Diversity matters. Companies are training and hiring from different backgrounds to bring the benefits of divergent thinking to their organisations. Success stories are published and annual numbers are shared for accountability purposes. Hiring managers receive training and guiding principles. While all this help is useful, hiring for diversity everyday is quite challenging from a work place point of view. In the last year as I have hired a team of 13 researchers, paying attention to the diversity of my team has kept me awake many nights. Here are a few things I learnt along the way.
If you choose diversity over the work; you will fail.
One of the biggest dilemmas I have with the diversity discourse today, is how we talk about increasing the percentage of x group. What we don’t talk enough about is what is the work that needs to be done and the relevant skill sets we need. Increasing the number of women who code is a worthy attempt but today’s organisations have many more functions where we are still far from breaking down the skill sets in enough nuance to assess people or even work with educational institutions to develop these curriculum in the first place.
Skill sets are the most objective measure I can look for, while keeping the demographic data as an input to my thought process. If you over index on demographic conditions at the hiring stage, candidates may struggle with the actual work scope at a later point. And when this happens, diversity candidates get the bad rep.
Does this mean you always go for a 100% skill fit? Not really. My team works in regions where it is hard to find fully trained UX candidates. What I end up looking for are the baseline skills and then think about the delta which we as a team have to cover through training for them.
Last year, we hired a junior researcher from Brazil who came from Marketing and knew little about UX Research. She knew how to talk to people, how to tell stories, how to connect her work to larger trends and more than anything else, her excitement about Uber was palpable. Did she know about UX Research? Did she know how to assess concepts or features? Not really. Did I make her an offer immediately? I slept over it for 2–3 days trying to understand whether we can provide the training support she will need. At the end, she was a diverse hire but not a diversity candidate. We hired her because she was the right candidate. She also happens to be a Brazilian from Rio, a budding entrepreneur launching her own brand of accessories and generally one of the most optimistic person in my team.
It is critical as hiring managers, to do this calculation of inherent skill and the gap which we need to cover and in what time frame, to succeed with candidates from different backgrounds and locations. If the skills gap is too high, it is best not to hire. You put both yourself and the candidate at risk in the long term.
Hiring for diversity will break the linear ladder
If you really care for diversity, it is very likely that the people you will meet, will not fit into a nicely crafted career ladder. I work with people who over index on storytelling, open people up to have rich conversations, document these conversations beautifully in photography or video or they are outstanding public speakers who stun you with the types of conferences they get themselves invited to, through their ability to network. They become a spokesperson for the team.
Where they sometimes fall short is their focus on details, not devoting quite as much energy on analysing and revisiting data or they are so passionate about the user cause that they question Product teams around why they are not doing enough with the insights, without realising fully all the limitations of building complex products and other organisational dynamics.
At an earlier stage in my career, some of my past managers used to say that doubling down on your weakness and fixing them was the way you matured and you developed perseverance and discipline. I do not know if this is true any more. The world around us is moving too fast for us all to try to be Jiro.
With access to technology, earlier discovery of knowledge and ability to try out many things, a lot of junior people over index in certain skills and under index on others. Where their strengths remain, they are exceptional. They set the standards for the organisation.
The question I face again and again is how do you leverage their strengths to set next level milestones rather than redirect them to work on their weaknesses, in order to fit them back into the ladder? How can we enable people to be at the top of their craft in some area and accept their relatively weaker performance in others, with comfort? How do we motivate someone to give up their peak performance in one area to go learn something completely new without affecting their levels and salaries? How do we create an atmosphere of learning and risk taking that takes away the fear of not progressing in your career every year to two? Few people explore this actively as a part of their career growth but the real opportunity remains in making this systemic so everyone in an organisation can believe they have this opportunity to diversify their skill set.
So what’s my idea here, you may ask. I would like to see the discipline of UX compartmentalise less based on discipline (Research, Design, Content Strategy, Prototyping etc.) and work together more based on the skills we have. Specialisation is killing our creativity.
