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Lessons Learned

The CEO's Guide To Building Diverse Teams (And Keeping Them That Way)

Here's how to take advantage of the diverse staff you've hired with every single project, again and again.

The CEO's Guide To Building Diverse Teams (And Keeping Them That Way)
[Photo: Monkey Business Images via Shutterstock]

By now there's little disagreement, at least in principle, about the value of diversity, and there's plenty of great conversation out there about how to make more diverse hires. But working with organizations of all sizes, I still see little real understanding about how to organize internally in order to benefit from diversity.

It's one thing to hire diverse employees, another to keep them around, and still another to build teams capable of actually utilizing all the benefits that a diverse staff can bring. Here's how I've learned not only to solve that problem, but to turn it into a process that happens regularly and repeatedly, right down to the project level.

Widening The Lens

For starters, it helps to be clear about how we evaluate diversity in the first place. Most organizations have race, ethnicity, age, and gender demographics already in their line of sight.

And that's great. But we should also think about skills, experience, work and communication styles, community persona (the segments of our community or audience we're connected to or even part of personally), and even length of time at the organization or in the field.

By evaluating your team members against this broader rubric, you'll be able to assemble project teams that are better positioned for constructive conflict and weigh different perspectives in the search for the best outcome. But how do you actually do this sort of evaluation in order to wind up with these benefits in the first place?

It's Everyone's Job

It is not my job as CEO to be the sole team designer or evaluator. It is my job, though, to reinforce our priorities on diversity, model the right approach, and coach staff so they're confident evaluating and building teams without me.

Firstly, I encourage teams to invite all staff to chime in on our challenges long before we set about fixing them. Here at NTEN, this starts with sharing a brief message about a new concept, a challenge, or a request we've been given, and asking anyone interested in the topic to join a kickoff meeting.

Right away, I see people who we probably wouldn't have identified join those meetings had we only tapped staff based on their titles or departments. As a result, we can usually avoid a project team racing to an "obvious" solution, or operating on assumptions gathered by working together previously.

Next, I run through a quick checklist to make sure we have expertise in all these areas covered based on everyone who's stepped up:

  • Tactical or technical knowledge
  • Mission and strategic focus
  • Community or user experience/perspective
  • Demographic or experience information

That's no silent checklist, either: I call out each of these skill sets on a project team as people start opting in. This way, the gaps are clear as more volunteer. If those gaps remain open, it's easier for me or anyone else to help identify which team members we'll need to fill them.

Fill Gaps Creatively

There are going to be times when you can't hit all your bases. Sometimes an organization is too small to build as diverse a team as a project may require for the best outcomes; sometimes your staff just doesn’t possess all the experience or perspectives you need.

Don't settle with "this is the best we can do with what we've got." Take a cue from the open innovation philosophy and look outside your own walls. Once you know which gaps you need to fill, start searching for community members, stakeholders, and even users who can give your project team guidance.

This might be something that larger corporations hesitate to do (without calling it "market research," anyway). Because my organization is fairly small and collaborates with a slew of other organizations, the best solution we've found is to build several year-round volunteer committees combining staff and non-staff. They're tasked with weighing in on some of our core efforts (membership, editorial content, and research), and we work just as hard to keep them diverse as we do for our staff teams.

This becomes a mutually reinforcing process. Any time we find there's a knowledge gap on a project team made up of employees, there's already a year-round volunteer committee to turn to—and better yet, it's made up of some of the very people the project itself is trying to serve. Sometimes we'll present our progress or a given issue to the full committee, and other times we'll just ask one or two folks to offer feedback as the project makes headway.

Make Sure Your Diverse Teams Stay Diverse

As a project team works together, the difference in their opinions or perspectives can narrow. Doug Stamm, CEO of Meyer Memorial Trust, tells me his organization's teams always start by asking if the right people are at the table—not just people with different perspectives, but also those impacted by the project results. Here's the criteria that Stamm tells me guides team-building there:

  • Assumptions need to be aired and challenged
  • Final decision authority needs to be clear
  • Timing (both soft and hard timelines) should be understood by everyone
  • Agreement on impact and intentions must be established together

In other words, start with the goals and work backward—checking at every step of the way to make sure you still have everyone you need in order to meet them.

"We've found that adopting this approach to addressing complex issues empowers diverse teams, resulting in smarter and more innovative outcomes than traditional processes," Stamm says.

Ultimately, we know that creating diverse teams, like diverse organizations and boards, leads to better services, programs, and products. Hiring is critical, but it's only the first step. CEOs need to lay the foundation for making diversity actually work for their organizations—and benefit from that—time and again, as a matter of course.

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