Three Ways Workplace Diversity is Identical to Elite Athletics

Turn on a Google alert for diversity in the workplace and you’ll have enough reading material each day to cover a week. In the past week alone, Intel’s senior management received threats for supporting diversity and inclusion. Payments startup Stripe has begun to hire whole teams – hoping they can capitalize on the idea that like attracts like (so one diverse person is more likely to have diverse friends to bring along with them). And Bank of Montreal (BMO) just launched an impact fund that will invest in companies with female CEOs or companies with 25%+ female board representation.

But how does any of this news help corporations who want to become more inclusive? Many could take Stripe’s lead in hiring whole teams, but this is a tactic that only works in an environment that is already inclusive; it also may not be feasible for some companies depending on the needs of the organization.

I propose a new source of inspiration for companies who want to become more inclusive: Elite Athletics.

Long thought of as the epitome of exclusion – only a select number of people get to be world-class athletes and many of us have our physical fates sealed for us – the world of elite athletics has three lessons to teach the corporate world on what it means to be diverse and inclusive.

It takes all types

In any sport, different types of people are not just suggested, they are required. In track and field, you have runners, jumpers, and throwers. Within each of those categories, there are sub-categories (sprinter versus distance, height versus length in jumping, and speed versus size in throwing). Each of those categories and subcategories requires a different type of person. At my own athletic peak (as a shot put thrower), I was 6’4 and weighed 300 lbs. I dare any coach in the world to try to turn someone with those stats from a shot put thrower to a successful 100M sprinter. It cannot be done because my physicality would not allow it. That being said, there were times when I was beat in a competition by a smaller guy (say, 5’10, 180 lbs) who had incredible agility and speed; thus he could get the shot put moving faster even if I had more force behind mine.

The workplace is no different. Just as there are runners, jumpers, and throwers in track and field, a workplace has its equivalents. Each of those roles not only is different from another role, but there are different ways to achieve success in any one role. Similar to my experience of losing a shot put competition to a smaller guy who was faster even though I was stronger, diversity in the workplace is about creating an environment where the output is the focus. The only remaining factor is to create a team environment (in athletics or corporations) that allows each person to harness their unique talent in order to get the best output.

It requires targeted, consistent efforts to succeed

Could you imagine an Olympian that only trains once a week? Or an NBA player that only lifts weights but never gets on the court? It’s a crazy thought, but the corporate world does this all the time when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Businesses hold “diversity summits”, train managers on “unconscious bias”, and attend once-annual conferences or keynote addresses to inspire them on diversity. On the recruiting side, companies occasionally hire people from diverse backgrounds but fall back on “cultural fit” or an inability to find talent pipelines as their reason for not measurably increasing diversity (both of these reasons have some basis in truth, but can also be used as a crutch).

In the corporate world, just as in athletics, consistent and targeted efforts are required. If you are looking to get better at basketball – you should probably go play basketball. If you are looking to increase gender diversity – hire talented people with different genders. But also keep in mind the background efforts that enable better “on-court” performance. A corporation has to focus on pipeline management and branding efforts to attract gender diverse people just as basketball players need cross training in order to be more successful on the court.

It’s about coaching and progress, not immediate perfection

When I was scouted into track and field, it’s not because I had ever thrown a shot put before. It’s because I had potential (in this case, through my physical size). Even at the most elite levels, coach-ability and future potential are part of the selection criteria. Will you grow once you are a member of this elite team, or have you peaked already? Can this team bring out the best in you through their own resources?

These questions are the same ones that should be asked when it comes to diversity recruiting because they are focused on coaching (or, to use the corporate term, professional development and mentorship). Many companies believe that “innate brilliance” is the only way to hire diverse people (or anyone, in some cases) so employees can immediately start producing value – but this is altered by the belief that some groups do not possess this innate brilliance. This does not mean ignoring skill set – which would be horrible for a company – it means looking for skills that can be coached to grow instead of requiring perfection right out of the gate or assuming that non-traditional experiences could not produce the same value in the end.

When thinking of how to increase diversity and inclusion in your organization, it can be tempting to follow the headlines and try to make a splash yourself. A good PR move certainly has its benefits, but next time you are thinking of what types of initiatives to plan or how think about diversity and inclusion more broadly, take a look at athletics for some inspiration.

This post originally appeared on Ziversity

Stefan is a diversity and inclusion consultant and Founder of Ziversity, an online diversity recruiting and sourcing platform. He has a number of years of experience in the HR/diversity recruiting space, starting with his research at Yale University and continuing through numerous non-profit positions. He blogs about diversity, inclusion, tech, startups, and cultural commentary. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios. Business inquiries can be sent to

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