Optimising a diverse team

Sometimes, the biggest challenge in management is learning how to lead according to the make up of your new team. Jan Swinhoe writes about her personal experience and shares tips on how to optimise a new team of highly diverse members.

Many of us can reflect on (what we thought at the time were) “the glory days” when we arrived at our first job to find a department full of people just like ourselves- actuaries or actuarial students who were all about the same age, same work ethic, a solid university degree under our belt and very often similar interests outside the workplace. Yes, how easy was that-we all spoke the same jargon, communicated easily and could even finish each others’ sentences, at times.

This is how many actuaries start their careers but if we choose to broaden our career or, specifically, move into general management the situation can alter dramatically and we are often ill-equipped to manage appropriately.

For most of my career, I was managing “like minded” people until I was given the opportunity to run a completely different business, one that I knew very little about but which had fascinated me. I imagined the challenge would lie in getting to grips with the underlying business but, instead, it lay in the diversity of the new team. Instead of a group of all male, Australian, university educated individuals aged between 30 and 45 who were paid a salary and bonus, I was overseeing a new business with 50% males and 50% females, 20% of employees were part-time with an age range of 20 to 70, a broad cultural mix and different remuneration structures, many of whom had no variable component. Quite simply, it was a good reflection of Australian working age society, but one that I was ill-equipped to manage.

Did you know in Australia that?

  • More than 25% of the population were born overseas.
  • Over 2.5 million people speak a language other than English at home.
  • Over 200 languages are spoken in Australia.
  • 15% of working age people live with some form of disability.
  • 3 million people act as carers providing assistance to people who need help because of disabilities and ageing.

So what is diversity and why should we encourage it?

Diversity covers all the ways in which individuals differ, both on a personal basis and in terms of organisation. These can be both observable and unobservable and may include race, ethnicity, gender, age, tenure, function background, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, education, physical and mental ability, values and attitudes.

The case for diversity rests on the premise (backed up by significant data), that in an increasingly competitive and global world, organisations need to turn to their human resources for creativity and innovation, which will, in turn, set them apart. This creativity and innovation involves the acquisition, dissemination and reaction to new knowledge.

Long gone are the days of promotion as a function of length of service. Now, more appropriately, greater opportunities are afforded to those who invent or re-engineer new processes, ideas or systems. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tech sector with significant enterprises born out of university student garages (Apple and, more recently, our very own Atlassian).

Studies by behavioural economist, Professor Roy Chua (Harvard), show that in order for diverse teams to outperform their more homogeneous competitors, they must also have a harmonious workplace. Then, Chua’s studies show, for example that diverse cities experience greater economic growth and also companies with females on their boards financially outperform those that don’t.

So, the golden key lies in being able to create, retain and motivate a diverse team in a harmonious manner. Some tips (not exhaustive) in optimising this include:

  1. Encourage the valuing of difference. It is easy for dysfunction to occur if there is an in-group and an out-group, particularly if one is a minority group which becomes marginalised and then either underperforms or leaves. By speaking openly, say at a regular “town hall” meetings, about the range of ideas especially those coming from the out-group will ensure they feel valued and come back into the fold.
  2. Develop a team identity. Instead of employees identifying on the basis of gender/ education/ cultural background, it is ideal if they identify as part of a team. Sporting teams (such as the recent Bulldogs victory in the AFL after a sixty two year absence) often excel in this area. This identity should be developed in an inclusive manner so that the team identity is of higher order than the individual descriptors.
  3. Once the team identity is agreed and established then the VISION should be workshopped. As with 2 above, this may evolve over a number of forums that may include social interactions where individuals openly discuss their own cultural and other practices.
  4. Finally, give the team time. All relationships form over time and it is wise to treat the team as evolving. The culture of the team can be enhanced by site visits to other organisations/ locations, which are further through the process and can contribute positively to the new team. Individuals may also be encouraged to keep a journal in which they record their thoughts and reflect on, from time to time.

There is no question that clear and positive communication is the essence of diversity management. Further, in an era where the next great source of innovation is unknown, the best hope of achieving competitive positioning is creating and optimising diverse teams.

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Jan Swinhoe speaking at the Career Advisors Forum at the Actuaries Institute

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