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Why diversity is so important in an MBA classroom

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Andrew Davidson has been in the retail industry with Home Hardware Stores Ltd. for more than 10 years in business development, operations and performance consulting, and change management. He is also an executive MBA student at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and an academic representative for his EMBA cohort. This is his second blog for EMBA Diary.

In my experience over the past year, while pursuing my MBA, I have come to appreciate diversity in a new way. I've come to realize there are many forms of diversity at play within a classroom (or office, or neighbourhood, and so on).

First there is the obvious sort: the ethnic diversity evident in Toronto, which is mirrored in our class at Rotman. Our class also benefits from diversity in age, years in management, industries and the scope of responsibilities within companies.

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Further conversations revealed different religious backgrounds, family structures and personal and cultural beliefs.

My awareness of our diversity started during an early conversation I had with the first group I worked with during the first term. In an initial session designed to get to know one another, I joked that my friend, Ericson, should lead off a conversation since he was coming to Rotman from Brazil, and as such was outnumbered by the Canadians in the room. In the discussion that followed, I soon realized that I was actually the outlier because I was the only member of our six-person team to have been born in Canada.

This seemingly simple moment is what helped me to see that things were different from what I was used to, and in the best ways.

The lesson I learned, time and time again, over the course of my MBA was not to accept everything at face value. Slow down. Ask questions. Listen. Consider. Think. Of course, you may be saying, that's obvious. And maybe it is, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

In a world where so much importance is placed on five-minute first impressions and elevator pitches, it's difficult to not try to impress. Thankfully the MBA classroom provides the right kind of environment for you to do just that.

The professors teach, but are also keen to listen to your perspective and hear challenges to ideas while promoting healthy debate. I could sit back and listen to a neurosurgeon explain the current state of technology in his field so that we may better develop a marketing plan. Or have an economist break down my thoughts on how Brexit might impact Canada so we could add some finesse to our model of the economy. Or listen to a former chief marketing officer of one of the big banks as she explains how she would have approached a similar problem with her team while we study for a final together. I could allow myself to be led, but at times these same people would turn to me to take a lead. This is diversity at play.

You don't have to turn to studies from McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Stanford, Rotman and others to understand why diversity leads to better decisions and better teams (but they are plenty if you're interested and can access Google).

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I believe that the bottom line of the different kinds of diversity found in an MBA classroom is the diversity of thought. It's rare that two people approach the same problem the same way, and in a class with 12 groups we often saw different teams tackle problems from 12 directions. To be part of that process has been one of the most fulfilling experiences in my life.

There are a thousand reasons to do an MBA, but the appreciation that comes from recognizing what we all bring to the table as a team is the real lesson here.

Better decisions are made when you can take in all the perspectives that operating as part of any team affords you. The best news is that you can do this anywhere; you can easily take it home. It has made me better; it will make you better. Diversity makes us all better.

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