Businesses succeed by attracting and retaining top talent. This is, in fact, the most important game that every company is playing. Competition for talent is the only battle that really matters. So, how do you win this fight?
A company wins the competition for talent by creating a work environment where people can be themselves. The most successful organizations establish the conditions where people feel safe to bring their full selves to work. We want people to bring all their wisdom, knowledge, and skills so that their unique experiences and abilities are recognized and even appreciated. It’s not about making sure every person is a culture fit. It’s about making the culture fit everyone.
People often think of diversity solely in terms of race. While race is certainly an important factor, there are many other differences to consider when we build a high-functioning team: language, country of origin, cultural background, sexual orientation, gender, religion, learning styles, physical ability, and parental status. If team members don’t feel confident sharing their full range of perspectives and experiences, it’s the company that loses out. Some differences are obvious, like skin color or height. But others can go unnoticed, and by failing to leverage these differences, leaders rob teams of their full potential. Imagine trying to go to market in a new country without tapping the expertise of teammates who grew up in that very region. What a waste!
Many of the things that make me unique are hard to hide, like my brown skin or how tall I am. There has never been a way for me to hide these things about myself, so I don’t even try. In fact, my philosophy is to put everything about myself on the table, whether for investors and customers or partners and employees. There are no surprises that way. More importantly, I consider my unique attributes valuable. Why hide them? I was on a panel with five gay white men and we were asked, “When did you first come out to your investors?” They each responded, “When the money was in the bank.” I was shocked.
Raising venture capital is all about relationships. You want to know you can trust each other because you may end up working together for years, through good and difficult times. Building a new relationship while keeping large parts of your life secret is no way to start such a partnership.
If these CEOs—advantaged, innovative, smart, and driven leaders—felt they couldn’t reveal their authentic selves to their investors, that doesn’t bode well for their companies. This is because how the CEO shows up at work sets the tone for the entire company.
Culture starts from the top. One survey reveals that only a third of business leaders feel inclusion is a strong factor in the success of their organizations.
A leadership principle of mine is to be open and honest with others about how I’m doing. If I don’t make a practice of doing that, how would the people I work with feel able to do the same with me? People learn from leaders through their actions—what is safe to say and do, and what is not. Modeling honesty is essential. This makes it possible for everyone on the team to connect genuinely, speak up, participate, and take risks. If people aren’t empowered to be open and honest at work, they will never develop and improve.
Clearly, the ability to bring one’s whole self to work depends entirely on the organizational culture as established by its leaders. I have worked in many environments where one’s job could be on the line simply for saying what you know to be true, whether about facts or feelings. Whenever I’m confronted with a non-inclusive work culture, I work to support employees who don’t feel heard, aren’t safe to raise issues of diversity, or don’t get the leadership support or recognition they deserve. Having one leader do this isn’t sustainable, however. Inclusivity must be a core value of the organization—one that is actively practiced by its leaders.
Creating a work environment that is safe and inclusive brings so many benefits across an organization with no downside. When employees can bring their “whole selves” and be honest about their perspectives, successes, challenges, and mistakes, the entire organization thrives.
Heather Hiles is a technologist, entrepreneur, investor. Director at Udemy and OppZo. Managing Partner at Imminent Equity, Black Ops Funds.