Former Chief Diversity Officer Sally Olson recently sat down with Mike Schmidtberger to discuss what has shaped his perspective on diversity and how that translated into his view of Sidley’s global diversity and inclusion efforts.
Sally Olson (SO): What value do you think diversity and inclusion bring to any business, and to Sidley, specifically?
Mike Schmidtberger (MS): I think if a business wants to innovate, if it wants to appreciate the objectives of its competitors and its clients, it needs the broadest possible perspective — and I think you get broader perspective by having a diversity of opinion, background, experience and philosophy brought to the table.
In a very complicated world, it behooves businesses to retain the broadest set of problem solvers. If you have a homogenous group by generation, sex, ethnicity, religious background, age, etc., you are limiting yourself, plain and simple.
SO: Has anything in your background caused you to connect the diversity efforts of the firm with your own personal interest in diversity?
MS: When I was a high school senior, I took a course in anthropology. One of the things we did in that course was read from the perspective of the culture we were studying — so looking from inside out rather than outside in. This was eye opening to me.
The ability to understand a problem from another’s perspective is critical to being successful in forming a relationship and collaborating in the most effective way. The idea that people are different from me is something I came to appreciate almost 40 years ago, and I’ve carried it with me ever since.
SO: In law school, you were the Editor-in-Chief of The Columbia Human Rights Law Review. Did this shape your view on diversity in any way?
MS: Of course! One might imagine a pretty monolithic perspective for the board and staff of such a journal, but nothing could have been farther from the truth. Folks were very different in every way, and we had to find common ground and work together. Most important, I learned not to preconceive outcomes.
SO: You have two teenage daughters. Has this made you look at gender diversity differently?
MS: My kids have been raised to believe they can achieve their goals and that gender is not something that will stand in the way. Both of my daughters are young and full of idealism and ambition, and I mostly try to stay out of their way.
SO: Is there a specific recent example of how our firm’s diversity has benefitted a client?
MS: In a world where businesses, in order to be competitive, must find the best talent, we need people that are, first and foremost, the very best at what they do, and second, can relate to the people making the specific decisions for our clients. We need people who can understand not just a problem, but the problem from the perspective of the client.
As far as a specific example, well, we see this every day. Sidley is known for cutting-edge work. It is the lifeblood of this firm’s business model to go out and look for the most complicated, difficult, multidisciplinary opportunities. In my mind, the reason we get that work is that we are creative, we are innovative, we are generationally attuned and we are culturally attuned. Teams perform better when they bring together diversity of thought, perspective, approach and knowledge.
SO: One of the themes that has come across since you became the chair of the Executive Committee is your commitment to innovation and disruption. I take it you see diversity as fitting into this mindset?
MS: Absolutely. The world is changing rapidly and our clients are responding to change — and looking to us to help them. We need people that can walk in the shoes of the clients.
This firm is committed to serving a very broad range of clients globally, and so my own perspective is that if we are going to bring the best capabilities to our clients, we need to have the broadest possible perspective. If you are looking at disruption, rapid change and emerging challenges to clients, you want people that think very, very differently. At the end of the day, I want to be a good partner to our clients, and it helps if we have people that can really relate to, and understand, our clients.
SO: The changes in leadership structure and the generational shift that is starting to happen in the firm might have some bearing on how we approach diversity and inclusion going forward and the firm’s success in achieving a broadly diverse population. Do you agree?
MS: I see it as inevitable. It’s a natural progression that reflects our changing society — the changing nature of the talent pool, our own initiatives to drive change and not just accept or respond to it.
SO: Do you see challenges to building an inclusive firm?
MS: Well, I think many people are reflexive in forming affinities with others who have similar backgrounds or traits — which can be age, gender, race or education. You have to be on the watch for these becoming the overwhelming drivers of a relationship. It is human nature to find something to relate to, but it’s our job is to make sure the bigger picture is appreciated.
SO: Is there something specific you would like to achieve in relation to diversity in the next five years?
MS: I would like us to continue down the path we are on, which I think is the right one. I would like every lawyer who works at this firm, and every member of staff, to feel that they have had both the opportunity and support to be the best version of themselves.