Engaging Unusual Voices in Building High Performing Teams

Geoff Mendal
10 min readOct 7, 2019
Source: truthseeker08, via pixabay (license)

There is no shortage of advice on how to build a high performing team, with diversity often occupying a top slot in the list of best practices. This article describes different ways to think about diversity and why it alone may be insufficient for achieving an organization’s recruiting and hiring goals.

Authors Liz Fosslien and Molli West Duffy in their book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work [1] write:

Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard.

It would be difficult to find someone who would argue against Fosslien and West Duffy, yet companies fail at fostering this within their cultures more often than they would like to admit.

Diversity is not Enough

In recent years, diversity metrics in recruiting have become a hot topic, especially in the tech industry. Many companies, eager to show continual improvement in the name of “progress,” now tout their diversity scores. However, what defines progress and is hitting or exceeding a diversity metric enough to declare victory?

Returning to the Fosslien and West Duffy quote above, it is clear that diversity alone is not sufficient for achieving long-term success and growth of any team, let alone any company. Offering a seat without fostering the ability to make an impact may raise a company’s diversity score, but it will not move the needle on any significant challenge the company faces.

So what is a company to do? No doubt, having company-wide diversity goals is better than none at all, but knowing that diversity alone does not lead to significant improvement on complex challenges suggests there must be more to unpack. Given the struggles many companies currently face vis-à-vis diversity and inclusion, it might be beneficial to begin addressing the issue at the team level.

The Kansas Leadership Center Approach

The Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) [2] teaches leadership centered around four competencies, one of which is Energizing Others [3]. The KLC notes that when dealing with complex, thorny challenges that live in people’s hearts and guts, it is imperative to bring into the conversation all stakeholders, not only those who are influential or have a loud voice. While practicing this competency, the KLC mandates that leaders Engage Unusual Voices. It is imperative to resist the urge to cherry-pick those with whom one is most comfortable engaging and are easy to influence and reach an agreement. Instead, this KLC competency requires that leaders seek out and work with those who also have a vested interest in the challenge, and with whom they seldom converse. Why? Because these unusual voices may see the problem differently, have different loyalties and values at stake, and might have enough influence to either further or impede progress.

Engaging unusual voices is admittedly risky and time-consuming work, and thus no wonder it is often circumvented or ignored. Still, for complex problems that affect many stakeholders who might not agree on how to solve a shared issue, this is necessary work. In the parlance of the tech industry, is it better to fail fast having time, resources, and capacity to experiment anew, or fail spectacularly risking personal reputation and the company’s stature or viability?

Best Practices for Applying to Teams

The work of engaging unusual voices aligns perfectly with the goals of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Most recently, I worked at the music streaming company Pandora Media LLC (a subsidiary of SiriusXM) in the San Francisco Bay Area. Pandora is not shy about promoting diversity and inclusion in its recruiting efforts, but it often struggles to close the gap between those noble goals and the reality of hiring in an extremely competitive market.

Building a Diverse Team from Scratch

During my tenure at the company, I was handed the challenge to form a new, highly visible, and impactful infrastructure engineering tools team. Unlike most software development teams, infrastructure engineering tools teams are somewhat unique. People who are passionate about making a career out of this work are few, and the skills required differ from software developers. As a result, the pool of qualified candidates is small, competition for the best people is fierce, and thus it often takes much longer to recruit and close on a candidate. From the company’s perspective, what mattered most was for the new team to have a significant impact in short order. While there were a few non-negotiables, I was bestowed with the utmost trust to build the team and execute the plan as I saw fit.

From the outset, I realized that I was facing a considerable challenge. Time was of the essence. One has to ask whether the attributes of diversity, inclusion, and belonging should be a high priority when trying to fill these roles quickly. That is, do those noble goals work against an expectation to hire rapidly? The answer to both is yes: they should be a high priority, and they are often in conflict. The easy way out is to relent to the pressure, promising to address diversity, inclusion, and belonging down the road. Getting underneath the desire to hire quickly was something I needed to address if I wanted to uphold my goals for the team.

I instinctively turned to those I trusted at the company for hiring ideas and advice. Upon reflection, this was hardly an example of seeking diverse opinions or fostering inclusivity. I learned little from these conversations; they proved the confirmation bias I already held. To no one’s surprise, this initial outreach did little in helping fill my open headcount.

Changing the Rules of the Game

Suspecting that I was facing a different kind of challenge in building this new team, one that required organizational learning and experimentation to solve, I decided that I needed to adopt a radically different approach. Not knowing how to start, I borrowed from the team-building process I learned during my tenure at Google [4]. I changed the problem from finding suitable candidates who met the technical qualifications for the role and fit the company culture to one of building a new team that was diverse, inclusive, and exhibited Google’s five key attributes. That is, by focusing on the macro result — how the group as a whole would function — I was able to let go of the problem of focusing solely on highly sought talent from a small pool.

As luck would have it, a couple of months into the process, Pandora began hiring engineering talent in its Atlanta, Georgia office. I was one of the first hiring engineering managers in the company to recruit there. It gave me the chance to renegotiate the structure of the team, expanding and challenging my thinking of having everyone under one roof. I was not sure what we would find by recruiting in that location, but it was an experiment well worth undertaking. If nothing else, I was sure we would learn a lot from our attempts. To its credit, Pandora was open to seeding the candidate pool in Atlanta in ways it would never allow otherwise:

  • Interviewing candidates remotely, not requiring them to travel to headquarters in Oakland and meet onsite before making an offer
  • Hosting social meet-ups between the Atlanta candidate pool and senior-level Oakland-based employees
  • Modifying the highly structured, rigid and time-consuming interviewing process to one that scaled so that a large number of candidates could be interviewed under severe time constraints (think speed dating)
  • Relaxing the “culture fit” value the company desires candidates meet

As is true with most challenges that endear people below the neck, not everyone was on board with these changes. Some felt that changing the hiring process lowered the bar to an unacceptable level, increasing the risk of making an offer to a less than stellar candidate. Others felt that lowering the bar for culture fit was also a risky move. These risks were acknowledged, but management felt that given most of the roles were junior and mid-level, the company could afford to take the risk. It should be noted that there was no relaxing of the process or lowering the bar for the most senior-level or manager roles.

