Four Steps To Build a High Performing Team Through Diversity

These are lessons learned from the life of Coach.me.

Coach Tony
Oct 14, 2016 · 9 min read

The narrative I most often read about diversity in our industry is of a hard to solve problem. One example of that narrative is, “How can I hire for diversity if there isn’t even diversity in college computer science graduates?”

In other words, it’s a pipeline problem and it’s not my fault.

I want to tell my own story of what happened when I started to take diversity seriously, and how the steps along the way were universally straightforward, repeatable, and high value. In other words, easy to do and easy to justify doing.


Below, I have actual, repeatable steps. I copied these steps from other people’s success stories. They worked right away for me. Basically, everything I tried worked right away, which is why I’m suspicious of the “diversity is hard” narrative.

But before I start I want to describe the moment that convinced me to write this post.

I was on a panel discussion about startup hiring where most of the other panelists were engineers or engineering managers describing the challenges that they faced as champions of diversity within their own organizations.

The people on that panel clarified something for me: diversity is really hard to implement if you are not the person in charge.

So this is my story as a white, male CEO. And I think the key word there is CEO.

Step One: The Diversity Statement

Many people complain that there is a pipeline problem in tech. When you collect resumes, you tend to see a lot of people who look the same, “I put up a job posting and no women applied… that’s why I don’t have any women on my team.”

The best hack I’ve seen for adjusting your pipeline comes from the venture capital firm, OATV. Essentially the technique is: write a really clear invitation.

OATV published a job posting and only one woman applied. Wondering what went wrong, they then published a followup invitation for more women to apply, Let’s Try This Again Ladies: OATV is Hiring. Sure enough, many great women applied after this second post.

[Now is an excellent time to point out that diversity is not just more women.]

One reason this invitation works is because under-represented groups are biased to believe that the hiring process is biased (a reasonable bias based on available evidence). A genuine, authentic statement from the founder goes a long way toward overcoming concerns about your company’s hiring.

You may be familiar with the boilerplate diversity policy:

Our company does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, creed or sexual orientation.

The message this policy sends is: Our company does not like to get sued.

That generic diversity policy is not the same as an invitation and assurance about your policies. It will do nothing to change your pipeline.

Here’s our diversity policy. The keys are that I wrote it myself and that it’s written for humans. I basically just say that I care, I expect diversity brings value, these are the steps I’m taking to improve the diversity of my company, please apply.

When I first posted that policy, I was struggling to recruit a diverse team. I was in a rut where I only had access to people in my professional network (which is a victim of other people’s non-diversity policy).

The change (which isn’t to say perfect, just that we went from four white-dudes to succeeding on at least some measures of diversity). Also, I should note, the team we have now is very productive.

Step Two: The Rooney Rule

The hardest thing about adopting the Rooney Rule is admitting that a bunch of NFL knuckleheads out-innovated Silicon Valley in the area of hiring.

Way back in the day, the NFL realized that a lot of their players were black and a lot of their coaches were not. Since many coaches are former players, this didn’t make sense.

So they instituted a policy:

The Rooney Rule requires National Football League teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. It is sometimes cited as an example of affirmative action, though there is no quota or preference given to minorities in the hiring of candidates.

In fact, I would explicitly not call it affirmative action. This is a slap upside your head about how biased we all are. The rule is: “interview a diverse set of candidates, but hire whomever you want.”

There’s a natural, human bias toward pattern matching based on what you’ve seen and experienced. So, we know how to recognize candidates that look like patterns that we’ve already seen succeed in this industry.

That bias comes in two forms for hiring managers.

One, you probably will tend to overlook categories of candidates at the resume stage if they don’t fit a pattern that you’ve seen before.

And, two, you’ll miss certain categories of potential when you do perform an interview. (I asked my team if they thought I was biased, and they were able to correctly point out that I project leadership potential on men as young as 19, but rarely spot that same potential in women. I’m working on it.)

These two biases suggest a question about the Rooney Rule: is it sufficient? Basically, is it futile to interview diverse candidates if your second bias is just going to cause them to fail the interview?

In my experience, the Rooney Rule is sufficient for most people to make a significant change in their hiring outcomes. For example, the number of minority NFL head coaches tripled after instituting this rule.

If you’re interviewing diverse candidates, not hiring them, and then seeing them succeed other places, then maybe you should rethink how you evaluate people. But for starters, I think just changing how your interview pipeline works as a starting point for most hiring managers.

Also, I should note that startups have a very easy way to implement this policy: AngelList.

The Angel List talent pool is full of great startup folks looking for jobs. If you haven’t used it, you should. Essentially, you can browse every candidate in their system and just hit a single button if you’re interested. AngelList will then make an intro if the interest is mutual.

