I’ve said many times that those of us in leadership positions today are part of a leadership renaissance. We have been given the difficult yet exciting task to architect a new 21st Century model for leadership. There are no blueprints, no best practices on which to build this new structure.  The only tools we have are uncertainty, an unrelenting pace for change and an outdated and tattered 20th Century blueprint that worked in the past but no longer serves today’s corporate ecosystem.    It will be up to us to create the bridge between what worked in the 20th Century and what needs to be in place for leadership and organizations  to thrive in the 21st Century.  No one has the answers but we will certainly fail if we don’t at least attempt to challenge the status quo. It’s not enough to think outside the box.  We have to just throw the darn thing out. 

So here’s another first we will be facing in the 21st Century. For the first time in history, 21st Century leaders will be in charge of a workforce that is far from homogeneous. As we approach the middle half of the century, the minority in the US will become a majority.  Now, you may think that 2050 is a long way away and that you won’t be leading teams by then.  Well, think again and look around you.   

Ethnicity and race  are big pieces of the diversity puzzle that exists in organizations today and it’s getting bigger everyday.  Whether it’s in the employees you are hiring, the outsourced vendors you are using in Argentina, Russia or India or in your global customer base, the more we understand and are fluent in the differences and nuances that make up the multi-cultural world we work in, the more effective leaders we will be going forward.

Diversity, in all its many facets, has always been the domain of the Human Resources Department for as long as I can remember. I think there isn’t an organization out there today that has not received diversity training.  Yet, attending a training class on diversity is very different than actually leading a heavily multi-cultural team.   I know there are still sections and areas of the US where the majority of workers are still non-hyphenated Americans.  What I mean by that is that they are predominantly white employees whose European ancestors came to this country generations, if not centuries, ago.  There is no descriptive term before the word “American” to explain their heritage.

Then there are other parts of the country that are just the opposite.  They are the real melting pots where ethnicity, race and even religion come together every day and must learn not only to understand each other’s customs but accept them and work side by side with them.  Here, these Americans are given a descriptive  hyphenated word whether they want it or not.  Words like Asian-American,  Hispanic-American, African-American.

Having lived in New York City from a very young age, I thought I was pretty savvy about ethnic and racial distinctions but  years ago, when I moved to South Florida,  I realized there was a lot I needed to learn.  South Florida is a real melting pot in many different way.  There is a large Hispanic and African American and Jewish population and equally important, it also serves as a large hub for recent immigrants that are not only Hispanics but Russians, Haitians  and many others. And yes, you also have the “Gringos” as they are called which are the good, old fashioned “white” folks.

Although I’ve always managed teams that were multi-cultural, in South Florida, my team was 90% multi-cultural. At first, I never really paid that much attention to that statistic but with time,  I got to realize how important that statistic was.  Just like with the Millennials, I realized I had a sneak preview to what the workforce was going to be like in the future.  Just as I experimented with techniques to understand and harness the potential of the Millennials so too did I do that with the multi-cultural component of my team.  My experiments were eye-opening and in future blogs  I will share what I learned and the techniques I developed to leverage the culturally unique qualities of  my team members. 

As a leaders in the 21st Century, we have to understand the different traits and values that each generation brings to the workforce. More importantly, we have to understand that within each generation is a multi-cultural and racial component that may overrride the more encompassing generational ones we’ve come to know.   Most of us have not considered that nuance but the reality is that the ethnic & racial components of the workforce will significantly play into the generational traits and values they bring into the workplace.

So here’s the first thing I learned: the hyphenated term means nothing and only creates confusion.  In other words, “Hispanic-American” does not tell you anything about the person in your team who you may consider to be “Hispanic-American”.   All it does is muddy the waters. The generalization often gets in the way of truly understanding what makes that particular person tick.

In my next blog, I’ll tell you how I learned that important distinction.

What about you?  Are you ready to lead a minority majority?  Do you understand the cultural nuances of your team members?  Do you know how to even start?