Recruiting as an Equal Partner

One of the radical new approaches I instituted was to partner with Recruiting in a way not done before. Rather than treat Recruiting solely as a resource that vets candidates, I proffered the idea that we act as equal partners in solving the challenge before us. Said another way, I offered Recruiting a seat at the table and empowered them with a voice that included vetoing hiring decisions (a power that they invoked only once). While the recruiting team was well known to me (I had worked with them to fill roles before), they were an unusual voice in how we engaged in building this team.

Fishing in a New Pond

To ease the pressure in finding candidates from a small pool of specialists, I was willing to consider those whose credentials on initial inspection did not check all the boxes. I borrowed an idea I learned from my time at Microsoft, finding software engineers whose focus and expertise was in quality assurance (QA) and extremely motivated to prove themselves beyond that area.

The situation was no different at Pandora. As it turned out, there were a few QA engineers at Pandora looking for new opportunities. Having the chance to prove themselves on a new team with a murky charter was precisely the type of challenge they were seeking. Though internal transfers were supported and common at Pandora, no one had assumed the risk of supporting transfer candidates who did not meet the minimal requirements of the role. What I cared about more than their technical skills, which I knew could be increased by training and on-the-job experience, was the diversity they provided through their QA expertise. In the end, I hired a team dispersed between Atlanta and Oakland, comprised of internal transfers and outside hires.

Always Travel

As with any geographically dispersed team, it takes constant work to promote inclusion and belonging. Encouraging travel in both directions to ensure periodic face time in the office was well worth the effort and cost.

On my first trip to Atlanta, after filling the roles there, I learned that the Diwali celebration (a first for that office) would be held later that week. However, the budget for that event was capped at a meager amount guaranteed to mute any celebration. Compared to headquarters, where the budget was significantly higher per capita, morale among many employees in Atlanta was low due to the budget constraint: they felt like they didn’t belong. Thankfully I was onsite and knew how to influence executives to get the budget increased. As a result, the first Diwali celebration at Pandora’s Atlanta office was a festive and memorable event. Of all the meetings and conversations I had that week in Atlanta, none were more important than assuring that everyone in the office celebrating Diwali felt like their voices were heard and that an authority figure saw the value of including them in what had always been an Oakland-only event. It was an emotional and visceral moment for the Atlanta team. Also, their sense of belonging was sustained and grew for the rest of my tenure at the company.

Acting Experimentally

Very early in my tenure at Pandora, I suggested to my teams and manager that we hold an all-day strategy meeting. Individual contributors in Engineering rarely participated in strategy meetings. So there was both angst and curiosity about what I was hoping to accomplish. To quell their fears, I needed to educate them on the benefits of observing and diagnosing the “system,” or what the KLC defines as Getting up on the Balcony.

It was apparent to me that my teams were well insulated, operating like the engineering crew of a ship, hidden deep in its bowels, with few opportunities to learn what was taking place above water. An opportunity presented itself to act experimentally at the strategy meeting. I invited a speaker from the business strategy and planning side of the company. Meeting with this Director, I explained my purpose and how he could expose a different side of the business to my “engine room” teams. He understood what I was trying to do, bringing into the room an unusual voice who could help the team gain some perspective of why what they were doing mattered and how it fits into the company’s direction. Of the four outside speakers who engaged with the group at that meeting, none had more impact than this business strategy and planning leader.

The teams did not become high performing overnight. There is no light switch or magic wand that can transform a team into the high productivity realm. Progress was initially elusive, and it took many months before the teams began operating at a high performing level. I attribute much of the teams’ success to the diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts we collectively undertook.

Workplace diversity goes beyond that of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, and disabilities. It is also about understanding, accepting, and valuing differences between people, including education, personalities, skill sets, experiences, and knowledge bases.

So Now What?

This article has made a case for elevating the KLC competency of Energizing Others, specifically engaging unusual voices, when building and nurturing high performing teams. The practice of engaging unusual voices supports the goals of diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

Diversity is a necessary tenet of a high performing team, but do you believe that it alone is insufficient? How has your organization moved beyond diversity to address inclusion and belonging?

What are your experiences in engaging unusual voices? In your leadership practice, have you found this competency to be one that is necessary and straightforward to master? What suggestions would you offer others who are considering employing this competency in their organizations or communities?

Acknowledgments and Where to Learn More

I want to thank my former colleagues at Pandora, Sidhant Bhayana and Suzanne Quintela-Reiner, who reviewed prior drafts of this article, and made numerous suggestions and corrections to sharpen and focus the final work. Likewise, I want to acknowledge my former colleague at Google, Celeste Villalobos Tahamont, who reviewed the first draft and helped me separate the essential from the expendable.

[1] Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy (2019), No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07CWGBZ4S

[2] Kansas Leadership Center, https://kansasleadershipcenter.org

[3] Ed O’Malley and Amanda Cebula (2015), Your Leadership Edge: Lead Anytime, Anywhere., pp. 102–108. https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/store/your-leadership-edge-lead-anytime-anywhere-hardcover

[4] Julia Rozovsky (2015), The five keys to a successful Google team, https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team

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Geoff Mendal

I like writing about the teaching and practice of leadership as a member of an intact team, where I am implicated too.