Diversity has been given a bad name. There’s an implication that it’s just about government getting in the way of your business. But really, diversity is a powerful and useful concept.

We all tend to seek out people who are similar to us; that’s part of human nature. So when you’re looking for employees, you tend to be most comfortable with those candidates who share your point of view. You get along.

It’s a dangerous thing.

Here’s why: Creativity and progress stem from seeing things in a different way. Your competitors certainly are different than you, which is the source of some of the competitive stress you’re feeling.

It’s difficult to come up with new ideas, especially if you have some history behind your company ­­– and even more if that history has made you successful. You’ll tend to continue doing the same things that worked before.

No doubt you’re feeling the pressure to be creative. New competitors are cropping up all the time. Your customers are interacting with you differently than they did a decade ago. Technology changes the way you can do business.

It’s much easier for someone to be creative who isn’t so invested in the way you currently do things. Someone who’s of a different social background, who’s younger, who comes from another industry, or is of a different race or gender.

Your leadership team needs to look more like the customers you’ll be attracting in the future. Not because it’ll look good in a sales meeting or on a brochure, but because you need people who think like your future customers.

Finding the best way to serve your customers will be the path to business success. It always has been.

What does the best diversity profile for your business look like? There’s no universal formula. Instead, it’s best to start with your target customer profile and the talent you’re looking for. If you’ve historically been in a male-dominated industry, there’s a good chance you’ll have more female customers in the future.

Perhaps you’ve been serving a longstanding and loyal clientele, and start to worry that they’re aging and you’ll need to attract younger people. Even if your customers don’t see it, your wisest move may be to hire on some fresh young talent and give them a voice in significant decisions. You may have a rocky time as they challenge some of your cherished assumptions, but what you learn will be invaluable.

I’ll turn this around to focus on your target employees, too. Perhaps you’ve struggled to retain the people who will deliver the best value for your company. You hire them, they seem suited for the job, but then leave for other opportunities when they get the chance.

People don’t usually leave companies when they feel they have a deep and lasting relationship. The salary and job tasks are part of that, of course, but it’s much more about feeling valued, doing useful work and having a sense of purpose – and doing all this as a part of an enthusiastic, aligned group.

It’s not about being comfortable, about being with friends. That will grow as employees develop healthy relationships with people who are similar as well as different. This bonding happens when people work together toward something that matters.

It can be a challenge, because individuals are motivated by different things. It’s not usually about their gender, age, or skin color; it’s just the natural diversity of humanity.

Your challenge is to embrace that wonderful and natural diversity, to improve your business results, and to attract amazing people to contribute in a great workplace.

This column was first published in BizWest, 8 August 2014.