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Author's profile photo Former Member

Diversity IS a Competitive Advantage

Diversity is personal. It means something different to each person I speak to and covers a spectrum of topics and issues.

Diversity became important to me when I started my career in the energy industry and quickly noticed that I was often the only woman in the room. Sometimes this had its advantages, but sometimes not. I was confused. Growing up, I was always told that, with hard work, I could do anything, be anything, have anything. Now it seemed I was somehow at a disadvantage because I was different from my colleagues. 

Needless to say, I was a little naïve back then and didn’t realize that I was stumbling on a topic that organizations and businesses have discussed for a while. And while I felt that I was at a “disadvantage”, the opposite was actually true – for both me and for my organization.

Mark Twain once said, “It is difference of opinion that makes horse races.” This quote reminds me that it is our differences that make us successful and should be celebrated – especially in business today as research continues to prove that diverse teams are the most successful.

This was a recurring theme at a luncheon held by SAP on May 16th at SAPPHIRE NOW. The panel discussion “Diversity as an Untapped Competitive Advantage” was attended by over 50 SAP customers, partners, and employees and we heard over and over that the best and most creative solutions come from diverse teams. 

For me, hearing folks candidly discuss the challenges and opportunities when it comes to diversity is very refreshing.

The panel was moderated by Phyllis Stewart Pires, SAP Vice President and Global Head of Diversity and included business leaders from across the SAP ecosystem:

  • Sheryl Fiske, CIO and SVP of IT Services, Southwire
  • Tam Tran, Systems Integration, Northrop Grumman
  • Tanya DanceKelly, Principal, SAP Package Technologies Service, Deloitte Consulting LLP
  • Mark Yolton, SVP Communities and Social Media, SAP

So why did SAP want to host this panel? Phyllis explained that our co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe has an aspiration to “innovate for a better future”. Our innovation at SAP will be even more spectacular if we can tap into the different backgrounds and thought processes that a diverse workforce brings. SAP focuses on inclusion and in making sure our people “feel comfortable and empowered to bring forward ideas.” It is a leadership priority to build cultural sensitivity, awareness, appreciation for differences, and breaking bad habits.

Bottom line – in business, people are at the center of everything we do. The more we can learn from, collaborate with, and include people from different backgrounds and cultures, the more we stand to benefit, the stronger our businesses will be, and, like Mark Twain said, win the race. 

For me, this panel brought back those feelings from ages ago as the only woman in the room – but now, I’ve got a slightly different perspective. When I’m the sole woman at the table, I embrace it – it’s a good thing to stand out.

You can read more detail from the panel discussion in the recap below:

Panel Introductions

Each panelist spent some time introducing themselves and why the topic of diversity was important to them.

Sheryl Fiske, a pioneer in her organization, was not only the 1st woman executive but also 1st outside hire in 10 years – and it was solely because she was the “best person for the job”. She has a personal passion for women in the C-Suite since it is only 15% women. But also, she shared a very personal account of how she came to realize prejudice in this world – through her handicapped son who passed away at age 19.

Tam Tran is a Member of the Diversity and Inclusion Counsel for the Enterprise Shared Services (ESS) at Northrop Grumman and grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma in early 1980s. It was “rough” for him being Asian because he stood out. He believes a wide variety of thought is best for coming up with the best solutions.

Tanya DanceKelly is a Principal at Deloitte and she shared how she saw SAP transform from a German company to a Global company. She joined Deloitte when there was a glass ceiling and she watched as it crashed.

Mark Yolton leads a global team at SAP and also manages our SAP Community Network where there are 2 million people collaborating – truly global “they talk in Euros, not dollars”.  He volunteers for programs that help foster children in Silicon Valley.

What is the Value of Diversity to the Business?

Tanya– Being a diverse organization helped us weather the changes in our industry. Diverse teams come up with better ideas and they better reflect our customers. We certainly aren’t perfect but our partners are colorblind – they only see green (dollars) – and diverse teams produce the best results and the most revenue.

Sheryl – Looking at data might drive you to a different decision than you might have made. For example, we use women as our forklift operators because they have better safety records. Diversity comes down to a leadership attitude – we focus on hiring the best person. Until this is a hearts and minds change, diversity will be mandated instead of being “real”.

Tam – There is a difference between diversity and inclusion. It is easy to pull a diverse team together but it is more difficult to get people included. How do you include everyone and not exclude some?

Mark – we continue to ask the wrong questions. Instead of “how can we be more diverse” we should has “how can we be more successful?”

“Respectful disagreement” is a key to success and we encourage it. If everyone is vanilla you get too far along in a decision process before you realize there are things you didn’t consider. It is also important to “disagree and commit”. You may disagree with a decision that is made but you need to commit to support it and move forward instead of derailing the team efforts.

People assume inclusion means including everyone’s ideas but at some point decisions needs to be made because we have a business to run.

What has been the biggest challenge in getting diversity embraced as a business imperative vs. “nice to do” – where are you on this journey?

Tam – Metrics is everything. A big challenge that we’ve run into is determining how diversity impacts financials.

Tanya – At Deloitte, we noticed that when we selected a 50-something white male as the CEO for our consulting business in the US, the board spent much time talking about the more diverse candidates that didn’t make it and what skills they needed to fill the role. They took a look at why some of the other candidates didn’t have the experience needed for the role and now make sure these key experiences are offered to potential candidates.

Here is a link to a blog on Forbes on the panel by Marilyn Pratt. 

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      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt

      Good summary of the event Liz and I'll add the recording link here so that others can see and hear the panel in its full format.  Diversity as a Competitive Advantage Video - Panel

      I've much to digest and probably will do so in a subsequent post, but I love your starting the conversation with your personal experience.  I've been thinking about the way we are conditioned to think (even now in the 21st century).  It's a fine balance between community tribes and inclusion and many of us are inadvertently guilty of perpetuating stereo-types we have, we inherent, we pass on.  Awareness is the first step to redressing this.

      Author's profile photo Tim Clark
      Tim Clark

      Liz, I wasn't able to attend this panel so thanks for posting. Nice re-cap and your personal take on this sometimes touchy subject is also appreciated.

      Marilyn, thanks for sharing the video link.

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks Marilyn and Tim for the comments. Marilyn - I very much agree that awareness is a first step.

      Author's profile photo Raquel Pereira da Cunha
      Raquel Pereira da Cunha

      Very interesting reading. It brought me some feelings from the event Embrace Inclusion Driving Innovation where I was one of the panelists at Teched Madrid 2011. As you, I was and still have been the only woman at the table, and have no problem to embrace it. I lived this reality since I went to University to study Computer Science, or maybe before, when I was a child and sometimes had only boys as neighbors. As you mentioned, diversity means something different to each person. Besides being the only woman, many times I was also the only Brazilian in the group. And sometimes the only with a different opinion. So, I know exactly what is the feeling of being different from the colleagues, but that is now, after all those years, totaly ok for me. I really believe that being different was an advantage for me.

      I agree that we need diversity of thoughts, cultures, backgrounds in order to have better ideas, I just don't agree to force it. Hire people just because they are different is something that I dislike. It may be necessary, some people say, but I agree with Mark that the question is "how can we be more successful?".

      Congratulations for your blog. Thank you very much for sharing this event.

      Best regards,


      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks so much for the comment, Raquel and thanks for sharing your personal examples of diversity.

      I agree with your comment about enforcing diversity. In the panel, there was lots of discussion about "hiring the best person for the job" and this should be something we focus on doing.