Why Bringing Diversity to your Start-up Team is Critical


Why Bringing Diversity to your Start-up Team is Critical – A good leader seeks diversity in work and life experience, as well as in approaches to problem solving, leadership and development.

Why Bringing Diversity to your Start-up Team is Critical

Too often, we think about diversity too narrowly. Usually terms like race, gender, sexual orientation and religion come to mind. For start-ups, these diverse descriptions are a good place to start, but they don’t go far enough. Diversity is not the same as inclusiveness … and both are important.

Start-ups, however, need to think more broadly because they need to create leadership teams that represent not only diverse life experiences, but a range of mental models, problem solving abilities and relationship-building skills in order to quickly identify problems, overcome challenges and generally be agile and resilient as they navigate toward their goals.

Why Diverse Teams

I have been involved in some very diverse teams having worked in international organizations over the last 15 years. Not only did I enjoy the diversity of sharing my work experiences with colleagues from different nationalities and cultures, but I found it easy to do. Many people who haven’t experienced a culturally-diverse organization think it is difficult to blend different cultures and perspectives, but I have learned that it is much to the contrary – I found that diversity created a  thriving environment that brought with it so many new ideas and opportunities to learn. I found these diverse teams were a major contrast to being on teams where everybody shared similar life and work experiences.

Beyond general agility and resilience, I have found that diverse teams:

  • generate more innovative ideas.
  • manage through problems more effectively.
  • offer different world views and perspectives on a market.
  • bring with them varied networks of potential partners and customers.
  • make better decisions. Homogenous teams don’t challenge assumptions, debate ideas or force people out of their conceptual boxes. Diverse teams will look at a problem from many different perspectives before making a decision.
  • are a good place to start for the next round of recruiting.
  • create a more exciting place to work.

Today, I use diverse teams and inclusiveness as a key dimension for evaluating the leadership capabilities of founders. If the founders encircle themselves with like-minded people, that tells me they think they will always be right and they seek only people who will confirm their world view. Today’s markets are global and diverse, so it is important that start-ups, especially those with global ambitions, recognize this early and recruit people who can bring a global perspective.

If you are a founder, surrounding yourself with great talent is important. Don’t look into a mirror and decide that everyone you recruit should look like you. Take the time to not only design the product or service you want to launch, but also the team that is going to help you launch it.

Diversity Means Diverse Development Paths – As Leader, Celebrate All Accomplishments

To nurture a diverse team, identify individual strengths and develop the people along a path where they perform the best. This is crucial. It is important though, that your staff understand there is just one path toward success.  There are technical paths and leadership paths, as well as paths that allow people to switch disciplines either to align better with interest, or, with abilities.

For instance, I recently came across some really great technical people who did not have the best interpersonal skills. That is okay. Let them do what they are good at, the kind of work that fulfills their passion, and let others do the more customer-facing work.

Letting technical people do technical things seems counter to the development of a leadership team into a well-rounded, multi-skilled group. It is not. It really reflects the empathy and people skills required to develop and keep talent. Not all people want to be people managers, or develop customer relationships. Good leaders will create opportunities for advancement as the company grows which will offer people paths, customer paths and technical paths.

People paths lead to management and leadership opportunities, focused on nurturing the people who comprise the organization. People paths look internally. Customer paths look externally, ensuring that customers have what they need to succeed, really helping the organization develop long-term relationships with customers. The technical paths recognize technological skills and allow people to progress with those skills, developing into mentors and coaches for other technology-oriented people within the organization. This approach goes beyond the individual contributor because it asks senior technical people to be leaders of technical communities. They are still able to demonstrate their leadership, but in a way that aligns with their interests, rather than forcing them into roles that often, frankly, do a disservice to the organization because it takes them away from where they can best contribute. These technology leadership roles help make sure the organization keeps exploring the technical boundaries at the same time they ensure the quality of the technical solutions.

What Start-up Leaders Should Consider When Creating a Team

So there are some general thoughts, but I want to share some very practical recruiting and organizational design thoughts as well. I have learned these from the start-ups I’ve been engaged with, as well as those I have helped mentor.

  • Think about diversity in education, country of origin, age, travel experience, language, lifestyle — these lead to a diversity in thinking models, as well as approaches to problem solving.
  • Hire technology specialists, not generalists, people who understand deeper architecture and scalability issues.
  • Make sure you hire people with prototyping skills. On the flip side, you need people who can build prototypes that can be used for fundraising, marketing and demonstrations. These people differ in skills from the deep technical talent because they know how to make something appear to work, that may not actually work. They also possess the ability to let go of deeper technical issues, at least for a moment, while they build and deploy the demonstration system.
  • Hire sales people who can both listen to feedback and understand the feedback so they can bring it back to the technical team. Early sales people should also be very enthusiastic about the product, helping to get customers excited about the possibilities.
  • Bring in business management people as soon as it makes financial sense. Let the technical and management team do their thing. Much needed hours spent in front of QuickBooks, HR, legal and other issues don’t generate revenue or innovation.
  • Never outsource core product or service development. Start-ups need to be the team that can build something, not the team that can specify something to someone else to build. (If you outsource, full IP protection is recommended.) This implies that you know what your core product or service is. If you are offering a service, and you need technology to facilitate the service, it is okay to outsource that technology component because it is not core. Start-ups often think that technology is everything, but innovations in business model, service or partnerships don’t always need unique software to make them work.
  • If you are building a global team, hire people with global experience.

Finally, don’t get over concerned with finding leaders to take the business to the next level.  I have seen too many founders getting outside “business experience” in too early. Not only does this potentially dilute the stock for the founders and early employees, it often has the opposite effect on the company. Rather than creating a more mature company quickly, it can disrupt good working relationships and add rigidity that isn’t necessary. Spend time building a good diverse team and achieving your goals. If you do a good job, and hire adaptive learners, perhaps you won’t need to bring in outside leadership – you’ll be able to take the company to the next level with the team you have built.

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