Visual Diversity vs. Experiential Diversity

I was lucky enough to spend most of my career in the military. Half of my career was spent on active duty in the Coast Guard. The other half was with the Army National Guard, where I spent time working as both a traditional part-time soldier and in a full-time position. My career exposed me to many different people from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds. Spending time with all of them reinforced my internal ideas around diversity. I have seen leaders from all walks of life succeed and fail. The color of their skin or their cultural background never mattered. What they brought to the table and how they carried themselves was always the difference between those we wanted to follow and those we tried to avoid.

As I went through my military transition, I began to notice how private companies were approaching diversity. During the interview process, one company told me they were interested in my skills because they did not have any former military service members on their team. They viewed that as an area where they lacked diversity. They had an experiential diversity gap.

Today there are too many organizations that are seeking only visual diversity. They want to make sure their team and workforce “look” a certain way. They want to ensure they have a variety of genders and colors in leadership positions and then move on with their typical day-to-day activities. They don’t actually care about diversity. They want to give the impression of diversity to avoid having any uncomfortable conversations. However, those conversations are what needs to happen. They are what forces us as humans to connect, expand our minds, and grow. In this article, I offer my opinion on the differences between visual and experiential diversity and why I think we, as leaders, need to do better at building diverse teams.

Visual diversity refers to those things we can see by looking at someone. Gender and skin color are examples of visible differences. A leadership team of six made up of three women and three men, with two individuals of Asian descent, two of African descent, and two of caucasian descent will be visually diverse. In contrast, a team of six caucasian males or six African females would not be visually diverse. There is power in having a visually diverse leadership team and workforce. That variety lets team members know they can aspire to those positions or to do that work. When someone sees another person who looks like them in a particular role, they are more likely to think they can do that or achieve that. Whereas if you always see someone different from you in that position, you may think you cannot achieve what they have or you cannot perform that role.

On the other hand, experiential diversity refers to the unseen experiences which make us who we are. Things you have done and people you have met make up our experiences and influence our thoughts and feelings. Examples include your family life growing up, the neighborhood you lived in, schools you attended, extracurricular activities you participated in, and jobs you have had. People with diverse experiences will bring new and different thoughts to an organization, creating change and challenging the status quo.

While there are benefits to being visually diverse, the actual value comes from experiential diversity. That is what leaders need to go after. Varied experiences will allow your team to be innovative and move in a new direction quickly, while a team with less diverse backgrounds is stuck all thinking the same way about a problem. Diverse experiences will also open the door for team members to have those hard conversations. It will allow team members the opportunity to connect with someone different from them, not just visually but in the way they think, feel, and act. That is where the actual value of diversity comes in. It gives teams different perspectives on things. It allows the entire group to be more substantial as our collective knowledge and experiences are more significant than the individual. These differences are a fantastic resource teams who lack experiential diversity cannot tap into.

When building diverse teams, it is much more important to seek experiences than a specific look. To illustrate this, let’s dig deeper into my example above which had six visually diverse leaders but maybe lacked experiential diversity. That team was composed of three women and three men, with two individuals of Asian descent, two of African descent, and two of caucasian descent. We can all agree they would be visually diverse. What about their backgrounds and experiences? For this example, I will say they all grew up together as friends. They lived their entire lives in the same neighborhood in New Haven, Conn. Their fathers were orthopedic surgeons at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Their mothers were all pediatricians who worked at the same practice together for twenty years. They all went to the same schools from elementary up to their private high school. They all attended Harvard Univerisity and graduated with degrees in finance. Following Harvard, they all went to work for the same financial institution where they rose through the ranks and are currently all senior vice presidents. Now we have given these individuals a back story, we can see while visually diverse, their experiences and backgrounds are not diverse at all. In fact, if this were a real leadership team, it would be one of the least diverse I have ever seen. If no one took the time to get to know them and only looked at their skin color and gender, we would assume they were are vastly different when in reality, they are all very much the same.

