“Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people … or find a different room.” – Michael Dell, 2003
Much as it has perplexed my wife, I’m a member of a public administration book club. Yes, such a thing exists. It’s an academically-inclined group. Most of the members have Master’s degrees. Almost all live and work in the NCR (National Capital Region – GovSpeak for the Ottawa area). Plus, they’re brilliant.
And then there’s me.
No Master’s degree. Born and raised far from Ottawa, in Edmonton. I’ve worked in public sector service delivery, but never in a “policy shop”. The world of the NCR is mostly foreign to me, and when I’ve been to Ottawa I’ve felt more like a touristy outsider than a government insider.
That said, I’m warmly welcomed to the club. My opinions are sought in book selections and I actively contribute to our discussions. While I sometimes feel like an odd choice for a book club of policy wonks, the reality is that I bring to the club a diversity that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
When we think of diversity, we often focus primarily on employment equity categories – women, First Nations, persons with disabilities, and visible minorities. Sometimes we think more broadly, and include prohibited domains of discrimination – national or ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation, marital or family status.
While these are all valid, and important, angles on diversity, they aren’t exhaustive. Humans are just too, well, diverse. Diversity itself has a near-infinite number of dimensions.
In the context of our book club, I bring geographic diversity to the group. There are perspectives on the public sector that can’t easily be had from within the sometimes-insular bubble of Ottawa.
Other members of the group work outside of the public sector, and they bring occupational diversity. Being outside the public service and its trappings allows for scrutiny, and for insight not visible from inside.
Occupational diversity is perhaps why politicians seek outsiders – academics and businessfolk – to provide oversight or advice on the public service itself. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service is comprised of members from the worlds of business and academia.
This is the true benefit of diversity – it combats our limitations and biases, which we sometimes have difficulty seeing. If we’ve always done something a certain way, we may be blind to other (perhaps better) ways.
To minimize those blind spots, diversify your personal and professional network. Say hello to the cleaning staff, vendors, contractors, and stay in touch with retirees. Connect with citizens who are visiting your office or service counter. Ask them their names and a bit about their experiences, and share a bit of your own. Connect with those outside your usual social and occupational groups.
You’ll need to be ready to hear the unexpected. If nothing else, you’ll gain a wider perspective on our country and its place in the world. Canadians are a diverse bunch, in far more than skin tone or religion.
In what ways is your work unit diverse? How do you seek out diverse (including ‘outsider’) input and for feedback? As a leader, do you seek out diverse counsel and viewpoints when making decisions?
George Wenzel is a journeyman public servant. He has worked delivering programs and in internal services, most recently in Human Resources. His mission has been to improve service to Canadians by improving frontline management. You can find him online at about.me/georgewenzel, govlife.ca, and on Twitter @georgewenzel.