Soo Bong Peer on developing a more inclusive workplace culture: An interview by Bob Morris

Soo Bong Peer, a strategy consultant and executive coach to Fortune 500 multinational corporations, comes from a multicultural upbringing with more than 30 years of experience in strategic marketing, global branding, business development, international joint ventures, and leadership development.

Raised in a South Korean military, political, and diplomatic family, Soo grew up in South Korea, Mexico, the UK, Japan and the US. Through her journey across wide polarities in cultures, races, mindsets, and political regimes, Soo learned that we connect on our shared humanity and that human connection is the foundation for building a world of pervasive diversity.

Soo’s hands-on business career combined with personal background brings a unique perspective to today’s struggles. In her new book, The Essential Diversity Mindset: How to Cultivate a More Inclusive Culture and Environment published by Career Press (March 2021), she offers a transformative approach to diversity―as a mindset, not as a formula.

Soo earned an MBA from Darden School of Business, University of Virginia; a master’s degree in biochemistry from Boston University Medical Center; and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from College of Notre Dame of Maryland. In addition, she has a Leadership Coaching Certification from Georgetown University.

Married for thirty-seven years with two grown children, Soo and her husband live in Park City, Utah.

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Before discussing The Essential Diversity Mindset, here are a few general questions. First, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Ever since I came to the United States some 50 years ago, I’ve always wished to be seen simply as an individual. What amazes me about American culture is how much people define one another by labels. This was especially surprising to me when I arrived here as a young adult after attending The American School, an international high school in Mexico City, where being different was the norm and students interacted with the pervading acceptance that the only difference among us was our names. Through the years in America, regardless of my career accomplishments or how I’ve felt about myself, I’ve been labeled as: an Asian immigrant; an Asian American minority: a Korean American woman; and many more. In reality, none of these labels define me. Just like everyone else on this planet, I am far more than my skin color or gender. Every time I sensed I was being treated differently because I was a minority or a label, I felt alienated, constricted, and diminished because I was being reduced to stereotypes. The insight I gained from the contrasting human dynamics between my high school in Mexico City and the United States gave me a life-long understanding that how we see and interact with others can produce immensely different human space.

Having lived and worked in different parts of the world, I’ve learned that regardless of who we are or where we are from, we all share and connect through our common human essence. Seeing individuals beyond a defined label immediately opens a window for connection with open energy. This happens most powerfully when we first see ourselves beyond labels. With concern from witnessing the growing divides in our country, a few years ago, I decided to share my experience and perspective in my book, The Essential Diversity Mindset, that diversity can be viewed in a different light. If living in an open and connecting atmosphere was achievable in Mexico City in the late 1960s, it’s certainly possible that we can strive toward this human dynamic of diversity in the U.S.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

This quotation depicts true exemplary leadership—humility and open-mindedness to learn from the people the leader leads; nurturing collaborative spirit to bring people to work with and utilize the collective and diverse ideas and minds; skillful assessment of where the leader’s people are as a starting point to plan; the ability to evaluate and create a strategic roadmap that draws out and capitalize on the best of the people the leader have; and the leader’s greatness to relinquish his/her ego by making people reap the reward of their efforts and feel empowered. Not only this kind of leadership is rare but an extremely smart one—ultimately the leader reaps the most fulfilling reward from within.

From Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Truth evolves and changes as we grow, open our views, and expand our horizons. When we seek with an open mind, we are a humble student of life without an end. When we are attached to our own truth, we live in narrowly defined boundaries, often with righteousness. This quotation could very well be applied to inflexible moral superiority and blanket judgments that lie underneath our divided climate today.

From Margaret Mead: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

This empowering quote captures the unintended consequences of the long-served America’s diversity framework that separates people into racial groupings. Racial labeling and grouping erase a unique individual behind the skin color. We don’t see a person, but a label. We negate the fact that each of us are far more than a race or skin color. We create a notion that everyone in the group is the same—building stereotyping and promoting racism.

