Michael Cross

Assistant Professor of Management Michael Cross

*Editor’s Note: CC Biz Buzz is a monthly column series that will feature insightful commentary from a member of the Columbia College Robert W. Plaster School of Business faculty.

Just recently I was very pleased to see a news item that NASA was naming its headquarters building in Washington, DC, after Mary W. Jackson, the first African American female engineer at NASA. If you haven’t seen the 2016 movie, Hidden Figures, or read Margot Lee Shetterly’s book by the same title, you are probably not familiar with Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan. Let me give you their story in encapsulated form: These three African American women fought to overcome both race and gender bias in the 1950s and 60s to be able to make significant contributions to the NASA space program. That was a pretty dry summary, so I encourage you to watch the movie or read the book.

Diversity is a word that gets thrown around quite a bit these days. Online job-applicant tracker Workable notes that, “… diversity refers to the existence of variations of different characteristics in a group of people. These characteristics could be everything that makes us unique, such as our cognitive skills and personality traits, along with the things that shape our identity (e.g., race, age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, cultural background).”

In my International Business classes, we talk about diversity in the context of working with and marketing to people with different cultural backgrounds, different mindsets, different ways of looking at problems and opportunities. And we talk a lot about the need for developing cultural literacy and avoiding ethnocentricity in our thinking. In my Strategic Management classes, we talk about diversity in the context of avoiding groupthink and core rigidity, often embedded deeply within the practice of hiring people and nourishing a culture of people that look and think just like us.

In my business career, prior to coming to Columbia College, I was privileged to manage staff or work on teams with people from six of the seven continents, and I’ve had the opportunity to be boots-on-the-ground on four of those continents. What an enriching experience that was for me. I often tell my students that one of the greatest things I’ve learned from that is that we, across the world, are a lot more alike than we are different. We want safety and security for our families, opportunities to grow and prosper, access to good healthcare and educational systems. And when there are differences, as the French say, vive la différence! I treasure the fact that I’ve worked with so many people who weren’t just like me and believe it helped me to grow as a person and as a professional. I feel like the organizations of which I’ve been a part have benefitted greatly from enabling those different perspectives and approaches to be brought to bear on challenges and opportunities.

As business practitioners, are there hidden assets we’re not leveraging because we’re always looking to employ or work with people who are just like us? Are we shutting ourselves off from talent pools that could make us better at what we do? Are we going with what has been comfortable within the context of our experience and possibly limiting ourselves and our organizations in the process?

NASA officials realized the answers to those questions were “Yes” and, as a result, addressed those issues and widened the talent pool available to them. Kudos to NASA for doing that more than a half century ago, and for recently recognizing the contributions made by one of those remarkable women.

Here is the point with which I want to leave you: What would our world, and our organizations, be like if we encouraged, cultivated, supported, and hired people who aren’t just like us? Are you missing out on hidden assets?

Michael Cross is Assistant Professor of Management at Columbia College’s Robert W. Plaster School of Business.  He teaches management courses after more than 20 years in management roles in a 35-year business career.