I don’t specifically target diverse candidates—I just keep hitting the “Interested” button until I’ve expressed interest in a large enough pool of people that some diverse candidates have expressed interest back. The extra time spent is negligible.

Step Three: Institute a Non-Negotiable Compensation Strategy

This is so magical that it may even deserve it’s own post.

I tell every prospective hire:

Our philosophy on compensation is to pay everyone at the medium-high end for startups of our size. We aim for consistent compensation across the entire team based on the market. So the offer I’m going to give you has nothing to do with your salary history. It’s just about matching the startup market. One thing this philosophy means for you is that you don’t need to negotiate. In fact, the offer I’m about to give you is not negotiable.

Turns out that nobody we’ve ever hired was excited to negotiate their compensation.

You may have heard that women get paid 70% of what men get paid. The Darwinian capitalist in you might see an opportunity to save money by hiring women.

Improving the diversity of who you hire is just half of the challenge. Once you actually have a diverse team you need to have a strategy for how you want that team to function. Fair compensation practices are just a start.

My strategy is to create a culture that expects people to start on equal footing. Fair salary is the most obvious place to start.

Also, this policy, has the side effect of eliminating the practice of bribing prima donnas with wacked out compensation. Those hires never work out.

Step Four: Meeting Facilitation

It’s pretty well known that women, especially, get shouted down or ignored in meetings. If I hire someone, I want to create conditions where they are going to make a big impact. In meetings that means everyone should contribute and have their contributions recognized (otherwise, why are they in the meeting or even in your company).

I teach a single meeting facilitation technique, which we call round robin feedback (much more here).

If you need feedback in a meeting then you go around the room and ask each person individually and in order. The individuals can either speak or they can pass. Hence, the name, round robin.

This technique drastically cuts down on people trying to dominate conversations by simply being louder.

It also creates a culture where everyone feels like they are going to have a chance to speak and that their input is going to be heard.

This is a culture of expectation. Maybe everyone in the room won’t have great input the first time you do the round robin. But by asking them over and over again to contribute, we’ve setup an expectation that everyone here has to be a major contributor.

It’s a tiny little meeting trick, but everyone in the office knows it well enough that the round robin gets used consistently (nearly every meeting has several) and is performed quickly.

Results

This story doesn’t cover a huge sample size. We started with four white dudes. After that we hired three more white dudes and eight more non-white and/or non-dudes. To my knowledge, we didn’t hire anyone who identified primarily as LGBT.

So, the above steps definitely worked for changing who we hired.

I’m less clear on how to tell you that the people in the hires worked out. Will you believe me if I say that they were top notch? Two of them have gone on to run their own funded startups. Does that help?

Sometimes people say, “Diversity is fine as long as we don’t sacrifice quality.”

I’m not going to prove it here for you, but my experience was that diversity was a way to improve the quality of the team.

Appendix: Here are several reasons I believe it’s worth investing in diversity.

I don’t usually like to be the pitch person for diversity and only mean this post as some tactics that worked for me. But I can’t help myself…

  • In my experience, diverse teams are more respectful because they aren’t assuming everyone thinks the way they do. (Corollary, in my experience, homogenous teams fight a lot because they have a lot of hidden diversity).

Caveat: There are a million other things to learn.

Many people on the startup hiring panel that prompted this post mentioned interviewing with companies who gave off a “creepy vibe.”

I knew a founder who vigorously defended the lack of women in his company by saying it would disrupt chemistry. His company lived and worked together and the chemistry was such that he felt comfortable sleeping in the nude around his male coworkers. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

He felt that he would have to put his clothes on if there were women on the team. This is both an example of creepy and of bias. The bias: is he really sure that his male coworkers aren’t wishing him some pants?

Assuming that you’re not that guy, there’s a lot of things to learn, but ignorance isn’t fatal and is cured organically through the process above.

For example, I often say “Hey guys” when I should really say “Hey folks.” I’m not killing it on adopting this change. And, not meaning this as a brag about my laziness, our diverse company still managed to function.

There are other times where I have put my foot in my mouth. Most people get really, really defensive when they get called out on anything remotely to do with diversity—any admission of wrong doing seems equivalent to admitting that you’re a bigot.

But the reality is that the correct response is almost always an apology, followed by a clarifying question, followed by a thank you.

I’m sorry. Are you saying that I should say X instead of Y? Can I ask why that is? Interesting. Thanks for letting me know.

An analogy would be as if you stepped on a person’s foot. We all know what to do when this happens. Apologize and reorient yourself to give more respect to that person’s space.

Hopefully, I’ve screwed up something in this post and will get to demonstrate the technique.


Thanks to Sarah Milstein, Sarah, Terrie Schweitzer, and Alicia Liu

Coach Tony

Written by

Evangelist for great coaches and excellent personal development advice. CEO/Founder of Coach.me. Publisher of Better Humans & Better Programming.

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