Joanna Allen, global vice president for Hellmann’s at Unilever, joined us to chat in our recent podcast. With a wealth of experience as a local and global marketer in the food and beverages sector, Joanna is well placed to talk about the benefits of diversity in the workplace. Indeed, she thrives in environments that foster diversity of perspective.

Allen traces back her appreciation of diversity of perspective to her university days, at one of the UK’s most culturally diverse universities – the London School of Economics. In a career where she has held roles at Coke and Unilever, Allen explains how she “had the opportunity to work in roles with global scope and through this, have had the privilege of partnering with an incredibly diverse group of marketeers from developed and emerging markets, addressing quite distinct challenges.”

Joanna says she prefers “matrix style career paths” to hierarchical ones. For any new role, she asks herself the question: “What new learning experience does this present and then what kind of unique experiences or capabilities do I bring that will add differentiated value to the role?”

She sees diversity as being valuable, not just because gender and sexuality are represented, “but also diversity in terms of mental processing styles, different strengths and different experiences from geographies.”

Joanna Allen is not alone in her recognition of the advantages that diversity in the workplace brings. US company, Global LT, have been offering global solutions for four decades, including conventional services such as destination, relocation, and language training. Alongside these services, the company also provides cross-cultural training with a focus on inclusion and diversity.

The message is that diversity for diversity’s sake is unlikely to reap major benefits. However, when diversity is managed well and includes cross-cultural and inclusion training, the result is that all employees feel validated and valued – regardless of their cultural differences. Feeling valued boosts morale, and this obviously helps to create a positive workplace.

Joanna Allen believes that diversity can be a key driver for transformational change within an organisation. Indeed, teams that lack diversity might find that they leave inherent weaknesses exposed. As Joanna explains, “I would challenge a team that all thinks the same way or operates the same way, to really deliver transformational business ideas.” Furthermore, Allen believes that “diversity can really challenge a team and make it operate at a high level.”

Joanna is quick to acknowledge the importance of Aline Santos’ leadership in creating a strong diversity and inclusion agenda at Unilever. Allen believes there are two key actions that other companies should take to drive the diversity agenda. The first is to ensure that there is an active mentoring program. This need not be a formal program, but leaders should be thinking how their role within an organisation can help an employee to reach greater heights. She adds, “That’s one of the most powerful contributions a leader can make.”

The second action that Allen says will impact on an organisation’s diversity agenda is to highlight the role models within a company. As she explains, “there’s enormous value if you can identify with someone who’s forged a path similar to the one that you want to take.” Showcasing talent from outside an organisation is easily done, but shining the spotlight on the talent that exists internally will be even more powerful to an aspirational employee.

Hult Business School identify 13 benefits and challenges of cultural diversity in the workplace in 2017. Of the benefits, the way that having diverse cultural perspectives can drive innovation and breed creativity is notable. L’Oréal, as an example, attribute much of their success in emerging markets to the multicultural make-up of its product development teams.

Other benefits include having the ability to attract and retain top talent from a culturally rich and diverse talent pool. Having local knowledge, insight and cultural sensitivity within the ranks of an organisation can also be highly beneficial as a way of creating high quality and carefully targeted marketing campaigns across different territories.

Of course, diversity in the workplace can pose significant challenges too. However, the message of an article published last year in the Harvard Business Review still resonates. It is the fact that working in diverse teams can bring about challenges that can help them to be so effective: “working on diverse teams produces better outcomes precisely because it’s harder.”

Similarly, Joanna Allen talks of what can be achieved in challenging circumstances and in the face of adversity. In fact, she points to the best piece of feedback that she has ever received not coming from a work colleague, as you might expect, but from a medical professional, who – when Joanna’s son was born with a limb deficiency – had reassured her by saying just how adaptable he would prove to be with the challenge he faced – missing a hand on one arm.

This has influenced Joanna’s own leadership style. She explains, “I really try to coach more rather than direct my teams. I’m an absolute advocate of teams asking for forgiveness rather than permission.”

Having the ability to be adaptable is something Allen relates to the challenges currently facing FMCG sector. In fact, she describes mass segmentation as “the opportunity and the challenge.”

She believes that, in many ways, the challenge to transform the way business is done is tougher for larger, global companies than local businesses. Diversity in the workplace is not only a good way of dealing with the challenges of today; it helps to create a future facing organisation that will be able to cope with the challenges of tomorrow too.

To listen to the full podcast with Joanna Allen, click here.

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