I look back at this picture often. It wasn’t the most highly successful period of my career, nor was it the easiest or even the most exciting. But it was, very definitively, the moment when I realised what a privilege it was, and how powerful it could be to be part of a group that brought a seriously diverse set of opinions, experiences, ideas, motivations, and above all, passions to the table.
I have worked in many teams over the past 20+ years in the workforce, in varied environments with different purposes. These teams were made up of dedicated, smart, driven professionals that brought their own perspective and set of skills to whatever outcome we were trying to achieve. And make no mistake, I have been in some very successful teams, and of course some not so, and what I am not saying here is that diversity is the panacea to all the challenges a team faces, far from it. But what I have learned is that if you can create an atmosphere and culture of leveraging openly and freely the combined knowledge of a team, and if that team is significantly diverse then good things will happen.
The team pictured above contains at least 8 nationalities, numerous languages, backgrounds, experiences, and even one slightly mad Geelong Football Club supporter :) There is no recipe here of course, and we all have different lenses when we view diversity that are based on our own biases, but what is important, to me at least, is that when it comes to diversity less is not more. More is more.
So why do I think diversity is so important? Because I believe empathy is important. Empathy with your customers or empathy with the group of people you are trying to have an impact on (it might be a set of end users if it is an internal facing team) will provide you with insight and context and will help you focus on what is right, focus on the subset of actions that will accelerate you towards your goal. But empathy is hard. And more than this, I think we overestimate our own individual abilities with empathy — I know I do. I equate our self-assessment of empathy alongside our self-assessment of our driving ability — somewhat overinflated :) The most effective way to move the dial on creating a truly empathetic, and therefore insightful, view of your customers is to seek input from a broader base group that best reflects that very audience you are trying to serve.
It’s not all smooth sailing mind you. When you bring multiple and differing opinions to the table you need to work hard at making sure inclusivity is at the core of how you operate. Intentional and deliberate inclusion is paramount, achieving a balance that allows everyone to contribute in the manner in which they are accustomed to and comfortable with is critical to realising the very potential of the diverse team you have worked so hard to create. In fact, one of the by-products of a diverse team can be to slow things down. Now this might well be the moment of truth — hint: it was for me :) To ensure you harness the value of all those ideas, thoughts, and inputs, you are going to have to take more time than maybe you are used to if you have worked in teams that are more likeminded. I encourage you to be upfront and open about this, create a team charter or at the very least have the open conversation when you are in set up mode that clearly establishes your ground rules.
Of course, you must intentionally build these teams. Sometimes, but rarely in my experience, a truly diverse team will be serendipitously and spontaneously created. If you’re lucky enough to experience this then you should feel privileged. But more likely you will have the opportunity to create or enhance the makeup of your teams. Make sure you take every opportunity at the hiring phase — both internal and external, to supercharge your team’s diversity. Look at your team make up when you hire or select your team members — what’s missing? How will any new addition to the team enhance or compliment the mindset and experience you already have. Too often we focus on skills, and ‘team fit’. I know this was a mistake I made in the early part of my career when I first started to build teams. My focus was very much on making sure new team members adhered to the mould and didn’t rock the boat, this lead to teams that were aligned, but not great at innovation or even lateral thinking.
Diversity is so powerful. Once you have lived through a period where the balance is right and the ideas, opinions, insights are flowing naturally you will see what a wonderful thing it is. And you will be hooked like I am. So, to that team that met 4 years ago in a crowded meeting room in Singapore thank you.
Thank you for opening my eyes and my mind to the power of a diverse team.