The word “diversity” is thrown around in corporate circles on a regular basis, but like many such common corporate words (like “innovation”, “synergy”, “culture”, or “strategy”) the word itself doesn’t carry a common meaning and so it loses a great deal of its power. Sometimes people mean diversity in terms of race, heritage, or origin. Sometimes it means diversity in terms of gender. Rarely does it meet the standard of diversity that I think it needs to.
The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another. This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be. David Hackett Fischer
While the quote above is focused on an American concept the foundation of the quote is universal. Diversity is a broad concept that requires leaders to work differently in order to build it and reap the rewards from it.
Building a Diverse Team
In most cases people consider diversity from the perspective of primary diversity factors like age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. While those elements are certainly important to consider, from my experience they are generally achieved if you consider as many areas secondary dimensions of diversity when you are building or adding to your team. The secondary dimensions that I most frequently focus on are:
- Experience and Background
Do the individuals on your team have similar experiences in a common industry or do you have a cross section of work experience and industry background? In one of my teams in the banking industry for example I had people who had grown up in banking, geography majors, industrial design graduates, business leaders, people who had been a part of start-up companies, entrepreneurs, psychology graduates, and former consultants. The team members had worked in industries ranging from banking, manufacturing, health science, computing technologies, and even to arctic exploration. Every experience across industries provides insights that might be relevant to a current challenge you face. It is incredible how often I would come across a challenge that appeared new in our own industry and setting, but which had been faced and solved in several other people’s experiences which could provide a great starting point to moving forward.
- Perspective and Approach
Do the individuals on your team always approach problems from the same angle? Are they all detail oriented thinkers? Are they all conceptual thinkers? Every problem or challenge you face will have multiple dimensions and if you have a team who always uses the same approach you will risk seeing things only from one of those dimensions. (Consider the parable of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant)
- Work Styles
Does everyone on your team work and react the same way? Do they keep similar office schedules, approach documentation and desk time in a similar way, and conduct themselves in meetings in the same manner? Is everyone a note taker? Does everyone communicate well verbally or do they prefer visual styles of communication? While differences in work styles can create tension they also create tension which can be very helpful. Without some variance in work styles it is easy to become complacent as a leader (or team member) about what it takes to leverage diversity. If it is always easy to communicate and work together then it is also easy to slip into common patterns and lose sight of different perspectives or experiences that might be valuable.
- Personality Type
Are all of your team members extroverted? Does everyone have a thinking orientation? There are many tests out there that can provide you some insights into the make up of your team (such as the Myers Briggs test which is most commonly cited). I have heard arguments that some roles or teams are better suited to certain personality types, but in my experience it is diversity of personality type that creates real power. As a leader you should be aware of your own personality type and surround yourself with people who can provide insights and feedback from the other areas where you are not strong. If you are introverted make sure you have some extroverts on your team. If your tendency is toward thinking make sure there are some feeling people to help balance your natural tendency.
There are likely other secondary dimensions you can think of that are similarly useful in building a diverse team that has a healthy level of creative tension and perspective, but I think these are good representative dimensions to consider.
As I mentioned earlier, by focusing on the secondary dimensions of diversity instead of the common primary dimensions (gender, age, etc) you aren’t diminishing the importance of those primary dimensions. In fact you should absolutely have an understanding of your diversity across the primary dimensions, but what I have found in building teams is that by focusing my energy and attention on the secondary dimensions that I have always wound up with a team that was diverse across those primary dimensions without even trying. Consider mapping your team out visually so you can see where everyone fits, where you have concentration, and where you need to consider adding differences – it can be very powerful when you are recruiting to have a ‘diversity’ agenda focused on augmenting the team you already have.
So now that you have built a diverse team how do you leverage its power to keep tension at a healthy level?
Thinking Independently Together
The easy answer is by leveraging human leadership styles which I outlined recently in Leading to Outcomes. But there is certainly more to it than leading down effectively. One of the hardest parts of leading a diverse team effectively is putting aside our own predispositions and keeping an open mind.
As leaders we have typically been promoted to our current level in the organization through hard work, subject matter expertise, and business results. Our own work styles, personality type, and experiences and perspective have got us to where we are so we have a predisposition to continuing with those approaches as we go forward.
Unfortunately at each level of promotion we need to ‘unlearn’ some of what got us to where we are. As you move up in the organization your subject matter expertise becomes less important for example – you have detail oriented focused roles which are required to provide that subject matter expertise for you while you focus on the bigger picture issues and challenges of the broader team.
The same is true though when you think about the dimensions of diversity. When you are an individual contributor you only have to think about working with the people around you and adjusting and dealing with their differences. When you become a first level manager you may need to manage people with some differences but typically those first level teams are made up of people with common experiences and jobs so there are few real differences between team members and the manager. A manager can continue on expecting their own work styles and approaches from their team and it likely won’t cause and issues with the outcomes from the team.
At a more senior level, however, you need to put aside your own predispositions and recognize the value of the differences within your team. I have watched leaders who have achieved their first executive appointment quickly struggle because they work to bring in “their team” to support them. They try to quickly reduce the tension of change by bringing in people who think, work, and approach issues in a similar way to themselves. Unfortunately in their haste to make their team look like them they lose some valuable perspective that existed before they took over and a significant amount of organizational memory that was housed with those people.
To be truly effective as you become a senior leader you need to assess not the similarity of the people who now work for you, but rather the differences they bring to the table. As a leader we need to adjust our own work styles, expectations, and needs to retain the valuable team members that deliver outstanding results regardless of their own differences from ourselves.
Diversity along those secondary dimensions is incredibly powerful – it allows you to see things from different perspectives that you wouldn’t have considered, it allows you to see approaches to challenges that you never would have considered, it allows you to build on the learnings from many industries and backgrounds who may have already solved your current challenges.
As a leader it is your responsibility to build and retain a diverse team. That responsibility doesn’t come from any social agenda or special interest, it is a result of the incredible business and organizational power that is generated from diversity. To build true long-term competitive advantage you need to build true long-term diversity.
All of us are only smarter than any one of us if each of us brings different experiences, approaches, perspectives, and work styles. If we’re all the same then there isn’t much value in being a team.
Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.