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Building a Foundation for Inclusion

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

In our latest Inclusion & Diversity roundtable, we had the privilege of hearing from Maria Guy, Senior Partner at GiANT Worldwide. With over two decades of experience in the construction industry, Maria now focuses her time on coaching construction executives to become more empathetic and inclusive leaders.

The topic at hand: how do we build a culture of inclusion and diversity if we’re not in a leadership position? Or, more granularly, how do we help our construction leaders to recognize the importance of inclusion and diversity across all levels of their organization?

As Maria said, “We have to take a step back because [the diversity and inclusion] conversation needs a foundation.” In order to create an environment inclusive of those from different backgrounds and experiences, you first have to help leaders develop a greater level of self-awareness.

“Construction is the type of industry where change is hard. We've been doing a lot of the same things for hundreds of years...I think we’re in a unique position because of what happened in 2020 to pivot and to begin to have different kinds of conversations." -Maria Guy, GiANT Worldwide

But how do we build a foundation for those conversations to not just happen, but to be productive? Maria has a pro tip.

Understand Cognitive Diversity

To help all of us better understand diversity — and why it matters — Maria suggests we take a step back. Instead of looking at the types of diversity that we can see (race, gender, age), she encourages leaders to start by understanding cognitive diversity.

“This idea of cognitive diversity is really understanding the differences in perspectives and information processing styles,” she says. Some people are planners, for example, while others do their best work when they can act spontaneously. Maria laid out five different voices, or types of cognitive diversity:

  • Nurturer

    • Champion of People

  • Creative

    • Champion of Innovation

  • Guardian

    • Champion of Responsibility and Stewardship

  • Connector

    • Champion of Relationships and Strategic Partnerships

  • Pioneer

    • Champion of Results and Progress

Learn more about each of the 5 Voices and take the free assessment at

“Every one of the voices can lead, but they need to understand themselves first,” Maria said. “That way, they can lead in their own voice, and not try and be someone that they're not, because that’s exhausting and frustrating, and it's not successful.”

By understanding that we’re all diverse in the way we think and operate, we can accomplish two things. First, we understand that diversity is already built into our organizations. Secondly, we start to learn how celebrating our diversity can help our organization flourish. Instead of trying to stuff people (including ourselves) into boxes and ways of operating, we can see greater success and satisfaction in our team by holding space for all of our differences.

Basically, laying the cognitive diversity foundation is a little like laying a foundation in construction. As I said during the roundtable, “If you're going to have a large high-rise building, we all know how much time is spent below subterranean to build out a foundation in order for you to have that much elevation above ground in the world.” In the same way, cognitive diversity work might not be visible right away, but it makes a tremendous difference for your inclusion and diversity efforts moving forward.

Know Yourself to Lead Yourself

Once we better understand cognitive diversity and our own way of thinking, Maria said we can start to understand our patterns of behavior and how they affect our organizations.

She said, “Now that you're armed with this knowledge, you can go back and say, 'okay, where do I need to start doing things differently? Where do I need to take a different action so I can get different consequences, in order to make it healthier for my team? In order to impact the culture of my organization?'”

From there, she said you can move toward a vision of strong, healthy leadership. Specifically, she suggested we all aspire to be liberating leaders, fighting for the highest possible good of those we lead and work with. When we focus on that highest good, some of the noise of our own biases and agendas starts to die out.

Maria also says this way of thinking can be applied to everyone, not just high-level leaders. “At at a minimum, you are leading yourself,” she said. “So you have to start saying, 'I am responsible for creating the culture. And inside my team, I'm impacting people around me.' And when you start seeing yourself as a leader, you start taking on that responsibility of leadership.”

Calling Up vs. Calling Out

The work starts with ourselves, but it can’t stop there. In an age of cancel culture, we need to be patient with those making strides. To help there, Maria suggests calling people up instead of calling them out.

“When you call someone up, you remind them of what they're capable of. You provide something that they can aspire to. No one ever inspired anyone by calling them out.”

She encouraged all of us to be a safe space where conversations can redirect. When we approach people with the mentality of caring about them and wanting to help them grow, we’re much more likely to have successful conversations.

And for those holdouts of the old guard, Maria said we can make a business case for creating more inclusive workplaces. “We're struggling with talent, retention, and attraction. Well, if you want to attract someone, you have to be attractive, right? You have to provide the kind of environment and leadership and opportunities that inspire people to come and join us.” She continued, saying, “We’re better companies and we're more profitable companies when we invest in the culture of our organizations.”

Let’s be frank: the construction industry has a long way to go in harnessing the power of diversity as a competitive business advantage. With the percentage of women in construction hovering at 9% for the last 25 years, (Hispanic women represent .4% and African American women represent .2%) and the number of African Americans represented in construction hovering at 6% for the last 25 years, it’s clear that change is long overdue. And this change starts at the top with leadership rethinking the way they attract, promote, and retain top talent. Maria gave an inspiring takeaway that I’ll leave you with: “I can't control the whole industry. But I can impact individuals, who will then collectively be making changes that will begin to shift the way we view things.”

Embrace cognitive diversity at your organization, call people up to their best selves, and create a safe place for people to grow. With these pieces in place, you have a sturdy foundation from which you can start to build your most inclusive workplace.

You can see my full discussion with Maria (it's worth it) on CPC's Youtube Channel.

If you haven't joined us LIVE for a CPC Virtual Roundtable, what are you waiting for?! Sign up to participate or listen-in as we dig into our next set of virtual roundtable breakouts on Tuesday, May 4th, 2021 at 3 p.m. EST / noon PST.



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