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How to lead a diverse team? Systematically.

For GCN’s latest CEO Forum, Dr. Peter Topping hosted a discussion at Emory University’s Goizeuta Business School, where he regularly leads business executives through MBA courses in leadership, organizational change, teamwork, and cross-cultural management. During an interactive presentation and panel discussion, Dr. Topping showed more than two dozen nonprofit directors how to think of their workforce as a system where small, focused actions can produce significant benefits, and diversity pays off in greater strength and capability.

The following piece, based on Dr. Topping’s presentation, covers a few of the top lessons our member leaders took away; alongside, our Forum panel members outline some lessons they’ve learned while leading their own diverse teams.

In the blogosphere, they say that employee engagement is at an all-time low. Because we all define engagement differently, I don’t know if you can necessarily point to a trend – but would you say that of your staff is 100 percent engaged? You might say you’re close, but the truth is that all of us are looking for ways to improve employee engagement, no matter the actual percentage.

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.

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. 

The more diverse your pieces are, the harder it makes the system to manage – but the stronger the system can become. 


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. One of my favorite clients, a senior-level executive at Michelin, would say the most important element of the braking system are the tires. My point: When you’re thinking of a system, you want to think holistically. It’s not just the technical mechanics. There are a number of elements that may influence your system.

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. Instead, you look for leverage points where a little bit of effort will give you big, system-wide results. Many times, we think big actions are the only way to achieve big change. The reason that doesn’t often work is because big actions are difficult. In a system, little actions in the right spots – action that isn’t so difficult – can give you big returns. 

Look for leverage points where a little bit of effort will give you big, system-wide results. 


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 saying, “firing people”). They’re all important, but which one of these is the number one leverage point? It can vary from one organization to another. 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 can possibly accomplish.

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 would 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 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. 

The challenge is functioning as both a manager and a leader… It’s a matter of balance: Knowing when to put more emphasis on one over the other. 


Teaching by leading, leading by context

How did you learn leadership? Through your experience leading, but also through your experience being led. That means you are teaching leadership every day. But what is it you are trying to teach?

Everybody can have a bad day. As a leader, are the ramifications of your bad days different from those of your staff? Absolutely. It reminds me of an executive we were asked to coach: 90 percent of the time he was great, but 10 percent of the time he acted like a child, complete with tantrums. What do you think people remembered about him?

If you want to develop more leadership in your organization, it starts with you, and your fellow leaders, being purposeful about your example – but you can’t lead everybody, in every condition, the same way. Leadership is contextual, with at least three variables that must be balanced at all times:

The situation. Situations change, so one of the things I work on with my MBA students is their diagnostic ability: assessing what is going on in the organization from the outside, the inside, at the big-picture level, and at the human level.

Your followers. Because everybody is different, you can’t treat everybody the same way. However, you can’t act as a different person to each different constituencies. It’s a matter of balancing being yourself and modifying your style to best fit the people you are leading.

Your authentic self. Authenticity is when other people see you as genuine. What’s most vital is to be you, but not to assume others know what’s important to you: You must be open in telling people your values as a leader. The importance of authenticity is trust: If you don’t have my trust, you can manage me – but don’t expect to lead me. 

The importance of authenticity is trust: If you don’t have my trust, you can manage me – but don’t expect to lead me.


Diverse values, and valuing diversity  

This gets us back to the diversity issue: How do you lead both a 22-year-old and a 60-year-old? If you use the exact same tactics for both, you’re unlikely to be successful – but if you try to be something completely different, you will be perceived as inauthentic. You can adjust your leadership approach to the differences in your workforce, but the common factor is values: Making sure I’m understanding your values, while still enacting mine. And when we have a values clash, then we can have a conversation about them.

