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Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt

Diversity as a Competitive Advantage: Interview with Phyllis Stewart Pires

Is There Really a ROII (Return on Inclusion Investment)?

Is having diversity of perspectives a business differentiator and competitive advantage?  Is there really a ROII (Return on Inclusion Investment)?  There are many companies that seem to think so and are working to cultivate an even broader culture of respect for differences, ensuring inclusion of diverse ideas to feed innovation, while enhancing their reputation as a great place to work.

I had the opportunity to speak to Phyllis Stewart Pires, SAP’s head of Global Diversity who believes : “forming a team of diverse individuals is just the beginning.  The real value comes when team members use their varying experiences to put a different idea or perspective forward for consideration”.  Phyllis supports a culture where “people feel encouraged to show up with their differences, be heard and to make the most of their unique perspectives to drive creativity and innovation”.

Diversity is not solely a gender/culture issue but one that includes varied perspectives.

Yet gender often is one of the most contentious of topics when looking at the demographics of distribution of wealth, education, and managerial roles.  And while Phyllis envisions “an SAP that embraces the vast diversity that already exists” she recognizes the work that still needs to be done.

Transparency Around Demographics

SAP has been transparent about its own demographic track record in the SAP Sustainability Report which documents that SAP has set “an ambitious goal to increase the number of women in management positions to 25% by 2017”. 

Diversity enhances how we solve complex problems…. What’s more, a diverse workforce more accurately reflects our customers’ workforce, enhancing our ability to meet their needs.”

Some Questions for the Head of Global Diversity

Marilyn: I know we’ve been running internal awareness campaigns and workshops which you, Phyllis, helped create around this topic.  Can you expand on the efforts you are engaged in presently to increase that internal awareness and meet these goals?  How do we have a dialogue that is inclusive and brings both men and women into the conversation?

Phyllis:  I’m particularly pleased that the model of the workshop itself is to create discussion and establish a common language amongst men and women on the topic of an inclusive culture.  Even so – we are seeing slightly more female managers signing up for the workshops and need to continue to ensure we are attracting men to this discussion.  We need to look carefully at a number of challenges.

The challenges that consistently became apparent were these:

A seeming lack of a tie-in to a clear business case.  The focus on meeting a target representation coupled with an absence of a clear business case raised issues, particularly for men, who appeared to be missing the fact-based reasons for addressing the imbalance.  Although the data and these cases indeed exist they weren’t positioned first.

Gender discussions can potentially be seen as taking away opportunity for men.  Again, discussing the target goals before the business case may have been off-putting, and may been viewed as an inherent threat for opportunity for men, going forward.

We’ve had a tradition of having this conversation separately.  Women have had this conversation with each other in separate networks, workshops, forums and panel discussions.  Men are not really having the conversation at all, or certainly not having it with women.  We find in the workshops that having the discussion together creates enormous “ah hah” moments for both men and women.

Marilyn:  So if targets are contentious what good are they?

Phyllis:  As contentious as targets can be they also can help create the momentum needed to move beyond the status quo.. However the danger of the target is that even the constituency that the targets are trying to help doesn’t like it.  It potentially creates the sense that someone only gets a promotion because of the target instead of because they demonstratively are showing the value of their leadership.  Therein lays one of the enormous rubs. 

Marilyn: Last year we began to broach these subjects, publicly, with our customers, partners and employees and held an event called “Embracing Inclusion, Driving Innovation” where these topics were raised in a Design Thinking workshop.

There were some interesting learnings which map to your internal findings.  We learned that we needed to create a business case for inclusion and diversity, provide a safe environment for discussion and ensure that the discussions themselves are inclusive.  Not always an easy task in an industry that is famously gender imbalanced.

So what are some next steps to creating an inclusive environment to discuss the competitive advantages of being in a diverse workforce?  How do we continue to include customers and partners in this conversation?

Phyllis:  We are inviting our customers and partners to a panel at our upcoming SapphireNow event on May 16th.  And we have the following vision and hope for that panel.  We are going with a format of a panel that is not just on gender diversity but on diversity in all its elements; diversity as a business imperative.  It’s beyond a diversity you can measure; it is about embracing a diversity of ideas.  We will be hosting leaders that actively cultivate an inclusive work environment.  The hope is that they can articulate and make connections for the participants between the “when we do this, this is the business value” concepts.  When we are inclusive and embrace diversity of people and ideas we are more accessible to our customers.  We are more likely to attract the talent we need to meet the business opportunities of the future.  We are more likely to create an environment where innovation can happen, where people feel valued and engaged and more committed to the company.  Diversity isn’t just a target and a quota.  It’s a business imperative.

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      Author's profile photo Martin English
      Martin English

      A couple of interesting and vaguely related links that popped up in my feeds today;

      Inclusive Tech Companies Win the Talent War by Gina Trapani

      Conversely, companies who assemble inclusive teams are more likely to snag great hires of all stripes. Tech startups founded by women are few and far between, but they're highly attractive to female and male candidates who don't want to join a boys' club.

      In other words, inclusive teams will attract a wider pool for employers to select from.

      Why We Can't See What's Right in Front of Us via Harvard Business Review, is a bit of marketing for something called the generic parts technique, that attempts to strip away the layers of preconceived uses from the object and all its parts. The need for such a tool is indicated by the Author's research...

      My research has shown that people overlook about two-thirds of the types of features that an object possesses. Not two-thirds of the features, but two-thirds of the types of features. They ignore whole categories that are not relevant to the object's common use (e.g., motion, symmetry, texture, and many others ).

      Rather than implement yet another management technique, I would suggest that the more diversity there is in your team / organisation, the lower the overlap there will be; Each team member still picks up on about a third of an object's features, but members with different cultural etc backgrounds will pick a different range of features.


      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt
      Blog Post Author


      These are hardly "vaguely" related links.  And they are more than interesting.  Gina's blog will definately go into my arsenal of examples of communication styles that are a FAIL for "sistas" as well as "others"  Language that is "sexist" can be off-putting to men and women.

      I love this quote of Gina's for example:

      When a recruiter's pickup line is "Wanna bro down and crush some code?"—like Klout's was—you get a sense of what that company's looking for. If you're a woman, it's not you.

      and the piece from Harvard Business Review provides a number of lightbulb moments around the connection of "different perspectives", inclusion, and innovative design.

      This was a gem because it is so beguilingly "duh" and yet .....:

      Innovative solutions ...are generally built upon an obscure feature of your problem. If the key feature were commonly noticed, most likely the problem would have been solved long ago.

      I'm thinking tablet-> to iPad.  Touch screens?  I wonder what type of team demographics Apple had from a diversity perspective?  I heard that Apple is somewhat lacking in the diversity arena from an executive board perspective (as are a number of other companies that are successful) ....and yet...Phyllis shared that Apple was pretty pioneeringly inclusive about having childcare at work to provide better opportunities for parents (she helped set up that program if I am not mistaken ).  So I am very very happy that we have Phyllis as Global Head of Diversity and ever more happy that she sees diversity, as one that really spans diversity of perspectives.  That might indeed become a differentiator for those in the innovation business if it isn't already.  Looking for, if not looking to create, more business cases.  You in?