Paul Fulton, 1993: Strategic diversity in the modern workplace

Published July 13, 2023

By Higher Ed Works

NYC organization to honor former president of Sara Lee for his education  advocacy - Triad Business Journal

As President of Sara Lee Corporation, Paul Fulton penned these words in the early 1990s. Thirty years later, they are just as relevant. Fulton is the founder and Chair of Higher Ed Works.

In a recent report, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by the year 2050, African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics and other minorities will make up 47 percent of the total U.S. population. But we won’t have to wait until 2050 to feel the impact of an increasingly diverse population – especially in the workplace.

Today, more than half of the U.S. work force consists of minorities, immigrants and women. White, native-born males, though still dominant, especially in the upper ranks, are today a statistical minority. Demographic realities tell us that white males will make up only 15 percent of the increase in the work force over the next 10 years. The fact is that we have – and will continue to have – a diverse work force, and we must figure out how to manage that work force for maximum productivity in an increasingly competitive world.

Diversity is by no means just a human-resources issue. It is a business issue that must become a key element of the way companies manage – whether in North Carolina or around the globe.

What does strategic diversity really mean? I believe it means creating an environment that is attractive to and embraces a culturally diverse work force. It requires a management and peer attitude that recognizes that each employee has the ability to contribute to the enterprise, and that each has different needs and will require different types of support to succeed.

THE REAL GOAL OF MANAGING for strategic diversity is to enable all members of the work force, no matter who they are, where they came from, or how different they might be, to perform to their full potential. At Sara Lee, we see this as a goal that is absolutely consistent with our financial goals, because we must have the participation of all of our people if we are to continue to be successful.

I read recently in The Economist “melting pot” was a term put forth around the turn of the century by a British playwright in describing America. The magazine article suggested that perhaps today “salad bowl” is a more appropriate tag. You see, in a salad, the ingredients do not really merge; the union is simply the sum of the parts. In the U.S. workplace, the melting pot has been more than a metaphor; corporate success has, in fact, demanded a good deal of conformity. But times have changed – and we can no longer afford conformity.

Companies must learn how to enable all their employees to feel comfortable with themselves, while working toward shared business goals.

Today, most people are no longer willing to be melted down, even if that were possible. They do not voluntarily abandon their ethnic or gender distinctions at the office or plant door. People want to retain their own identities and their own heritage, while contributing to the success of the enterprise as a whole. Women and men in two-career families are determined to act responsibly toward their families while satisfying their professional ambitions. Companies that don’t accommodate the changed expectations of their employees will lose talent to companies that do.

The bottom line is that companies are faced with the challenge of surviving a fiercely competitive world with a work force that consists of unassimilated diversity. Managing diversity does not mean controlling, or containing diversity – it means leading a diverse group of workers in such a way that all contribute effectively to accomplishing established goals.

Here in the United States, our awareness of diversity-related issues probably began with government regulations that purport to mandate equal opportunity.

Most of today’s rules had their origins in the 1960s when we went through what could be called a racial revolution. Resolving issues of blatant discrimination required a tremendous amount of energy, imagination and brought violence and bloodshed. At about the same time, the women’s liberation movement brought gender-related issues to the forefront.

Since then, government regulations have eliminated most of the legal barriers to racial and sexual equality. Legislation and court rulings regarding equal opportunity for all and affirmative action have forced us to find ways to deal with race, gender, age and other issues of diversity.

And yet, while there is evidence of progress, women and minorities are still underrepresented in management and professional positions, especially in the upper ranks of management. The “glass ceiling” is reality – there’s no denying it! So we must conclude that government actions have met with only limited success, and we as business people must pick it up from there.

Most of us in business have recognized cultural differences among our customers for years, and we have worked hard to meet the needs dictated by those differences. In fact, skill in market segmentation has been a great source of success for Sara Lee Corp.

NOW WE MUST USE THAT SAME kind of thinking to deal with a diverse work force. Our customer base is diverse, our employees are diverse; our management base must be diverse, as well.

Companies that are forward-thinking and proactive – those that effectively use the talents of a variety of people – are going to have an advantage in marketing to consumers, while those that ignore these issues are going to be at a disadvantage.

It is clear that the corporate leaders of tomorrow are going to come from a highly diverse pool. It’s going to take an aggressive approach to attract the best and to keep them in our ranks. Today, “the best” clearly indicates a diverse group of managers – Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, whites, females, whatever. No select group has a corner on talent and creativity.