Now let’s look at a non visually diverse team who could be incredibly diverse in their thoughts and experiences. Our non visually diverse team could be composed of six males of African descent. Of the six, four are from the United States, one from New Haven, Connecticut, one from a rural Texas town, and one from Los Angeles, California. The final American grew up in a military family, spending most of his life in Japan, Korea, and Germany. Of the other two, one is a French citizen, and the other is a South African citizen. Both currently live and work in the United States. Two of the six have doctorates, one has a master’s, one has a bachelor’s, one has an associate’s degree, and the other is a high school dropout. Of the six leaders, only two worked in the corporate world their entire careers. Of the remaining four, one spent 30 years in the military retiring at the highest level, one worked as a volunteer in several locations around the world, one spent 20 years working in local government, and the final member spent most of his time leading teams in highly physically demanding work. Their family lives could also be vastly different. One could be an orphan. Two of them came from a traditional family with two working parents of different genders. One has parents of the same gender. One had a single mother, and the other a single father. While they all look the same, their thoughts, actions, and experiences are vastly different and much more diverse than our visually diverse team. I would argue this team would be much more valuable to an organization.

I acknowledge these two examples are extreme. The majority of the time, visual differences will lead to varied experiences between individuals. However, we need to be aware this is not always the case. Leaders need to spend time with their teams, learn about them, where they came from, and what they have done and experienced in their lives. Leaders need to take the diverse backgrounds of their team members and blend them to create a visually and experientially diverse group. Experiential diversity should be the foundation, while visual diversity is the layer on top. Experiential diversity is the cake, and visual diversity is the frosting, the skin, the layer that covers what is truly important. Leaders need to seek more than just the outer layer. They need to dig deep and ensure they genuinely get diversity and not just the same thing in a different package.

One of the major driving factors in my life is the desire to leave the world a better place for my two children. I fear our current trajectory will only force us to repeat the mistakes of our past. Throughout history, there has been a great value placed on our visual differences. We are all immediately judged by our shape, size, color, and gender.

I experienced this first hand during my school years where I was constantly bullied. I was often pushed and shoved and continuously made fun of. I had food thrown at me in middle school and even had a bowl of soup dumped on my head. I vividly recall spending lunchtime alone in multiple different school cafeterias. Those hours were some of the longest and worst of my life. I know what it feels like to be judged and looked down on because you are different. In my case, it was usually because I was the new kid in school. We moved a lot, being a military family. It also did not help that I was shy and wore glasses. I think we can all relate to being different, and while some have had worse experiences than others, it is an area where we as leaders can develop empathy.

If we are to create a long-term solution to our diversity problem, I fully believe we need to take the focus off of visual diversity and put it onto experiential diversity. By fighting to only have people who look different represented and ignoring the more significant differences, we continue the trends and biases of those who have come before us. We are still focusing on the outside as the primary difference between us and ignoring the inner, unseen qualities. If we can make valuing experiences, thoughts, and ideas the norm, the visual biases can fade away and become something of the past. Our children could grow up valuing those things that are below the surface.

As the fight for equality and diversity continues, only focusing on those attributes we can see prevents our society from moving forward. It forces those differences to remain at the forefront constantly. The benefit of switching to an experiential diversity focus now is that we still have those visual biases throughout society, which means people who look different today have had vastly different experiences throughout their lives. By seeking those experiences, we are going to get visual diversity as well. I hope by focusing on experiences rather than visual attributes, we can move forward. Future generations will learn to take the time to get to know one another before forming opinions. It is time to peel away the skin and look at one another for who we truly are. It is time to stop focusing on things that are only skin deep.


Dan Rector

Dan Rector is a certified emergency manager (CEM) with more than 15 years of experience in homeland security and emergency management operations. He is a military veteran with 12 years of active duty experience. He served as a damage controlman in the U.S Coast Guard and as a survey team chief on a National Guard weapons of mass destruction civil support team. Rector has extensive experience conducting threat identification, hazard analysis, training program development, and exercise design/evaluation. He is a graduate of training programs from the Defense Nuclear Weapons School, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the U.S. Army’s Chemical/Biological Weapons Center, and the Idaho National Laboratory. Rector has also completed both the FEMA Homeland Security Exercise & Evaluation Program (HSEEP) course and the Continuity of Operations Planning (COOP) course. He is a licensed HAZMAT Technician, Confined Space Rescue Technician I/II, and EMT-B. He is the recipient of multiple awards for excellence, including being the only National Guard soldier ever named the Distinguished Honor Graduate while simultaneously being nominated by his peers for the Leadership Award at the CBRN Advanced Leaders Course.

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