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Simon Fish is general counsel at Bank of Montreal and serves as its executive diversity champion.
Simon Fish is general counsel at Bank of Montreal and serves as its executive diversity champion.

LEADERSHIP LAB

What I learned from Nelson Mandela Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

As a native South African, the recent passing of Nelson Mandela has been a catalyst for reflection. Mr. Mandela was an extraordinary individual and an inspiration to the world. He was also a person of high cultural intelligence. He was able to build cultural bridges that allowed him to connect with everyone – from the oppressed and disenfranchised, to the prison guards at Robben Island, to a white electorate that had been taught to regard him with suspicion and fear.

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My father was an opponent of the apartheid regime. As a senior executive at a global industrial company in the country, he provided education and training to black South Africans and employed them in positions reserved for whites under the apartheid laws. I watched as he was arrested for engaging in these practices. It had a bearing on me, on the values and perspectives that I hold today, and how I interact with people in my personal relationships and as a corporate leader.

At Bank of Montreal, we embrace diversity as a core value and we believe that a diverse work force and inclusive work environment delivers stronger performance. That involves assessing where company leaders may have an unconscious bias, or blind spots. The ability of individuals to engage with others from different cultures is an important aspect of cultural intelligence and an unconscious bias can interfere with a person’s ability to engage.

While some cultural intelligence is innate, I think it is also partly a learned skill. Learning this skill provides us an opportunity to adjust our perceptions and behaviour – it can make us more effective in our dealings with others, which in turn leads to higher performance. We manage our teams better, we interact with customers more effectively, and we solve problems more creatively.

Given the experiences of my own upbringing, I thought I had very few biases, if any. But the results of my assessment suggested that I had a few blind spots I needed to address.

For me it wasn’t obvious where those biases lie. I am confident they are not rooted in gender, age or ethnicity. But I think they are related to my perceptions of ambition and achievement – that I may have a singular view of what it means to be ambitious, of what achievement looks like, and that I may be blind to what it means to others, or even to the fact that others may have a different view.

The danger is that I may exclude those with a different view. I may not give others the opportunity to offer a perspective on an issue that would be different from mine – and of advantage to my employer. All of us have blind spots. The starting point is to recognize we have them and then identify what they are. When working with others, we must be aware we are looking at them through a particular cultural lens – and so are they. We are then reducing the risk of our perceptions being clouded by our own bias.

The initial reaction is not always the right one. Personally, I work on becoming slower to judge – about a substantive matter, an individual, or the proposed course of action. Regardless of how the conversation concludes, I now take more time to reflect.

I have learned that, in much the same way I consider a situation through my own cultural lens, so does the individual opposite me. Taking the time to consider what might be influencing both my own and the other person’s perspective will contribute toward reaching a better meeting of the minds.

We in the corporate world can benefit from the example of Nelson Mandela’s cultural intelligence. It is up to us to follow his example.

Simon Fish is general counsel at Bank of Montreal (@BMO) and serves as its executive diversity champion.

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