BY MIZINGA MELU
This month we celebrate two important international days, the United Nations’ World Day for Cultural Diversity on 21 May and the African Union’s Africa Day on 25 May. These events should give us all pause for thought given the recent spate of violent xenophobic attacks that has again shaken and shamed parts of this continent. The World Day for Cultural Diversity is a day on which we are encouraged to deepen our understanding of cultural diversity and to learn to live together better. Africa Day offers us an opportunity to celebrate African unity.
The ideals of cultural diversity and African unity have often made for bitter bedfellows on the African continent. And while governments grapple with the policy issues that serve to fuel or ameliorate the conditions that result in xenophobia, it behoves us all to foster a community of individuals committed to support diversity – be it race, ethnicity, nationality or faith.
Multi-national companies with operations in Africa are uniquely positioned to be a force for good in combating polarisation and stereotypes and to improve understanding and cooperation among people from different cultures.
Quite simply, difference should never be used to deny the rights of others or to exploit or shame them. Business can and should play a leadership role in creating multicultural communities that understand the value of difference. Africa will never be a homogenous society, nor should we want it to be. We need to create ways of respecting, valuing and celebrating difference.
How can business help do this? It goes well beyond good intentions, empowerment and scorecards. Embracing the diversity of colleagues, customers and clients is integral to the sustainability of business – and is also a basis for improved commercial success. So multiculturalism can improve companies – socially and commercially.
It has become increasingly important that organisations recruit, develop, and retain multicultural leaders who can navigate the opportunities and challenges of a globalised world – leaders who understand that the capabilities of multicultural organisations are a source of competitive advantage that is as important as other core elements of a business strategy.
The Harvard Business Review has found that multicultural leadership, when executed well, can provide astonishing commercial results. It cites as one example, that Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) built an impressive 40 percent share of the Chinese fast food market by patiently tailoring its product offering to local tastes and building a strong team of local managers.
And at Barclays, for example, we have had tremendous success, evidenced by a plethora of awards, with our “diversity and inclusion strategy”, which ensures that employees of all backgrounds are treated equally.
Another key HBR finding, which is highly relevant in the African context, was that while multicultural leadership was mostly associated with multinational corporations, “these principles also have a lot to offer ‘national companies,’ companies with limited presence outside a particular country or sub-region.
“Given the enormous cultural diversity within many countries’ own borders, taking a more deliberate approach to sourcing and developing talent across socioeconomic class, religion, academic field, and other backgrounds could be highly productive in driving product and service innovation.”
By building a robust multicultural approach, companies are better able to attract, develop and retain a diverse employee base, which then become a natural choice for their customers and clients internationally. Companies that ensure their people are representative of the global marketplace create places that are great to work in – and that also reflect communities they serve.
The commercial multicultural strategies and the employee development initiatives that take place in companies is the concrete action needed to support cultural diversity. In this way, and by working from the inside out, companies can raise awareness about the importance of intercultural dialogue, diversity and inclusion.
The actions companies take towards diversity and inclusion thus facilitates human and economic development.
An African who can be proud is the one who respects and supports difference. As we celebrate cultural diversity and African unity, let it be with that resolve.
(Melu is the Chief Executive, Barclays Africa Regional Management)