When a person identifies self as a unique individual, he/she will live a life of empowerment. When we are comfortable in our own skin with a strong sense of self, we are less impacted by external stimuli, navigate a world that is riddled with biases and prejudices in a less affected manner. Nevertheless, it’s almost impossible to remove ourselves from our environment – systems, policies, social climate, etc. However, self-empowerment can only come from within as no one else can change our own lens, mindsets, or behaviors. Realizing self-empowerment is a life-long endeavor, yet every small step in that direction can be immensely rewarding.

In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which inclusivity is most likely to thrive?

True inclusiveness stems from voluntary acceptance of humanity from our hearts. Inclusiveness is not about parading varieties or fulfilling numbers. Individual perspectives and feelings drive inclusiveness far more than systems or compliance measures. When we act from our heart, it becomes part of our fabric and we do it without thinking. When inclusiveness is inauthentic or forced, people feel it, separateness is pronounced, and distance and guardedness are erected.

When the word “diversity” in a workplace evokes feelings of connection and embracement, rather than obligation and tension, it is the true reflection of an inclusive culture operating in pervasive diversity. In this environment, people’s perception of similarities outweighs their perception of differences, common human essences eclipse differences, and every employee feels they matter equally. People start to see others beyond labels, categorizations, and stereotypes. Trust prevails over distrust, employees share their viewpoints and perspectives without fear of being demonized, or worse losing jobs, and people unite rather than divide. Employees come together to collaborate and find a middle ground. Diversity policies and programs that honor and promote these human elements will shift the diversity paradigm to a new place that nurtures voluntary inclusiveness.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

I believe shifting organizational diversity climate from an “obligatory” enforcement to a “voluntary” inclusiveness from within will be the greatest challenge CEOs will face. Unless CEOs embrace diversity beyond the numbers, I don’t believe their diversity struggles will abate. America’s metrics-driven diversity framework has not changed for decades, and, if anything, our racial divide seems to have widened. As the old saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

In the workplace, human connections and open acceptance are the driving force in cultivating a cohesive team in the pursuit of collective goals. Government enforcements have led people to link diversity programs to labels and quotas, which often end up creating more division. Numbers do not explain the human dynamics that lie beneath the surface. Organizations can achieve both—fulfill diversity mandates while fostering human connection—but must recognize that it’s the willful actions of people and intangible human elements, not enforcement measures, ultimately drive tangible bottom-line outcomes.

My advice to CEOs is to step up beyond political correctness and metrics, and trailblaze new paths that infuse human elements. Have a good grasp of your employees’ unspoken feelings toward diversity practiced in their organization. Cultivate environments where each of your employees feel that they matter equally, that they can voice without fear, and that they feel a sense of belonging.

The mindsets and actions of leaders directly influence and condition work environments. If I may pose a few questions to CEOs: What work do you do to reflect on the impact of your lens, mindset, biases, and the energy you send out on your own well-being as well as of those you lead? Do you own the responsibility for making personal changes and broadening your own lens? What will prepare you to make bold (not necessarily popular) decisions? When you hire or promote your board members or executives: Do you first see the skin color or label of a person? Or do you meet a unique human being, with an interest in getting to know the person?

Now please shift your attention to The Essential Diversity Mindset. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it?

The diversity climate in America today is entangled with sentiments of enforcements, legalities, and racial tensions. Instead, diversity should kindle feelings of connection, openness, and harmony among a wide spectrum of differences united by universal human similarities. In the fifty years I have lived in America, I have never been more worried about where we are.

Having experienced diverse mindsets, people, and cultures globally as well as having negotiated diversity as an Asian minority in America, I see the racial divides that the country is facing through a unique lens. With the desire to share alternate ways to look at and think about race, ethnicity, and diversity beyond the realm of America’s prevailing views – from ideals and enforcement to human connection—about five years ago I began developing my book.

