A diversity journey: in 2000, Irwin Mortgage Corporation, Indianapolis, embarked on an initiative to promote diversity in the company's work force and everyday practices. Here's what happened next.

Author:Hubbard, Andrew
Position:Industry Trends
 
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SKETCHES AND BLUEPRINTS SERVE DIFFERENT purposes. A blueprint offers an inch-by-inch detailed guide for building something; a sketch offers an overall impression. The sketch tries to give the viewer a true feeling for what the thing itself is like. This article, then, is a sketch of Indianapolis-based Irwin Mortgage Corporation's experience with a diversity initiative.

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The umbrella term "diversity" has so much that falls under it--books, symposia, expert practitioners and dogma--that you could even call it an industry.

So what is this thing that is too big to ignore, too mature to call a fad and too vigorous to dismiss? Its detractors would say that it is simply the Golden Rule expanded to 100,000 words; or worse, a code term for bashing white male cultural dominance. Its proponents call it a management strategy, and claim that it is at once a philosophy and a tool--one that can multiply a company's profits by allowing individual employees to consciously leverage the mosaic of their similarities and differences.

Who's right? It would seem that companies that are sold on diversity must be on to something for the simple and pragmatic reason that they continue to be willing to fund diversity programs year after year.

If it is true that it holds real merit as a business philosophy, then how do you "do" diversity? Where do you start? What, in fact, are you trying to achieve?

These are some of the questions that Will Miller, the chairman and chief executive officer of Irwin Financial Corporation, our parent company, challenged our company management with early in the year 2000. About 10 years earlier, when Miller first became chief executive officer, he had led the corporation through a process to articulate our guiding philosophy--which included a commitment to diversity as part of one of our core values and beliefs, "treating others as we would want to be treated." Even 10 years ago, the guiding philosophy was nothing new; it was an up-to-date articulation of the principles that had been established by Joseph I. Irwin (Will Miller's great-great-grandfather) when he founded the company in 1871. Miller's challenge to us in 2000--to focus on how we could more effectively live out our commitment to diversity--was not a reaction to any internal complaints or legal actions. It was the next phase in an ongoing process to examine our company's practices against our stated beliefs and look for ways to improve how we act out our values.

That was the birth of diversity as an explicit initiative in our company. However, there were a number of pieces in the jigsaw of our culture and business plan that implicitly predisposed us to a successful diversity initiative. For years, we have consciously marketed to first-time homebuyers and borrowers with credit challenges. We have proudly based our business strategy on our guiding philosophy: a series of six core values closely aligned to diversity concepts. The summary statement of the guiding philosophy, containing the core values, is: "We believe the purpose of our business is to create superior value for all our stakeholders through a dedication to service, treating others as we would want to be treated, a long-term orientation and the highest standards." And we have always believed in matching the demographics of our work force to the markets we serve.

Once the initiative was established, there followed a period of gestation. Managers questioned themselves and each other about diversity, and the term was a common thread in employees' hall talk. In hindsight, this was smart. It seems there are some initiatives that need to be addressed quickly, and some that need time to grow in people's minds. Diversity is clearly one of the latter. We wanted it embedded in the culture, not layered on top of it, and this simply takes time.

To a person outside the company, it would have looked as though nothing was happening. But in fact, something essential was happening: The culture, the collective mindset of our people, was evolving and becoming more receptive. At the time, we had more than 1,000 employees spread through 30 states, so nurturing a culture shift required time and a deft mixture of intervention and laissez faire on the part of management.

It was clear to management that we would need some guidance and direction to help us define what diversity would mean to our organization, and help us...

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