Leading a Diverse Workforce

As our nation becomes more diverse, I’ve thought many times about the relevance of what is taught in business school courses.  Much of the literature is based on Western culture.  This raises the question—“Is our understanding of leadership and motivation appropriate for more diverse workforces?”

My wife and I frequently vacation on cruise ships.  In January of 2015, we took a cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas.  I was impressed with the high level of customer service we received on this particular cruise and sought out the Hotel Director for an interview.  What I learned from him was quite interesting.

Mr. Sanjay Kumar began his career as a kitchen chef in a five-star restaurant in India.  Over the years, he was given increasing administrative responsibilities.  Today, he has approximately 650 employees reporting to him.  The ship’s crew comes from 57 countries.

Leading by example is important to him.  He spends little time in his office, preferring to manage by walking around.  Mr. Kumar estimated that he spends 25% of his time with the crew, 50% of the time walking around the ship observing and talking to passengers, and 25% performing administrative tasks.

When the ship returns to its home port, he is there to welcome his employees returning from time off.  Mr. Kumar understands the need to keep the crew motivated.  On every cruise, he plans activities for them.  For example, he said that the day following our interview, some of the crew were being offered an opportunity to go on a dolphin tour at a greatly reduced price.  There is a crew calendar.  Either every day or every other day, there are crew parties.  A variety of activities are planned, such as crew BBQs and movie nights.  Sometimes the ship’s captain will visit them, and have dinner with them.  On occasion, Mr. Kumar cooks for them.

Royal Caribbean offers ample opportunities for promotions.  Employees can move up to a supervisor position in their department.  From there, they can move up to a senior supervisor and then to assistant manager.  Sanjay said, “We handle advancements every day.”  He added that people are leaving all the time and new people are always arriving.

Mr. Kumar has 11 directors reporting to him, and he wants them repeating to their staff the things he tells his direct reports.[i]  In many ways, he sounds like a typical leader in a US company: “I teach my team to be visionary.”  “I want them to think outside the box.”  “We need to evolve; otherwise, we will get complacent.”

What I heard from Mr. Kumar sounded similar to leadership and motivational techniques utilized throughout Western cultures.  The fact that his employees are diverse–many coming from the Third World–did not affect how he led them.

Based on the high level of customer service I saw on this cruise, I had to conclude that much of what is taught in business schools, especially as it relates to leadership and management, is relevant, even for those leaders in the most diverse workforces.

[i] “Good leaders tell stories.  It’s been well established through a plethora of research that stories shape cultures, enhance information retention, build connection, and set direction,” says Kristi Hedges (2015), blog contributor for Forbes.  In her January15, 2015 blog post, she shares about the seven types of stories leaders should be telling their employees: challenge stories, relating stories, metaphoric stories, vision stories, potential stories, cautionary tales, and humorous stories.  Read more about the stories good leaders should tell in her blog post.

Hedges, K. (2015, January 15). Seven types of stories leaders should tell [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2015/01/30/seven-types-of-stories-every-leader-should-tell/

Biblical Integration: When we consider the methods that Jesus used to both lead and motivate his band of diverse followers, we find that he, too, used storytelling.  The “Prodigal Son” (Lk 15:11-32), “The Good Samaritan” (Lk 10:25-37), and “The Laborers in the Vineyard” (Mt 20:1-16) name but a few.  As a powerful tool for leaders, storytelling is personable; memorable (since stories are easily accessible in ordinary language); and engaging, by encouraging listeners to locate the meaning of the story and apply the teaching to their lives.


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