The diversity challenge

In my previous post, I mentioned that company culture was not about a specific demographic, but about how each person lives and breathes the company values. Too often, the concept of “culture” is misinterpreted. Sadly, a lot of times, people confuse it with a homogenized environment in different aspects, such as race, gender, alumni, and age. The truth is that diversity can be one of your biggest assets, as it makes your team members more adept in interacting with different people and it allows you to leverage each person’s unique strengths. So what can you do to create a highly functional, diverse team? What can each team member, regardless of their role, do, to harness the benefits of diversity? In this post, let me put special emphasis on age diversity, since this has become somewhat of an elephant in the room.

Have an open mind

A great start to making diversity work for you is to make sure that you as a manager have an open mind and that you also foster not just tolerance but the full embracing of differences. Why not make open mindedness part of your company values and have it displayed front and center in your office? In addition, consider ways in which you can help team members get to know each other better. For instance, at Hannon Hill, we have “hot seats” with the new hires. It’s important for new team members to show their personalities and for existing employees to show their interest in getting to know them. Questions may range from “what’s been the biggest surprise in your first week of working here?” to “what would be the title of your autobiography?”. If you’re a manager, you’ll want to pay attention to who is asking questions and shows curiosity.

Educate yourself

If you’re not willing to learn about people who are different from you, you are hampering your own personal and professional development and your company’s. When I started working with an increasing number of millenials, I made it a priority to read at least one article a day on how to work with them, what motivates them, what scares them, and how to create an environment in which they thrive. I expect my team members to read, watch videos, and listen to audiobooks in order to always get better at their craft and that includes being able to understand, embrace, and ultimately leverage differences. Be sure to make clear to your team members that this is what you expect of them.

Have story sharing sessions

In one of our manager workshops, we went through a very impactful exercise: presenting our timeline. Each person was free to share whatever they felt comfortable with, and the idea was to present a timeline of the highlights and lowlights in their career and, if they so choose, their personal lives, and the lessons they learned from each. You wouldn’t believe how eye-opening it was, and the exercise certainly enhanced our appreciation for our teammates, and our admiration for and empathy with them.

Talk about differences

I understand the good intentions when people say “I don’t see color/gender/age”. But doesn’t that mean that you don’t see each person for the unique individual they are? Wouldn’t it make sense to acknowledge each other’s different backgrounds, personalities, and experiences and talk about them? I recommend fun exercises like personality tests. 16Personalities is a free test that only takes about 10-15 minutes. Discuss the results. Ideally, follow up with another exercise, such as having a small group present a concept (or even a sales pitch) to someone on the team with a specific personality type.

Accommodate preferences when and where it makes sense

Don’t use your background or personality type as an excuse for acting a certain way. Just because you’re an introvert doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stretch yourself and go to networking events. Just because you’re “not a morning person” doesn’t mean that it’s you should not make sales calls early in the morning. Be sure to make this clear to your team. That being said, accommodate your team members’ preferences where it makes sense. For example, if your millenial software engineer prefers a schedule that allows him to take a break for a couple of hours in the middle of the day to pursue his passion and it doesn’t affect other team members or the desired output, consider giving your team member this flexibility. Or if one of your team members wants to take a day off to celebrate a specific holiday, allow it if it doesn’t negatively impact other people’s work.

Focus on strengths

“Oh, those millennials are so entitled! They have no idea about the real world!” The number of times I’ve heard this statement is equal to the number of times I’ve been supremely frustrated with its narrow mindedness. Instead of immediately focusing on stereotypes, which often have a negative tendency, challenge yourself and your team to look at the positives of each characteristic. So when you hear “millenials are entitled”, think about how to find the best trait in this and how to make it work for you. What about “millenials are confident and fearless”? How can you leverage that part of the equation? When you hear “Baby boomers are stuck in their ways”, think “they bring so much discipline and hard work to the table. How can we best leverage that?” You get the picture.

Involve HR

Finally, make sure to have ongoing conversations with HR. Laws, rules, and best practices change all the time, and your human resources pros make it their mission to stay on top of it. Talk to them about your initiatives. Ask them what you can or can’t do. Be open to their feedback.

You would be doing your team members and your company a disservice if you didn’t focus on embracing diversity. Consider this a diversity 101 post and stay tuned for more to come.

What about you? What are you doing to embrace diversity?

What’s company culture anyway?

Almost every candidate I’ve ever interviewed has either mentioned that our company culture was the reason why they applied for the job or has asked me to describe what our culture looks like. This is a good opportunity to dig deeper and ask the candidate “What does culture mean to you?” The answers typically cover a wide range, from “laid back atmosphere” to “wearing jeans”, and from “being able to work from home” to “young company”. But here’s the thing: none of those things define your culture. It’s not a dress code, or teleworking, or a specific demographic. Not at all.

Culture is something that is easy to see when you’re on the inside and hard to describe to anyone on the outside.

Here are some of my favorite definitions of company culture:

It’s how someone feels after interacting with someone in your company. At Hannon Hill, we want to make sure that every team member, regardless of their role and department, has face to face time with customers. That’s why it’s not uncommon for our Services Director, our VP of Engineering, or our Content Marketer to go to conferences or for a member of the Engineering team to be on a support call. One of the biggest measures of our company culture is indeed the way that our customers, prospects, and partners feel when they interact with us. This means that we need to live our values (being supportive, positive, and self-starting)  through and through, making them a part of each person’s fiber so that nobody even has to think about the right way to act. It’s part of our nature.

It’s how every team member acts when nobody’s looking. Similarly, you can look at company culture as something that is so precious to every team member that they will always act according to your common values and mission, even when nobody’s watching (including the CEO or their manager). The team member will know what to do, whether that’s watering a co-worker’s plant when they’re on vacation, cleaning the coffee maker, getting an early start to work on a special initiative, listening to audiobooks during their commute, and seizing other opportunities to get better at their craft.

I love this description from Harvard Business Review:  “Culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off.” Culture can become particularly apparent in challenging situations, such as an emergency call from a customer or a high pressure request from a prospect. Do your team members feel empowered to act? Can you trust them to do the right thing? Culture also is also reflected in the way people interact with their manager. What do they do when they made a mistake or things went wrong? How do they express themselves? How do they greet each other in the morning? Do they feel comfortable bringing new ideas to the table?

Your company values are the core around which your culture revolves. Take some time to write down those values. Here are some examples:

  • Be humble and scrappy
  • Embrace challenges and change
  • Work hard, be nice and dream big (as seen at Atlanta Tech Village)

Now let’s get back to the happy hours, the free lunches and snacks, the casual dress code, the standing desk, and the bouncy ball seats. All of those can be attractive perks that can help you reward your team members. However, the single biggest perk you can give to your team your commitment to ensuring that they won’t have to work with someone who does not live the company values. 

What about you? What’s your favorite definition of company culture?