Take generational differences. When we’re talking about multi-generational workforces, we’re not just talking about how to deal with one group: there are many groups, and ways to look at them. Along with Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials, there are also “cuspers,” born along generational fault-lines. I have a child born in 1982, and she would not call herself a Millennial – that’s her little brother. If we want to try to understand differences among the generations, typically you want to look at what was going on in their childhood, which is where their values originate.

But generational difference is just one dimension. In a single workforce, you’ve got lots of differences: where people come from and their current location, types of education, family cultures, political stripes, economic backgrounds. This variety of perspectives makes the system stronger, but also makes it harder to manage. How does one person lead through all the different contexts that may arise? The answer is emotional intelligence: knowing what you’re doing when you’re doing it, and how to use your emotional self to motivate and inspire your team. EQ will always trump IQ when it comes to leading others, and it requires the following components:

Self-awareness, which is knowing your genuine self, and being that person. It’s also knowing what’s important to you, including the things that bring out your stress behaviors.

Self-management, which is knowing when to get excited and when to be cool. It’s understanding the times when you need to show passion, frustration, or even anger – under control – and the times when you need to be zen.

Empathy, which is understanding others from their perspective, and social skills, which allow us to be as inclusive as possible, and give us the ability to build aligned relationships.

These cross-cultural disciplines can be even more powerful when your team teaches each other: Maybe you have days where one culture is highlighted in what you eat and what you talk about. These are important in teams that work side-by-side, but are also vital in virtual teams, where distance can easily lead to misunderstanding. 

There is no one right leadership style… The art is knowing how to adapt your leadership practices to the needs of the situation, while still being yourself. 


Systematic superiority

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 our 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?”

There is no one right leadership style. If you think there is, then good luck to you: You’d better hope that the stars are always aligned in the way that makes that style work. The art is knowing how to adapt your leadership practices to the needs of the situation and the people you’re leading, while still being yourself. That may be difficult, but it is possible – and it does pay off.

Dr. Peter Topping 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.

Here, the CEO Forum panel members outline some lessons they’ve learned while leading their own diverse teams – highlighting their organization’s multi-generational, multi-cultural, and geographically distributed workforces.



By Sara Berney, Executive Director of Wholesome Wave Georgia

As executive director of a small nonprofit, I know that a culture of clear and consistent internal communication is vital, especially when leading the ever-growing Millennial generation. What I’ve learned is that we need to create the space for everyone to feel heard, practice saying “Yes, and…” instead of “No,” and facilitate learning across generations.

On July 15, our eight-person team moved from a 600-square-foot office to a space three times larger, invalidating overnight our previous communication strategy: looking across the table for an impromptu question or brainstorm. As a team comprised entirely of Millennials and Gen-Xers (myself included) who are frequently driven by a do-it-yourself ethos, it’s critical that our team define and build our office culture together, including the policies and procedures that support it.

Earning buy-in from all participants meant creating space for everyone to share their ideas. With that in mind, and the help of a consultant, our team met regularly in our new environment to answer the big questions and reimagine our internal communications strategy. Together, we decided to conduct all important conversations in person, and to create a weekly meeting for discussing questions, dreaming up solutions, and practicing curiosity. With everyone’s participation, our new communications strategy immediately took off: Team members felt empowered and engaged, email volume decreased, and staff became less siloed, working collaboratively to solve problems.

At the same time, we’ve been able to integrate some new digital communications tools successfully by testing them before adopting them, and assigning each a specific purpose. While our tech-savvy workforce was abuzz over new platforms like Basecamp, I was unsure about their utility. However, I knew that saying “No” to these tools would defy the culture of empowerment I was being careful to create. So instead of saying “No,” I said, “Yes, and…” When a staff member suggested using Slack, I responded, “Yes, and let’s begin by using it strictly for communications about teambuilding activities.”

As a young organization, we’re also positioned to benefit from other organizations’ experience with internal culture, especially regarding changes they’ve made when things didn’t work out. I started by asking questions of leaders in the field, and encouraging our staff to do the same, as well as to reach out for formal mentorship. It was clear that my staff members were looking for opportunities to learn from those with more experience – they simply needed my direction to help identify, approach, and connect with them. 