The Essential Diversity Mindset offers a timely and transformative approach to diversity – as a mindset, not as a formula. Diversity can’t be forced. When behaviors and mindsets are forced, we cannot expect genuine or sustainable change. Each of us – not mandates, policies, or statistics – drives diversity outcomes.

The book explores the reasons why America’s racial divide is expanding despite the promotion of diversity and inclusion over decades. It asserts that well-intentioned race-based diversity policies have inadvertently encouraged pervasive racial labeling and developed systemic biases and artificial barriers that prevent people from feeling connected with each other and increase conflicts.

Throughout the book, personal and human stories are interwoven spanning culture, time, and place, and poignantly depict the human intricacies that connect and divide us. Readers will have an opportunity to introspect and expand their awareness of and empathy for the human complexities and circumstances that underlie racial tensions, diversity issues, and cross-cultural challenges. I know how it feels to be different and I know what it’s like to deal with differences. As we navigate our unhealthy atmosphere with intensifying ruptures that are tearing our country apart, my hope is to reach those who feel different or alienated and want to nourish self-empowerment; those who desire to expand their empathy and agility to connect; and those who want to deepen their capacity to lead others through compassion and open-mindedness.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

While I was writing, we were going through the 2020 election. The race related rhetoric was ramping up along with unleashed anger and violence. I had a solemn revelation then and now of the extent of the country’s divide and social agitation that have been surfacing to a new height by America’s conditioned mental construct of racial grouping. The most unfortunate has been seeing media and political leadership taking advantage of the divided climate. In the name of unity and inclusion, leaders are bowing to their personal agendas, continuously separating people, and instigating more public anger and aggressions. This is a dangerous place to be.

What are the core principles of the essential diversity mindset?

o Diversity is a mindset, not a formula: Diversity can’t be forced.
o Human connection is the foundation of healthy diversity.
o Racial labeling divides people and promotes racial stereotyping and racism.
o Self-empowerment and personal change forward diversity and inclusion.
o Leadership’s bold action is imperative to advance unifying diversity in changing times.

Which of these principles seems to be the most difficult to embrace? Why?

Advancing a diversity paradigm that honors and infuses the pivotal force of human connection and reduces racial groupings that promote divides maybe very difficult or threatening for some to embrace. This approach would also go directly against the personal agendas of political leadership; entails changing the decades of race-based diversity policies since 1960s; and shifting America’s conditioned mental construct of believing that racial grouping and enforcement is a way to promote fairness and prevent discrimination. Unfortunately, a widespread sentiment of distrust that lies under diversity advancement is holding us back to build a trusting and open diversity climate.

In your opinion, what is this mindset’s most significant difference from other mindsets that endorse and embrace workplace diversity, inclusivity, integration, and pluralism?

I believe the vast majority of Americans support and want healthy workplace diversity and inclusion. Yet, many feel hampered by the climate of distrust, guardedness, political correctness, and fear of legal consequences. In this context, it would be hard to foster a trusting atmosphere with open dialogues and build human connections. Through my years of living and working in the United States, I have experienced from friends, colleagues, and acquaintances of all races widespread cynicism and antipathy toward diversity mandates that do not take into account human feelings and reactions toward controls. I witnessed some people take advantage of the system, others react with resentment and frustration, and still others go through the motions to avoid legal implications.

Working in a climate of distrust, enforcement, and judgments can move us forward only so far. Imagine raising a child without any sense of trust, only with strict rules, negative reinforcement, and repression of thoughts and emotions. Can anyone freely exercise their mindsets in this envionment? Is forced diversity real diversity? Ideals without realistic executions do not produce desirable results.

In your opinion, which what should be the criteria for measuring diversity among an organization’s workforce? How important are talents, skills, and experience as opposed to, let’s say, race, age, gender, and values?

