take equality, diversity and difference seriously brands you as a company above the others. Which Apple’s response is clearly doing for them.
Secondly, if your company is wise enough to recruit for difference, see the value in different skills and approaches to life and wants to make up teams from a variety of people who will therefore be more creative in their approaches to challenges and problems, I will know that that is a company that thinks, responds and is cleverer in its approach to my project. And when I say “difference”, I don’t just mean token quotas, the occasional bit of minority hiring, I mean understanding that different kinds of people (and this is the crucial bit) well and creatively managed produce better performance than homogenous companies, however managed, and diverse companies badly managed.
There is increasing evidence to show that lots of badly managed diversity initiatives just make things worse. “She only got the job because she’s a woman”, “why are minority workers promoted beyond their skills when I could do the job?”, “I was just dumped in this job and expected to be the token woman who salved the company’s conscience” (all things that have been said or reported to us in the last year).
Deliberately recruiting into project teams groups of people who have different approaches and skills and provenance and then creatively recognising that the differences between them can produce better problem solving and project delivery is a competitive advantage. It is also a sign to the world that you think carefully about your company, value innovation and nurture talent.
Furthermore you will survive better into the future. We are living in a world where building technologies, building methods, the pressure of carbon reduction and a hundred other forces are changing the environment in which construction is developing (and making its profits). To stay ahead of the game companies need teams that have the right breadth of skills to think forward. You need to hire for difference so that your company is not stuck in the past, but has the right skills round the table to tackle the future with confidence.
Of course this doesn’t just apply to Construction. But it was fun to convince even some of them. And we even got some work out of it. The programme that we’re talking with those new clients about is called The Creative Difference Programme. I am not sure so many years ago I’d have been looking forward to wearing a hard hat in these rather more authentic contexts. The Village People seem to have crashed Construction for real.