Thinking About Diverse Teams as Systems

on 10 | 30 | 2018

Thinking About Diverse Teams as Systems by Jodi Jefferson, Riviera Partners

It’s been a busy year for diversity in the news. Since the Google Manifesto and the Uber debacle, it has become clear that even large, forward-thinking tech companies continue to struggle with diversity in the workplace. And yet there’s plentiful evidence that diversity is good for business, and most tech startups are eager to hire a more diverse workforce. But how do you accomplish this in a way that’s beneficial both for your company and meaningful for the people who work for you?

Understanding teams as systems

Diversity is a complex subject, and teams are complex systems. You need to understand all the necessary parts, why each layer is so critical, and how they all work together to achieve a common goal. In working to understand the diverse needs of your team, think of it as an operating system driving the function of a larger machine, in this case your company. In order for your machine to work properly, your OS needs to perform a diverse set of functions, such as scheduling tasks, executing applications and controlling peripherals. Similarly, a diverse team is like having a diverse set of tools that allows you to optimize for diverse problem solving, which will only make a system work better, be more resilient, with happier people and better products.

Building a better system starts with understanding why diversity is so important. Teams that comprise of diverse cognitive, gender, ethnic, age and socioeconomic diversity simply outperform those that are less diverse. HBS reports that “diversity can boost innovation and employee engagement. Companies with greater gender and ethnic diversity also financially outperform their peers. Diversity increases a company’s ability to attract and retain top talent, to better understand their users.”

Hiring for diversity

It can be tempting to immediately point to your recruiter or HR department and ask them to hire more women. In the last year, I’ve been increasingly asked what my “diversity initiative” is for nearly every executive search I embark on. As a recruiter who has specialized in building engineering teams for 10 years, this is not only my problem to solve. It’s all of ours; and this is not just about hiring more women (although that’s part of the solution). Take a close look at your team. How is it built out in terms of race, gender, LGBTQ, veterans, ethnicity, people with disabilities, income, education, and more?

As Uber head of diversity Bernard Coleman III notes, the first step to creating a diverse team is overcoming your own biases. “People often hire based off of familiarity and/or comfort, (i.e. someone who went to your program/college, looks like you, shares your interests or is a member of an organization you’re affiliated with).” Instead, consciously seek individuals with unique perspectives who come from different backgrounds. Find reasons to hire them. Make exceptions. This is not about “lowering the bar” to increase diversity–it’s about finding a different kind of talent for your team and honoring your differences.

Creating an inclusive environment

There is no shortage of stories (and hard evidence) that women and underrepresented minorities (especially in tech) experience bias and a general lack of welcoming environment. So once you’ve identified the gaps in your talent, consider what it takes to build it out accordingly.

Sure, I have a pipeline of female engineering leaders at my fingertips, but why would they want to work for you? What are you doing to prove your environment is diverse and inclusive? If you’re trying to attract a diverse subset of talent, start by asking yourself some questions:

  • Can you overcome your own biases?
  • What does your board look like? Is it ethnically diverse? How about your leadership team?
  • Can parents of all genders raise children and progress in their career?
  • What are you doing to create a more inclusive environment?
  • Do you have a non discrimination policy in place?
  • What part of your hiring process has diversity in mind?
  • What does the interview panel look like? Are candidates meeting with a diverse set of individuals?

Take a long, hard look at your answers to those questions. Do you need to take steps to make your company more inclusive? If so, consider making some of the following improvements to your company (in addition to my suggestions above):

  • Create gender neutral bathrooms
  • Design employee resource groups to include women’s mentoring and leadership programs
  • Support STEM initiatives and women in tech groups and events (e.g. Grace Hopper Celebration, Women Who Code, Black Girls Code)
  • Offer gender-neutral paid parental leave that include adoption
  • Add egg freezing services to your benefits
  • Offer child care options for all employees
  • Create breast pump rooms
  • Be open to flexible work arrangements

Also, remember that that the root of inclusivity considers all people. Take a page from Denise Young Smith, Apple’s first ever VP of diversity and inclusion: focus on everyone, not just minorities. “Diversity is the human experience,” notes Young Smith. Once you understand your team as a system in need of a diverse set of tools, identify the gaps in your system and work to create a more inclusive environment for all employees, then you’re well on your way to success. Are you ready for a change?

Written by Jodi Jefferson, Riviera Partners