Hiring a team that is as diverse as your customers can be challenging. But hiring them without doing the work to set them up for success, means its an empty gesture.
I recently saw a LinkedIn post asking people to share their views about race on other social media and to limit their LinkedIn posts to professional issues. But I also know that many of us are asking ourselves what can we do as individuals when the problem is so pervasive.
The systemic issues of racism that affect America (and other countries) are something that can, should and must be dealt with in our professional lives. With our professional decisions. This is true whatever your role in an organization, but for product leaders and entrepreneurs, the issue and the answer is more within reach and more urgent.
A lot has been written about the business case for hiring a diverse team. (A quick search will give you everything from “The business case is overwhelming” to “The ‘business case’ for diversity is a myth.”) If you are a product person or an entrepreneur, suffice it to say that having a team that is representative of the people who are buying and using your product will only make your product better and broaden your appeal.
I had a very valuable piece of feedback from a friend about this post, which originally focused on hiring. “Hiring a diverse team,” she said, “is not enough. You have to follow up.” At the same time, I had a request from a former colleague to write about how to set a team up for success. Setting a team up for success is about making sure that everyone understands the Why of the company and their role in achieving it. It’s about removing barriers. But when you are really hiring a team with the idea that having a diverse team makes a better business, you have to do more.
The reason you hire a diverse team is to bring in different viewpoints: now you have to be ready to listen to them. Not least of all, because you may be unaware of the barriers that they face that you will need to help them to remove.
But first, about the Diversity word
Diversity is a squishy word to use for a hard conversation.
Diversity can mean a lot of things: economic, geographic, age diversity. But race, gender and orientation are the ones that generally come to mind when we hear the word.
In all honesty, I falter at this point. Because you either understand that these are fundamental differences in the way a person experiences the world, or you don’t. I won’t suggest that I have any understanding of what it’s like to be Black in America. Actually, being White in America was something that I had the luxury to not understand until I moved to Beijing. That’s when I realized that - in that context - I was marked by the color of my skin the minute I walked into any situation. There was no amount of the language that I could learn that would ever let me be seen as anything other than not Chinese. [I would literally be at restaurants speaking to the waiter, who would direct the conversation back to the ethnically Chinese visitor that I had with me who kept saying in English, “I don’t speak Mandarin, please talk to him.”] I suddenly felt my race, knowing I would always be the subject of a lot of assumptions just because of the color of my skin.
I still don’t understand what it would be like to have that feeling in my home country. But many of my customers do.
As a product leader or entrepreneur, your customers are diverse. Their interests, their problems, their ways of evaluating, purchasing and using products are diverse. My product management team will not only be stronger by more closely resembling the world that we are making products for, but each member of my team will be improved by having their preconceptions challenged. And I will constantly be improved by managing a more and more diverse team.
These are hard things to describe in the abstract, and I do not want examples to be misinterpreted. But one easy example is crayons. Did the existence of a crayon whose color was named “flesh” that only matched Caucasian skin mean that no people of color bought crayons? No. But recently, Crayola put out a set of crayons which represented a wide range of skin colors. I guarantee that this not only expands their customer base, but also prevents a competitor from exploiting a hole in their market.
Yeah, yeah. You’ve been hearing this for years. It’s hard, but you’re trying to hire better. Guess, what? Even if you are hiring better, the hard part is still ahead.
We have to do more than hire a diverse team
Hiring someone isn’t the end of the story. When you hire anyone it’s your job to set them up for success. Setting up your team for success is enough to fill a future blog post, and it will. But there are basic things which are important that are often overlooked with new employees: why is the company organized the way it is? Why are they meeting with the people they are going to meet with? What are the jobs of everyone else on the team? How are they supposed to work with those people? How do things get DONE here?
And most importantly: how will their success be judged?
All of this information is often overlooked when onboarding a new person and is almost never regularly reviewed. As important as this is when your team comes from a homogenous background, it is exponentially more urgent when the team is diverse. Very often, people who come from different backgrounds have developed different vocabularies, have different approaches. When you hire someone you need to provide support to ensure that communication is enabled across team members. You need to ensure that they are clear on what the expectations for the job are and how their success will be measured.
Listening is the key
How you listen to your team is vital to their success and yours. Because if you aren’t going to listen to them, then why did you bring them onto the team? And if they don’t feel they are being listened to, how will they effectively work with you?
It’s also important that as you understand how each person communicates, you help other people on your team to communicate with them. Your job is to hire the right team and then remove any obstacles to their success. Part of that is how they work with each other. And as you bring in people from different backgrounds, you have to address the fact that they may not be able to understand each other effectively without help.
This will definitely mean stretching outside your comfort zone as a manager. It will definitely mean listening in a way that requires you to challenge yourself about what assumptions you’re making about what you’re hearing. It also means you’ll need to be ready to have hard conversations in a way that the person understands that you are working for their success.
When you have clearly articulated the goals of the job and what it will take to achieve those goals, and you have made the effort to provide support to make them successful, then you will be able to address any issues.
My friend told me the story of a co-worker from her time at a major bank. He was a really capable African-American guy in his 30’s, but he spoke in a way that his (mostly white) colleagues couldn’t understand. No one wanted to correct him because they didn’t want to seem racist. But he also wound up stuck in his position, because no one was helping him. His manager and his colleagues let him down.
Doing what you can, it’s your job
The issue of systemic racism seems so large that we wonder what we can do. If you are in a managerial position, what you can do is to provide opportunities. But just creating the opportunity is not enough, you need to create the environment so that the opportunity can be realized.
And if all of this sounds hard, it’s because it is. To quote the writer Scott Woods:
“It is uncomfortable work… The work is supposed to make you uneasy, to fill you with dread. It is work that should seem like it has no end because it is internal work that stretches through the whole of your life. There are no easy answers to the real work. … You will have to think about the work, and once you start doing that correctly, you will never not be thinking about the work.”
One last thought: I am not holding myself up as someone who always does or even knows the right thing. I am challenging myself as much as everyone by putting this out. Writing this has made me very uncomfortable, which makes me think it’s the right thing to do.