EMBA Students Navigate Questions of Diversity

Diversity is good for business.

According to research, diversity and inclusion in organizations can lead to improved performance, innovation, and higher revenues. Conversely, when not harnessed effectively, the differences that diversity brings can impact organizations in less-than-ideal ways.

Katherine Phillips wants to see more organizations reap the benefits of diversity. She has devoted her career to addressing the value of diversity and the barriers that stand in the way of realizing diversity’s advantages. Those efforts include designing and teaching the EMBA elective course, Leading Diversity in Organizations, at Columbia Business School.

Leadership Can Make All the Difference

“I was excited to teach this class,” says Phillips, the Reuben Mark Professor of Organizational Character and director of the Sanford C. Bernstein and Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics at Columbia. Not only does it fit with her lifelong work, it also puts her in front of seasoned professionals who navigate questions of diversity in their own organizations.

“Every company is on its own journey,” she says, and leadership can make all the difference in channeling the creativity and innovation that differences can spur. “We need people who are different from one another to work effectively with one another in an organization.”

Exercises and Other Tools Lead to Greater Understanding

Phillips asks students in the class to complete an identity exercise, which helps them better understand their own perceptions and the impact of those perceptions on their actions. That knowledge then serves as a foundation to understand others.

“Empathy is key,” says Phillips. “Ultimately, it’s about being able to talk about these issues in a sophisticated way that makes leaders more effective. You want people to feel that they can talk to you.”

Through exercises, conversations, and tools, students hone their listening and communication skills. “Students have the opportunity to learn from one another and challenge their perspectives by engaging with their colleagues,” she says.

“The class is a safe space to do that.” Phillips hopes to reinforce the reality that each person goes through their own process, and it helps leaders to recognize that personal change has its own timeframe. “We don’t all start in the same place and we don’t end up in the same place.”

Course Offers Practical Experiences

In addition to case studies and readings, students also conduct a diversity audit of an organization, analyzing the organization’s inclusion strategies and employment practices. All course experiences strive to help students better respond to differences in the workplace and improve their ability to create, work within, and lead diverse teams and global organizations.

Phillips draws from some 20 years of experience researching diversity topics, including gender, homogeneity, and workplace relationships, among others.

But she, too, is gaining insights from her students. “It’s been an interesting challenge. This is a smart group of students. I have learned a lot from them.”

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