Strength through diversity Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

Hiring employees with an eye toward diversity, whether it’s ethnic, gender or age-related, can help fuel excitement and creativity. For the long-term growth of a business, it’s beneficial to have employees who share the same core values, such as a passion for their chosen field, but who offer a variety of perspectives and can communicate with all types of customers.

After all, points out Melissa Pollard, senior vice president and group manager in Comerica’s Orange County Middle Market Banking Group, your customers will be from a diverse population. And you should be able to reflect the kind of customer that you have.

“Creating a culture that is welcoming of all, regardless of their race, sex or age, opens up a company’s opportunities,” she says. “Having a diverse work force allows you to better serve your clients’ needs.”

Smart Business spoke with Pollard about the virtues of diversity, what types of initiatives are most effective and how a company’s creativity can be enhanced by hiring a heterogeneous group of employees.

In what ways can companies benefit from having a diverse work force?

From my experience — having been in banking for 21 years — it seems as though, initially, diversity was the politically correct thing to do. We’ve come to find out, however, that not only is having a diverse work force the politically correct thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do financially. When you look at companies that rank high in terms of diversity metrics, they tend to outperform other companies financially.

What types of diversity initiatives are most effective?

Through all of our diversity initiatives we’re trying to empower our colleagues by strengthening their internal and external connectivity. Our focus internally is to attract, retain, mentor and promote our diverse colleagues within the bank. Externally, we want to champion the benefits of having a diverse work force and work with as diverse a client base as possible.

Periodically, we have internal events that provide educational programming and are designed to be a mentoring/ learning/connecting type of event for internal colleagues. Our external events, such as investment seminars, are designed for business development opportunities.

How should a company go about providing equal opportunity for leadership positions?

The key is to hire and develop talent with an eye towards diversity, provide mentors with similar backgrounds and then provide adequate training so new hires can be groomed to reach their goals. Almost half of the officers at our bank are women. Over the years, women have been well represented here, which gives us a unique advantage. When you have a well-balanced work force, there is less of a disparity between the sexes in leadership positions. When you combine all of our initiatives — women’s, African-American, Hispanic, Asian-Pacific — they represent the majority of our work force.

How can a company’s perspective and out-reach be broadened by having a diverse work force?

If you have a homogeneous work force, then everyone will be like-minded; when faced with decisions and questions, you will only get one answer. The benefit of having diversity is there are many different perspectives that can be shared and all of the different backgrounds will make your organization stronger.

Let’s say you have a dozen people in the room that share the same background and you pose a problem to them. You’re probably going to get the same type of feedback from each of them. But if you have a dozen people in the room and they are all representing different cultural backgrounds and various upbringings, you will likely get a dozen different responses. Creativity is enhanced and solutions can be customized and tailored to fit each client’s needs.

Speaking from a banking perspective, the clients and marketplace that we serve are diverse. We are trying to create a friendly business environment because we believe there is strength through diversity. Having individuals that represent a variety of different backgrounds makes us stronger.

MELISSA POLLARD is senior vice president and group manager in Orange County’s Middle Market Banking Group, and chair of the Western Market Women’s Initiative of Comerica Bank. Reach her at (714) 435-4406 or mjpollard@comerica.com.