At today's SuiteWorld conference, a group of female technology executives shared their advice and tips on building diverse teams, and how to ensure those teams feel comfortable sharing their views to allow firms to benefit from diverse thinking.
One of the biggest challenges for companies keen on truly supporting diversity and inclusion (D&I) within their organizations is the hiring process – how can a firm prioritise D&I when hiring for a specific role? The panel were keen to banish this narrow view of the hiring process, encouraging businesses to shift their focus when recruiting away from skills and onto the person. Sylvie Cosgrove, head of IT at Cloudflare and a 30-year tech veteran, said:
A mantra I've always followed is, you can teach technology skills, you can't teach the rest. The approach I've taken, it's really focused on all the elements of the role and the person. It's not just about the technology or the skillsets that they require to do the job, but taking a look at the culture fit, the fit within the team, the element of change that the organization is for them and how adaptable they are to change. Also taking a look at life experiences and taking that all into balance, and then taking a look at skillsets last.
My teams have been very diverse, they've been global and they've been really successful, well-performing teams.
Change the hiring mindset
Not everybody will be fortunate enough to have a diverse pool of candidates to choose from, but simply by being thoughtful about who you hire or bring onto a project team when there is an opening, and trying to use it as an opportunity to bring a bit more balance, is a positive step. Tamara Emerson, principal at Deloitte, said:
For our workforce, people are in such demand right now that it's really hard to hire enough folks with the right skills, so we’ve just got to look for raw talent and aptitude. And then we can train them in the technology or whatever skills that they need to be good consultants. That has allowed us to really go broader in terms of where we look for candidates.
Changing the traditional mindset of where to find people is a useful step. For campus recruitment, Deloitte is now focusing on non-traditional universities that it wouldn't necessarily have previously hired from, to give the firm a wider range of candidates. Emerson added:
This is really key for us in building a really great diverse base at junior levels, who can then grow up in the firm and be those diverse leaders that we all need.
The panel all agreed that firms need to restructure their interview processes to make diverse talent comfortable during the selection process, sending hiring managers on unconscious bias training or ensuring that interview panels are not all-male or all-technical staff, for example.
Positive impact of diversity
Building and supporting diverse teams has a direct and positive impact on company performance, based on the experience of Anusha Kumar, senior director, Strategy and Planning at Micro Focus. She explained:
When I was with HP and we were running our cloud unit, we focused a lot in terms of diversity and inclusion in hiring. What we did to unlock the potential of that diverse workforce was, we had a lot of brainstorming sessions over coffee, tea, meditation, yoga as well as other sessions where we brought people from different functions to come together and brainstorm in an informal setting. You're not just in a meeting trying to come up with ideas for product features.
Several of the features that were developed as a result of those less formal meetups were launched into HP products and drove up revenues for the company, highlighting how innovation through diverse thinking and bringing people from different functions together can directly impact the bottom line.
Cosgrove agreed that including a diverse range of people in project teams definitely has merit – but that this should include diversity of experience and role, as well as gender, sexuality or ethnicity. She said:
Oftentimes people look at leaders of thought as being people in a particular level or position. Leaders of thought are actually the subject matter experts or the people who know the pain best. When you look at any top challenge or solution or initiative from all perspectives, you're going to come up with a comprehensive solution that really addresses everybody who’s going to be impacted by the change or the solution.
Emerson advised bringing smaller teams together to share experiences, with one person explaining what their particular area focuses on. She added:
You see dots start to connect and you see new ideas come out. Some of the coolest ideas or thoughts around ways to connect and make a better solution come from those cross-functional type sessions. Obviously gender, ethnic, sexual diversity is super important in getting a lot of different thoughts in the room, but even just the cross-functional stuff, which happens on a day to day, is a great metaphor for the importance of diversity of thought.
Being open to listening to what each person has to say is also key to fostering diverse teams. Cosgrove explained:
Oftentimes in a group there are going to be folks that are probably more open or more confident about speaking out. And then there are the folks that are going to be less confident. You want to be able to promote an opportunity for everybody to have a voice because oftentimes a lot of folks are afraid to interrupt so they don't ever say anything. As leaders or facilitators of great conversation, you need to actually actively offer an opportunity to everybody in the room to have something to say.
You may not agree at the end of the day, but as leaders fostering discussion, try to highlight something in everybody's comment that is relevant or can be tied to something else.
Giving people a voice
Being a great leader means seeking out those people on your team who aren’t the ‘norm’ and ensuring they know they’re supported. Kumar shared her experience of being the first female hire into the HP team she previously worked on, and only the second from a non-consultant background. One of the (male) senior leaders noticed she was often much more hesitant to speak out in large meetings compared to in smaller groups. He reassured her that, as the only woman and industry representative, she had a crucial role in adding a different opinion and identifying the blind spots that the rest of the team might miss. Kumar said:
Give a voice to people who are scared to speak up and try to encourage them in meetings to speak up – as well as speak against leaders who don't create that inclusive environment in meetings when you see that happening.
Making sure that as a leader, you show that you’re fallible and can make mistakes will help foster a more open environment, where everyone feels comfortable to share their ideas. Emerson explained:
It is fear that keeps people from expressing their ideas, that their idea won’t be seen as valid or that they don't have enough experience. One of the ways that I try and create an environment where people can feel comfortable is just being super transparent and actually trying to show I’m vulnerable. I'm not afraid to say when I'm wrong.
I've heard people say that I can be intimidating and I don't understand why because I think I'm totally approachable – but clearly there's something there. So the way I try to combat that is by showing vulnerability, showing that you’re just a human being just like everybody else and create that environment where everybody feels comfortable. I use a lot of self-deprecating humor just to try and get people laughing in team meetings so everybody feels comfortable making comments.