In today’s divided atmosphere, leaders and organizations must find viable paths to bridge diversity goals, human psychology, and bottom-line pressures. The most compelling criteria for measuring diversity in an organization is understanding how their employees feel about their diversity climate, their unspoken voices, and whether they feel that they matter equally and belong. Another key measurement is to assess whether an organization’s diversity programs and culture are focused on accentuating the differences of people or fostering human connection.

A successful organization entails a motivated and empowered workforce feeling part of the whole. Empowerment stems from employees experiencing growth, fairness, and the reward of being a valuable contributor to a cohesive team. If we are focused on seeing individuals and their capabilities with open-mindedness, we will see talent and excellence in all different people regardless of their race or gender or any other differences. This attitude empowers those who are hired or promoted because they know they earned it. When I sensed that I was hired or promoted because of my minority status – it truly disempowered me – and discredited my hard work. We need both – shifting how we view people and helping people feel empowered. At the end of the day, if we are too focused on diversity profiles of candidates, and not the person or the needs of the job, we do disservice to the candidate and the company.

How best to develop cross-cultural agility?

Cross-cultural agility is about opening human space and connecting with differences. This ability is built on expanading one’s human qualities—empathy, openness, humility, and confidence—that transcends race, gender, or cultural knowledge. Attaining this capacity mostly stems from one’s genuine interest to see and interact with people as an individual, not as a representative of a culture.

Diverse cultural upbringings shape diverse mindsets and ways of life. Despite our distinctions, we aren’t different beings. While we may diverge in many ways, we can always connect through our humanity. By embracing cultural differences and human similarities, we deepen our empathy and understanding of others. This mindset radiates effortless behaviors and energy which helps others open with comfort, and effectively navigate through mixed cultural environments. Through time, we accumulate knowledge and flexibility to adopt, tolerate, or reject what we assimilate, thus enriching our lives beyond our boundaries.

In your opinion, how do great leaders “manifest their perspectives and humanity in everything they do”?

Great leaders are not born—through courage to see themselves and perseverance to garner self-improvement and changes, they acquire qualities to become great leaders. I have worked for and coached many good leaders. One executive in particular comes to mind because of his admirable human trait to face and acknowledge his flaws and weaknesses. He was a well-respected senior executive for a Fortune 50 corporation. However, when he found out from the feedback that showed he was micromanaging, came across arrogant, and not respecting others, he was shocked and angry. It took only one weekend for him to reflect and make a commitment to change. Through his relentless self-development work, within six months, this executive made such strides that touched people and created a rippling effect by influencing others to do the same.

Integrity, humility, empathy, open-mindedness, and authenticity are some of the powerful leadership qualities that connect with and empower people. When leaders lead by example in everything they do, they foster an atmosphere where people want to follow. They have the influencing ability to shift diversity mindsets, behaviors, and culture that is filled with embracement and a sense of unity.

In your opinion, which of the material in The Essential Diversity Mindset will be of greatest interest and value to those now preparing for a career in business or are now embarked upon one?

Regardless of who we are, each of us is a participant in America collectively and affected by our diversity climate every day. My hope is that my outlook and insight might inspire a pause for reflection, shift perspectives, and heighten awareness of the thoughts and emotions that run through readers. The driving theme of The Essential Diversity Mindset—what connects us and what divides us— are relevant irrespective of who we are and how we feel about living and working in our divided environment. How we each can make a shift to see and embrace people as unique individuals beyond racial labeling and skin color to thrive in differences applies to everyone. The materials in this book are pertinent to anyone who is interested in learning about alternate perspectives or challenged by the current diversity struggles including: those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked upon one; owners/CEOs of a small business; those workers who now feel isolated, alienated, underappreciated, and out-of-place in their current organization; or C-level executives of Fortune 500 companies.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

I cannot think of one. You have covered a wide-spectrum of thought-provoking questions in an in-depth way. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to answer your questions.

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Soo cordially invites you to check out the resources at her firm’s website by clicking here:



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