In planning my remarks for the recent 2014 New Zealand Diversity Forum in Christchurch, it occurred to me that much of the talk about New Zealand's expanding population regards diversification as a challenge to be managed.
For example, we focus on the presumed difficulty of matching the migrant skill base with industries suffering skills shortages, and on how on earth we're going to house a projected one million more Aucklanders by 2041, let alone prevent chronic gridlock.
What isn't talked about is the richness of opportunity for business. If you adapt your business to meet the particular needs of the migrant market and the distinct communities within New Zealand, you could reap rewards that your competitors haven't recognised.
Be Accessible is a great example. It's a social change campaign that works with public and private organisations to help them better serve customers with disabilities. Be Accessible shows how thinking inclusively and adapting standard business practices to accommodate all customers can have invaluable social and economic benefits.
The 2013 Census for the first time recorded more than one million people living in New Zealand who were born overseas, an increase of 300,000 since the 2001 Census. People who identify as Asian now comprise nearly 12 per cent of the population (471,000), Maori nearly 15 per cent, and Pacific peoples and those from the Middle East/Latin America/Africa 7.5 per cent and 1.2 per cent respectively.
Around one-quarter of our population identifies as not being of European heritage, but have our workplaces adapted to reflect their cultural needs? The 2014 Diversity Forum aimed to address this and other human rights questions, and I was privileged to be a speaker alongside such prominent folk as Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy and Police Commissioner Mike Bush.
On the forum's theme of 'Migrant and Refugee Employment: Valuing Diversity', some of the remarks that resonated most with me were:
1) From Mike Bush, police commissioner:
"We are your police so we must be as diverse as our people."
He noted that the police are working to raise the proportion of Maori and female officers from 12 per cent and 20 per cent respectively to be more in line with representation in the population. Companies should take the same approach. Even though it takes time and effort, diversity is non-negotiable if you want to remain relevant to the people you serve.
2) From Taz Mokorombindo of the Canterbury Business Association:
"Immigrants take five to seven years to get to the same level of business; 12 years to attain pay parity."
Professor James Liu of Victoria University's comment that "New Zealand is open in principle but prejudiced in practice" is related. If we don't harness diversity we are not only doing a disservice to new migrants, we're shooting our economy in the foot. Why miss out on growth, productivity, the expansion of the tax base, the worthwhile contribution of thousands of people?
3) From Annie Brown, director of people and communications at BNZ:
"Nothing will change unless driven by top senior management."
I agree. The responsibility for driving this issue starts at the top. And it's not just about changing the HR recruitment policy or updating your marketing material. Real change happens at a people, cultural and structural level - and eventually presents in your business model.
My recommendations for CEOs seeking to make the most of diversification:
• Bring in a cultural mentor for yourself and your team, someone who can help bridge the gap between you and the market/s you wish to serve;
• Familiarise your staff with a diverse range of cultures. Recognise cultural holidays, share traditional food at morning teas, offer staff opportunities to learn the basics of different languages (and pursue learning yourself), visit a local marae;
• Be willing to test different cultural approaches, and involve customers in the research and development of relevant new business solutions. Find a small group within the community you wish to target, and work with it to pilot changes to your products and services;
• Get people involved in your business from the culture(s) you seek to understand. Adapt your recruitment process to optimise opportunities, or create new opportunities, such as secondments or internships.
• Get involved with the communities you wish to serve, through sponsorships, networking opportunities, volunteering and so on;
• Take your staff with you, so change is integrated and everyone understands what the company wants to achieve. Encourage everyone to look for opportunities that move the company towards a common goal;
• Whatever you do, make it authentic and relevant. If you are diversifying solely to capitalise on a commercial opportunity, it will ring hollow with your customers and staff.
As the renowned non-profit TED continues to demonstrate, diversity of ideas and democratisation of information is a global trend, and I wonder whether New Zealand companies are seizing the mettle as quickly as some of our offshore counterparts.
The same question could be asked within the public arena. The 2012 US presidential election saw the Democrats rewarded for responding more readily than their Republican rivals to the growth of the Hispanic voter base. Perhaps there are lessons for New Zealand in this.
At AIA New Zealand we're fortunate to employ people who represent 18 nationalities and ethnicities. This has enabled us to better appreciate the changing demographics and cultural landscape and make several innovations in our business - one being a new channel.
AIA Agency launched in 2013 to help us meet the needs of under-served populations, with an initial focus on supporting Asian migrants to New Zealand. Already our agent base has gone from zero to 17, with a range of agents who between them are fluent in a dozen Asian languages, along with Arabic and English.
The New Zealand of 2014 is evolving more quickly than in any previous era, and the rate of diversification is unlikely to abate any time soon. The companies that enjoy success in the coming decades will be those that embrace diversity and tailor themselves to meet the needs of new audiences and markets.
Every company can start cultivating diversity right now, and doing so will enhance the brand both internally and externally. You don't have to change the world, you don't have to spend a lot, you don't have to do it perfectly - you will learn just by trying.
Wayne Besant is the CEO of AIA New Zealand.
For more on NZ business ambitions go to www.businessambition.co.nz