How to lead a diverse team? Systematically.

By Dr. Peter Topping

The following piece is based on a presentation by Dr. Peter Topping at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, hosted by GCN, on managing diverse teams. Though framed around managing a workforce team generally, Dr. Topping’s lessons are equally useful when considering the “team” that is your nonprofit’s board.

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.

A system, not an assembly

I’d encourage you to think about your people 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. 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.

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 team, 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 people 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. 

Rather, 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.

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?

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 of your 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.

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 team, 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 teams, 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, race, gender, and more. The variety of perspectives involved makes the system stronger, but also makes it harder to manage. 

So how does one person lead through all the different contexts that may arise? The answer is emotional intelligence, or EQ: 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.

The systematic advantage

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.

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