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Diverse teams help build business success

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Bemetra SimmonsIf this were a basketball game, Bemetra Simmons would have nailed a bunch of three pointers driving home her point that diversity is not just a desirable goal, it’s smart business.

The former college point guard passed out a bunch of sports analogies, lobbed in some humor, and charged straight into some touchy perceptions as the speaker at the Business Law Section’s February 7 luncheon during the Bar’s Winter Meeting.

Simmons, who recently became the chief strategy and operating officer for United Way for the Suncoast Region after a 15-year career in banking, said businesses hiring outside legal or accounting or other services want providers with diverse teams — and not just in making the pitch for business but actually working on the case or project.

“One of the reasons we want that is if we were all raised the same way, we all went to the same school, or we eat the same foods, or watch the same television programs, we’re going to have the same perception on how we attack a problem, and in business, we don’t want that,” Simmons said.

“You would never play a round of golf with just your putter. Think about that. Different shots require different clubs; business is the same way. You have all these different complex problems, things that need to be solved. You need varying viewpoints, people with different viewpoints on how to attack that. That’s one of the reasons we want diversity in our legal representation.”

Plus, Simmons said they want firms and consultants they hire to reflect their increasingly diverse customer base and their corporate values, which more and more emphasize inclusiveness.

“I like to remind people that diversity is not a substitute for excellence,” Simmons said. “I’m an old-school basketball player, and at the end of the day, we’re trying to win.”

In business, she added, winning is measured by revenues, and multiple studies have shown enterprises with diverse management teams and employees have significantly higher revenues.

Like sports, the most successful enterprises function as teams with individual members contributing according to their strengths, she said.

“Some people are going to put up 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds a game, in basketball parlance] and some people are going to put up 10 and eight,” Simmons said. “Somebody has got to get a rebound, somebody has got to cheer on the bench. Business is the same way. Some people, they are rainmakers. They are going to bring in the business. Some people are going to block and tackle and work those files. And other people are going to be the support staff; they are the rebounders.”

Quoting another basketball adage, she added: “‘Offense sells tickets, defense wins games, and rebounds win championships.’ Business is no different.”

She advised those established and successful in their careers to become not just mentors but “sponsors” for younger people and for those younger people to actively seek sponsors.

Mentoring is advice, Simmons said, while “sponsorship is when you use your political capital to help someone else. This is so important because every major decision about your career is made when you’re not in the room. So you’ve got to have someone in the room to navigate for you.”

She advised those starting out to seek those who have skills they admire as sponsors and suggested instead of inviting that person out for coffee, bring a cup to his or her office in recognition of their tight time schedule. She recalled she once volunteered to pick up from the airport someone she wanted as a sponsor when that person flew in for a business trip.

Simmons also encouraged creating inclusive offices.

“We mean allowing people to be their whole selves and bring their whole selves to work. They don’t have to be someone they’re not,” she said.

“Diversity is not a substitute for excellence. Nothing I am suggesting is in lieu of having a good work product, in lieu of good things happening,” Simmons concluded. “My favorite phrase is confidence breeds confidence. You go to practice, you practice every day, you shoot a hundred jumpers, and when you get the ball in your hands and the clock is running down, you feel confident you can hit the shot…because you’ve been doing it every day. Business is the same way. You want to dedicate yourself to excellence and adding value to every situation….”

In response to a question, Simmons posed this query she got while recently attending a seminar sponsored by Leadership Florida: “‘What unearned advantages and unearned disadvantages do you bring to your leadership style?’ If you think about that, I think it will help you be the best you can be.”

Aside from her professional work and serving on the boards of several Tampa Bay area civic and charitable organizations, Simmons and her twin sister, Demetra Liggins, a Texas bankruptcy lawyer, have founded Corporate Homie (www.corporatehomie.com), which offers advice to help newcomers navigate the unwritten rules and customs of the corporate world. They also produce the Corporate Homie podcast with well over 100 episodes so far.

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