By Karen Painter, Head of Media Software and Services, Turner Broadcasting System
Most people in business today would agree that diversity—of gender, race, generation, culture, education, values, economic background—leads to superior business outcomes. That became vividly evident to me years ago in my first real leadership role, heading up a team developing a consumer software product for Windows.
But let’s face it: We typically gravitate to people like ourselves – people who look and act and think like us. It’s human nature. And that tendency undermines diversity efforts, whether on a team, in a function, or throughout an organization.
Take, for example, that popular recruitment tool, the employee referral program. Because people tend to know and hang around those who are like-minded or of a similar background, the friends they end up referring for job consideration often are quite like themselves.
Simply telling employees they should nominate a diverse range of candidates for open positions is an easily ignored corporate directive. Making that mandate come alive requires a culture that actively supports it, a culture in which people of all types are valued because they all bring value to the organization.
Note that this kind of culture offers benefits that go far beyond fostering diversity. It can help technology executives overcome technical challenges, as well.
In fact, creating and maintaining a healthy culture – focusing on the value that everyone brings to the organization, creating experiences that foster positive relationships among all kinds of people – is central to effective technology leadership.
How I Ended Up in IT
Growing up, I was really good at solving puzzles. I loved math. I did my math homework with my father, an aeronautical engineer. (When he went through an intensive nuclear program in the U.S. Navy and became a commanding officer of a nuclear aircraft carrier, he had to buckle down and do math homework!) I still remember the time when I was able to easily solve a mathematical word puzzle he gave me, while his friend, who lived across the street, struggled.
When I went to college, subjects like math and computer science seemed like the natural choice for me – even though, in a sign of the times, I was often one of only two or three women in a technology class of 100 students. At the same time, my social circle was quite a different world. I was a cheerleader during my freshman year and would generally hang around with other cheerleaders and athletes. In a way, it was an early experience of working in a diverse environment!
My first real job out of college was with McDonnell Douglas, where I wrote assembly language code for the F15 Eagle fighter jet. It was a great job, and I left only because I was invited to work on a team that required top secret security clearance. I realized that not being able to tell people where I worked or what I was working on just didn’t fit with who I am.
In my next company, I worked on a project to take a print publication, the quarterly hotel and travel index used by travel agents, which weighed about 20 pounds, and put it onto a CD-ROM disk. It was another great job. For one thing, I got to travel all over the world and help install the product and teach travel agents how to use it. But it was a niche market.
My next job was with Peachtree Software, leading a team developing the Windows version of Peachtree’s flagship accounting software, which until then had been a DOS-only product. (In another sign of the times, I privately thought that Windows was for people who weren’t clever enough to learn how to use DOS.) This was anything but a niche market. And the job, besides being a great leadership opportunity, taught me the power of diversity.
A Lesson in Diversity
The Accounting for Windows project had a clear mission — create an award-winning software package. We knew that awards and excellent reviews were crucial to selling shrink-wrapped software. So we focused in the first release on attributes that would catch reviewers’ attention, sometimes sacrificing other features – for example, some related to archiving data – in order to do that. And the strategy worked. The product won just about every award in the industry.
What made our team click? Obviously, our single-minded focus was a big asset. But equally important was our team dynamics. We had an array of skill sets: Besides software engineers and product managers, we had accountants and user interface designers. But there was also diversity in our eclectic team members’ backgrounds, experiences, and outside interests. Some folks were fairly quirky. We certainly didn’t look like a group of people who would hang out together after work! But that meant we could challenge each other’s perspectives and push each other out of our comfort zones, even as we rallied behind a common goal.
This was an “a-ha” moment for me. I suddenly realized that if you put together a team with varied skills, talents, and outlooks, all working towards a single goal, you could create magic. It was a turning point in my career. And I discovered the power not only of building diverse yet cohesive teams but also of creating a culture in which this is possible.
Deliberately Creating a Culture
“Culture” may not seem like a high-ranking item on a technology executive’s list of priorities. But without a culture that supports your diversity – or other – initiatives, they are unlikely to succeed.
Recall that a diverse workforce isn’t likely to occur naturally in most organizations. Because we tend to recommend and hire people like us – and are usually unaware that we are doing so – we often end up with a relatively homogeneous pool of candidates. This leads to a relatively homogeneous workforce, and with a homogeneous workforce you won’t be able to create diverse teams for specific projects.
But talking about the need for diversity isn’t going to get you very far. You can’t tell people what to do and how to behave. You need to take deliberate steps to create a culture that supports that goal.
I think many technology leaders don’t think much about culture because they think it already exists. And it does. But you can just let it exist, or you can understand and manage it. A good starting point is understanding the beliefs of the people on your team or in your function. If they’re counter to the type of culture you want to create, then you have to very deliberately create experiences that support your mission.
To take a somewhat simplistic example, if I want people on my team to speak their mind, it’s not enough declare that objective – even with the help of some nice buzzwords – in a group meeting or a written manifesto. I have to go out and create campaigns to solicit feedback and then reward people when they speak up, even if I don’t agree with them. In short, I have to create experiences that encourage people to speak their mind.
When Culture Trumps Technology
We often ignore the role of teamwork and relationships in developing technology. This is unfortunate because, in my experience, when things go awry on a project, the technology problems often aren’t the hard ones to solve. They’re interesting to solve. They can be fun to solve. And there’s certainly a wonderful sense of accomplishment when they are solved. But when things go sideways, it’s usually not because of technology alone but also involves in some way a failed relationship.
That’s where culture plays an important role. It is crucial to cementing strong relationships, especially if the culture is one designed to ensure that everybody on a team brings value and feels valued.
Realizing the importance of culture and relationships brings us back to the topic of diversity – in this case, gender diversity, and why we should continue our efforts to attract women to technology roles. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to push the stereotype of placing female employees in people-oriented roles and men in tech roles.
But to the extent that many women bring a particular perspective on workplace relationships, it is another example of the power of diversity to deliver value to the organization.