I would like to see less binary positions between specialists and generalists. I would like to see the storytellers in my team work with visual designers to create the vision of our new product feature, rather than depend on product managers and designers to come up with product visions. I want more UX writers to help drive the most compelling narratives with other counterparts.
We still have a long way to go to keep pushing on this idea of skills and strengths and measuring team performance over individual performance. Incentivising team excellence is what I am more inclined to as I keep thinking more and more about how to focus people on their strengths.
I hope we reach a world where we talk about continuously improving our strengths rather than ask people to focus on their weaknesses. I hope career ladders become a remote memory of a 19th century, linear industrial world. I want my team to be more like Lego blocks, which can be used to construct something bigger and better and can be reused in many different situations.
Investing in coaching and positioning your people
As we hire for different skill sets and take note of the uneven distribution of strengths and opportunities, what is critical is owning the learning role. Driving the learning of our team is about proactively planning how to enable people with the next level of skills they are good at. This is the real challenge of my generation of managers.
This is also very hard to do. Imagine trying to create personalised, customisable learning paths for 20 people, and then imagine it for 2,000 people. This is a humongous effort. However, this is the goal I am personally setting for myself. I started compiling some strategies around how to write your goals or write recommendations succinctly for team member whose first language is not English. I see it as helping an excellent researcher get sharper around what he is already trying to do. The focus here is on honing his skills rather than the fact that he comes from a non-English speaking background.
Working with diversely talented teams also means you as a manager really need to know how to position your team members in initiatives where they will be able to deliver the very best of their skills. The manager, thus, also has to be a connector.
When I started my career, there was an assumption that your manager knows the craft the best. Over time, I have come to realise that the best managers are the ones who know what is going on and have enough depth in craft to ensure good work. Managers who understand the needs of their people and look out to adjust and enable them into new opportunities, end up helping their team members with a larger sense of purpose and benefit the company by aligning the best people to the task.
This role of the manager as a connector is interesting because if we cannot fit people dynamically in and out of roles, then our team members risk getting stuck in roles that do not do justice to their skill sets. In order to do this well, you often have to cut through team lines and in my case, regional locations, to drive home the single point — bring the right people to the right job.
This is hard but as managers this is our challenge. This is where we will be different from the generations before us. We really need to understand what is the best thing to do for an organisation, going above and beyond different groups alignments in globally complex work places.
Build a vision of the new work place
As I continue to focus on diverse skill sets in teams, it brings me back to the original question — how do you improve diversity in an everyday work place? My position on this is we are asking the wrong question by asking how can we increase our diversity numbers.
What we should be fundamentally reimagining is the needs of the work place of the future. We need to break this into skill sets, focus on the attributes of successful teams for different types of projects, account for different life stages of our team mates, allow for different types of flexible work schemes and diversify geographically if that’s an ingrained part of the business need.
Whether you are an Asian, a Latino or an African-American; a man, woman or transgender; a millennial or a baby boomer; if you do not have the right work condition and the right vision to work towards, no matter who you are, you will not be any closer to achieving your full potential. If the business does not know what goals we are trying to achieve via you, you are up against a poorly defined success criteria and no matter what your background is, you will fail.
In order for diverse hiring to succeed, the onus is on us to first take stock of where we are coming up short at a systemic level. Do we need more velocity or more long term thinking? Do we need more socially conscious people or more brand loyalists? By being granular on the skill sets, what I am trying to achieve is two things- find the person who fits a role on an objective basis but also feed back the skills gaps to our recruiters and organisations I advice, on new skills we have to focus on building, to make sure we have a future pipeline of talent.
I hope to continue on this journey of aligning people to the right purpose. I am committed to diverse representation in the workforce but always putting function and purpose first.
If any one is interested in discussing or helping me on this journey, feel free to reach out.
PS: The views expressed in this article are my own and should not be extrapolated to my employer.
Image courtesy: Wikimedia