Builders Universe
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Builders Universe

Choosing diversity-focused leadership: 3 insights for the modern-day workplace

Let’s get straight to it. I’m a young, female Managing Director working in the field of tech startups. Apparently, those facts alone are enough information for people to bombard me with the following questions: Is it difficult for you as a woman? Are you treated differently? How do you look at other women in tech?

Female leadership is a hot topic and I’m aware perspectives need to change. But to me, asking whether I’m treated differently doesn’t do the trick. My response to that question? To be honest, I do not think about ‘being a female entrepreneur’. Throughout my career, I have never experienced discrimination against me personally. And I consider myself a lucky exception — especially when reading today’s stats. I’ve seen strange looks on people’s faces because of my age — yes. I’ve also had my fair share of Investors who didn’t want to come forward because I’m young and therefore must be inexperienced.

Back when I started my entrepreneurial career I did not compare myself to peers — or anyone, for that matter. I focussed on achieving my own goals and worked on my priorities. Doing so, I never had the feeling of being left out. And that experience includes my gender.

Even though the topic isn’t my focus, I’ve started to read up on sexism and the position of women in leadership. Whilst I’m aware of the statistics, I’m not a fan of jumping on the ‘more women in leadership’ bandwagon. This might sound harsh, but I prefer the following. Why don’t we focus on creating a diverse culture where being a man or a woman does not influence anything? For us, diversity highlights the uniqueness of each individual and helps us understand how we can empower our people by respecting and value what makes them different. Within a diverse team, equity should be a priority. Let me explain:

Crunching the numbers

Even if I haven’t experienced much sexism in my career, I’m not blind to the facts. When you look at the numbers, there is a clear difference between women and men in leadership positions. We’re aware of that. Conducting our own research throughout our ventures and fellow studio-born startups around the globe, we were presented with the following facts: About 19% of people in leadership positions inside venture studios are women: this number is below the industry average of 29%. Our small study shows a total of 164 male founders, compared to 46 female founders. That’s 28% — not quite the equal number you’d imagine. The total of female-led studios within our sphere is crunched at 36%. Looking at the Global Startup Studio Network (GSSN) 2020 data report, we see the percentage of female-founded studio-born companies lies at 40%, showing it definitely can be done. The evidence of disbalance is all here, in the figures. And when you start to really look into the data, you can’t avoid the facts.

Initiatives like FundRight and TheNextWomen are doing a great job to empower female entrepreneurship and diversity, providing network, knowledge and investor connections. I’m glad to be an entrepreneur in a society moving into this direction, especially when I see it’s happening on a global level. Whether the bias affects me personally or not, has nothing to do with the topic needing attention. I’d just like to look at it from a different perspective.

Here are my truths.

1. It’s time to let go of outdated perceptions about leadership

Our brain is filled to the brim with preconceptions of what something or someone should be like. Often, these stereotypes come from the images we see on television and the mainstream media around us. The problem is that we go for the first thing that comes to mind when we make a decision. And that also means we typically go for the first image that comes to mind when we think of a leader. Spoiler: it’s a decisive man in a suit.

Hello! It’s 2021, and the moment has been long overdue to reset our common stereotypes of what makes up a man (ambitious, strong, self-assured) or a woman (authentic, socially skilled, adaptable). These notions belong with the old perceptions of a ‘strong’ leader paving the way for his followers — we forget about ’em. A good manager is not someone who dictates the office anymore. Let’s all build on broader values and a nuanced perspective.

How? At Builders, we do not seek the typical aspects, men or women in particular; we look for technical and business co-founders who fit a business idea. When looking for a co-founder for our tech-savvy ventures, people often assume we’re reaching out to men. That makes sense — because most of the workforce in the field of tech consists of men. Instead of partnering with the obvious, we look at the kind of founders we need to manage that specific type of venture.

A younger woman managing an experienced employee? It used to be a dynamic unheard of in conventional offices. But no longer, because as a studio, we have the unique opportunity to optimise the fulfillment of leadership positions (and team composition). Investing time in the process, we let go of traditional concepts of good leadership.

2. Attract professionals who are honest, intelligent and decisive

As discussed in my previous article, I thrive on building on our team members’ individual strengths. Each individual brings their own added value. What is someone interested in, and where does their intelligence lie? We draw superpowers from the merging of several perspectives and personalities. Diversity-focused leadership flourishes with the variety of your team.

When entering into a partnership for a new tech venture, we go for honest, intelligent and decisive personalities. We look at experience, specific knowledge, people who thrive in a fast-paced environment. In which sense is this person motivated to choose this path for themselves? Because it’s hard to eliminate your own bias. The journey to building a business from scratch is extensive. We truly get to know someone on a personal level before founding a company together. We conduct several interviews, a personality test, ask substantive questions and have a trial period to make sure this individual matches the role and works best in an environment like ours.

When people know their qualities and the direction they want to go in, we hope to provide a cultural match with the team. We try hard to create the space for them to fully be themselves. Which brings me to the third insight.

3. Creating a supportive and transparent environment is key to tracking inequality and real feelings

As a leader or a manager, it’s your responsibility to catch the signals and make adjustments before something becomes explosive. By acknowledging diversity-focused leadership, it’s significant that this happens without making stereotypical assumptions. I really enjoy the dynamics of dealing with a diverse group of people, rather than being in a strictly male or female environment. I love the synergy created when you put all kinds of characters together. That’s why I’m always trying to finetune the right culture, making everyone feel at ease.

Because when a dominant presence keeps ta(l)king over the others, they could wear down the entire team. In a supportive and transparent environment where all individuals can be themselves and speak honestly, real feelings will come to the surface more easily. This way, inequality can be spotted quickly.

When tracking inequality, I look for a few things. We have weekly one-on-one conversations with our team, in which I always ask the following question: “What do you want to discuss in this conversation? What should we really not forget about?” People then don’t feel inhibited to speak up, putting their feelings on the table. Secondly, if the studio culture no longer feels supportive or people no longer feel comfortable, you quickly see it in their results too. Also, people know they are allowed to express their thoughts with us. We are open to dialogue. We ask things like: “how are your colleagues doing? Are the dynamics, right?” We prefer colleagues who sense a shift and go after the problem themselves. In an open environment, I think this happens naturally as anyone would take on leadership at that moment.

Builders itself is a positive example of a diverse culture. We’re an international team with people from different countries, men and women alike, bringing knowledge from a wide variety of fields. It’s a very motivating environment. People learn a lot from each other’s cultures and topics of interest. Because we are all international, we’re more aware that we are all different people. It makes you vulnerable, as you have to make an effort to understand someone from another culture — in a different language. Everyone is equal in their inequality in that way, which creates a bond. The result is a team that is extremely motivated and always willing to help each other.

There you go. Letting go of outdated perceptions of leadership, attracting honest, intelligent, and decisive professionals and creating a supportive and transparent environment is key to tracking inequality and real feelings. When you value people for who they are, you naturally perform diversity-focused leadership. By doing this and letting go of old presumptions and stereotypes, you will attract a variety of people for your open leadership and team roles. And yes, eventually that will lead to more women in these positions, too.

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Sharon Klaver

Sharon Klaver

👸🏻🥂 Gets excited about spreadsheets and champagne as Founder, and Managing Director at builders.studio.