Final Word: Laura Gale

Laura Gale from United Stationers on the importance of diversity in the office products workplace.


I read Felicity Francis’ "A Man’s World" Editor’s Comment in June’s issue of OPI and it instantly struck a chord with me. In it, she relayed a story where on a judging panel comprising experts from all over North America, she was only one of two women in a group of more than 30. Felicity wondered if the discussion would take a different form if more women were present. I find myself thinking the same thing – and with a lot of empathy for her experience.

From my perspective, it makes sense to have women of different ages and perspectives on your side as you’re looking at the list of prospects for your company to call on. When you are selling office products to women, minorities or diverse companies, you need awareness and an understanding of their points of view. Having a diverse team helps with the design of campaigns, services and programmes that resonate with your customers and your audience.

At United Stationers, we recognise that in order for us to be responsive to our marketplace and our customers, we must place a bigger focus on diversity and inclusion. To that end, we formed an enterprise-wide corporate diversity council to create and implement strategies and plans to increase our diversity – both in our workforce and programmes – to encourage sharing of diversity experiences. I have chaired the council since its inception in 2007 and am very passionate about this topic.

The mission for our diversity and inclusion initiative is simple: we believe it enables us to attract, engage and retain great associates, nurture the different perspectives that spark creativity and innovation around products and services, tap into new markets, and more fully address the needs of our diverse customers, suppliers and end-users.

Diversity and inclusion mean that we must be able to also identify and promote women who can succeed in this business. So, how can women increase their chance of success? One of the tricks to being an executive in this business is to be financially savvy. On the surface, our industry looks simple; we sell pens and paper, right? But when you scratch the surface, let’s face it: our industry is complex and you need to be savvy when it comes to the surrounding concepts, initiatives and strategies that make for a successful office products company.

While it is incumbent upon women to be sure they have the skill sets necessary to succeed, what can the OP industry do to place more women into leadership positions? One key initiative is hiring practices that integrate diversity and inclusion – from recruiting through retention. I encourage companies to always consider diversity when there are openings in their workforces. Additionally, companies should take a long-term view of hiring, thinking beyond the recruiting process to retention. Retention efforts can be as simple as being involved in an industry that accepts different thinking and approaches. 

However, just hoping that something will happen is not enough. As an industry, we should explore creating specific diversity and talent track programmes. For example, as part of our diversity and inclusion programme, we created associate network groups to facilitate interaction among individuals with similar interests but different job functions. These groups have created opportunities to not only share best practices but help individuals feel welcome, involved and included.

What else can you do about this? Look for job candidates in new places, and not the same old places you have in the past. Talk to your younger workers and ask them for recommendations. Look to your local colleges and universities for referrals of self-starters who are good at working with people. There are many routes to take to help you diversify your businesses. 

The value of diversity for the OP industry is simple: it gives your company life for the future. Inclusion means that the industry can better incorporate the diverse needs and perspectives of our growing customer base and the community at large. If you are not all-inclusive and you exclude large swaths of the population from your strategic planning, you may be missing out on a significant financial and worthwhile opportunity.