How to lead a diverse team, part one: Systematic superiority

Published: Apr 25, 2017

Employee engagement is a challenge for organizations because people are complicated – and when we put a group of us together, we get more complicated. Because so many organizations don't manage their talent well, those organizations that are at least good at it, if not great, have a heck of an advantage.

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Say that you or board decides, "Here's the direction we need to go." Do you have the people ready to do it? If you don't, how can you enact that strategy? That’s why I say that if your talent strategy isn't connected to your business strategy, you don't really have a strategy.

A system, not an assembly

I’d encourage you to think about talent from a systems perspective: In a system, the more diverse your pieces are, the harder it makes the system to manage—but the stronger the system can become in its execution.

If you were designing the brakes for a new automobile, what might you think about? Certainly, the components that go into the brake assembly: the pads, the drums, the housing, the rotor. But if you really wanted to improve the braking system, what else should you be considering? The driver. The kind of car. The environments you’re driving in. When you're thinking of a system, you want to think holistically—not just about the technical mechanics.

Here's the key point about a system: You don’t have the time or the resources to manage everything that may need to be done, but you don’t have to. Many times, we think big actions are the only to way to achieve big change. The reason that doesn't often work is because big actions are difficult. In a system, you look for leverage points where little actions—actions that aren’t so difficult—can give you big, system-wide returns.

Hire hard, manage easy

Think about your major talent management activities: recruiting and hiring, job placement, day-to-day performance management, training and development, retaining good talent, promoting people, and, as business guru Ram Charan would say, “deselection” (rather than, say, “firing people”). They’re all important, but which is the number one leverage point? It can vary from one organization to another, but for me, it’s hiring. If you want to improve the health of your talent system, you should start by doing the best hiring you possibly can.

Hiring better is as simple as putting a little more rigor into your hiring system. Get the interview team together before they meet with candidates to determine what you’re looking for, and who is going to ask which questions. For continuity’s sake, maybe there's one question everybody should ask. Then, when it’s time to make a decision, I get us all in a room, lock the door, and say we're not leaving until we come to an agreement—and if we agree too quickly, we're going to start over.

Onboarding is also a huge factor that does not require a lot of resources—just focus. How do we make sure our new hires maintain their excitement and enthusiasm, shake off anxiety, and scale the learning curve as quickly as possible? Onboarding is the fastest way to make someone a full-fledged member of the team, and activate the potential you’ve seen in them.

A third leverage point is day-to-day performance management. The challenge is functioning as both a manager and a leader. As a manager, you’re responsible for planning, organizing, and directing; as a leader, you’re responsible for influencing, motivating, and envisioning. Is there tension between the two roles? Absolutely. Will you ever resolve that tension? No. It’s a matter of balance: knowing when to put a little more emphasis on one over the other. If we're not hitting our deadlines or goals, you need to emphasize the management side. If we're not growing, developing, or motivating staff, you need to emphasize leadership. The point is that you're always trying to do both as best you can—and to improve the part that needs improvement.

A systematic solution

The healthier your system is, the more attractive your workplace will be, and the more people will want to stay. It may require you to think a bit differently, and more carefully, to avoid focusing on a point that triggers problems in your system. This shouldn't stop you from acting: Just think, “What are the ramifications of doing this? If I give this person that kind of option, will it work in my system? Or will it have an upstream or downstream effect that might cause problems?”

In part two of this piece, I’ll discuss teaching by leading, leading by context, and some helpful practices for making the most of a diverse team.

Peter Topping, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Practice of Organization and Management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, and a former visiting professor at ITAM, Mexico’s leading business school.

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