The competitive advantage of cultural diversity in the workplace

Globalization brings both opportunities and challenges for organizations. Front and centre to the discussion of globalization is cultural workplace diversity. Cultural diversity can be a strength that enables an organization to thrive with creativity and broaden its collective thinking.

What might globalization and cultural diversity mean to an organization headquartered in western Canada? To learn this perspective, l reached out to Agrium’s senior vice president of human resources, Michael Webb. With more than 15,000 employees, Agrium has operations all around the globe including Canada, the United States, South America, Europe, Africa and Australia. Webb’s views are thought-provoking. I walked away from the interview with a new appreciation of what globalization can mean for creating a competitive advantage when an organization embraces cultural diversity.


Brian Clendenin: When you hear “globalization,” what does it mean to you?

Michael Webb: The world is becoming very closely interconnected and for companies to perform, they need an international strategy. To execute that strategy you need to have people who can operate in more than just their home country. It’s remarkable how much of world’s gross domestic product has an international component … and it’s growing. An organization’s success on whether they will be able to execute on their international strategy will depend on whether they have the right people or not.

Clendenin: Which character traits are important to look for in people?

Webb: It’s to what extent does one have the character traits of being empathetic and sympathetic to other people’s differences.

Clendenin: Do you agree with the thinking that culturally diverse workforce spurs creativity?

Webb: Absolutely. I think organizations that are very myopic in their thinking are going to find the size of the market opportunity really constrained. Organizations that can take these differences and cater to them … given where technology has gone and given where the world has gone, will find the market is much broader and the opportunity that much bigger.

Clendenin: How do you view Agrium’s people strategy in relation to Agrium’s business strategy?

Webb: The way I like looking at this is that our wholesale products of nitrogen, phosphate and potash are applied everywhere in the world where there’s a crop being cultivated. It’s the same thing I want with the people at this company, like our product, that can be applied anywhere on the face of the planet. I want our people to be able to be effective and to contribute anywhere on the planet. And that’s a goal that is very important to our HR department and central to our people strategy.

Clendenin: What would you advise CEOs not thinking deeply about globalization?

Webb: The questions I would ask to any CEO are: ‘When you go to bed at night, and it’s dark, what’s happening where it’s twelve noon?’ … ‘Do you have people actively working on the implementation of your strategy?’ … ‘Do you have individuals that are innovating on your behalf?’… ‘What’s happening when the lights go out where you’re located, where are they turning on?’ I would argue that any major organization, any major company, should worry and reflect on that. And, I tell you, I certainly do.

Clendenin: What are some of the benefits of operating internationally?

Webb: The wonderful thing about having international operations is that your business is running 24 hours a day. The sun never sets on your business. And you can get into a situation, from a project management perspective, you can structure a team where you’re progressing 24 hours a day and that is incredibly powerful … not just in terms of getting things done, but also individuals having different perspectives being able to say ‘Have you considered this angle?’ and it’s amazing how these different perspectives can really shape the outcome of something you’re trying to implement.

Clendenin: Any final thoughts on globalization and the importance of having a culturally diverse workforce that you would like to share?

Webb: I tend to look at globalization in a very positive way. Everybody around the world is able to contribute to some common things, and that builds bridges and that builds understanding.

Brian Clendenin
Brian Clendenin
Innovating the Canadian Enterprise at Box. Prior to Box, I served at the research firm Gartner and write on the topics of leadership, IT strategy, and the future of work. Invest my time speaking with engaging thought leaders.

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