By Brian Bollinger, Executive Director of Friends of Refugees

Ten years in the nonprofit sector is not much time, but it has taught me a few things about communicating across cultures in the office. My most ardent piece of advice is to know your people: Your team members are your foremost “major donors,” and they deserve to be noticed and appreciated in the ways most meaningful to them.

For instance, cultural references can make instant connections across any divide – something I call, “Knowing and honoring the memes.” It’s not just cultural. If you’re a Millennial leading Boomers, you might take the time to understand just “who shot J.R.” (Or, if it’s the other way around, teaching younger colleagues a few lines from Hogan’s Heroes!) It also pays to learn some key terms pertaining to the major religious holidays your teams celebrate. Ask how they observe them! The key is to remember what they’ve taught you – but, if you’re not sure you remember correctly, to go ahead and take a chance. It’s much better to risk embarrassing yourself, to learn from your team, than to neglect what’s important to them.

Regarding everyday culture-building, a line from Mark Miller’s excellent book Chess Not Checkers has become my mantra: “We expect the very best of one another, and the very best for one another.” Because understanding and being understood can be a struggle in a diverse environment, we always regard each other with goodwill and the benefit of the doubt. Whatever the issue – differing linguistic baselines, cultural blind spots, unintended reactions – we know that understanding begins with a choice to assume the best or worst of another person. Rather than issue a correction or a challenge – “What do you mean by that?” or “Nobody says it that way in the modern world!” – we always respond as if the intention is well-meaning until proven otherwise. As our non-negotiable policy, this builds a culture of trust, where we can then have honest conversations about our differences.

Getting communication right can also mean making weird rules – that is, peculiar to others, but customized to your unique needs. At our organization, on-the-go communication is conducted using iPhones and only iPhones. Why? Because hundreds of things work easier when everyone uses one operating system. It also lowers the inter-generational learning curve on all kinds of workflow processes, from scanning documents to managing group messages. If you don’t own an iPhone, we help you get one and learn to use it – as both your personal phone and your work line. (We can even set up a separate phone number for work, free through Google!)



By Jeremi Snook, President and CEO of Friendship Force International

Friendship Force International boasts 360 clubs in 60 countries, counting over 40,000 people as part of our family of members. With an age-range of more than 90 years, a wide array of native languages, and a world of geo- and ethno-specific differences to consider, here are the principles that continue to guide our team in effective communication, internally and externally:

Know your audience. How does your target – staffer, supporter, or any other stakeholder – prefer to stay informed? By knowing and studying our members, we are better able to anticipate how best to deliver key messages. For instance, our Baby Boomer majority prefer face-to-face messages where possible, and newsletters still play an important role in keeping people connected.

Let your mission ground you. Over time, attempts to innovate or embrace too many channels can dilute or fragment your message. To correct this “message creep,” think about the ways your mission resonates with your audience: What emotions do you want them to feel? What message do you want to make sure is clear? What action do you want to compel? Continually step back and put yourself in your audiences’ shoes.

Add to your marketing channels, but don’t (necessarily) subtract from them. It might make sense – logistically or economically – to put everything online and go paperless, but only as long as you don’t leave important segments of your constituency behind. For the health of our organization, it’s vital to maintain room in our communications strategy for those who prefer newsprint to Snapchat.

Stay plugged in. One of the biggest mistakes a nonprofit can make is putting resources into a system whose time has passed – which means one of their best investments is conferences and news subscriptions that inform staff about trends and breakthroughs. Because the future of your organization depends on engaging with young and prospective stakeholders, we help ensure our ongoing impact by laying the groundwork to connect with them. Today’s technology can also inspire new ways to bridge a divide: Video conferencing software like Skype has enabled us to engage distant parties in one-on-one conversations, even those with language differences and limited technological skills.


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