When my partners and I started Mariana Tek in 2015, we set out to create not just a great product, but a great company. We believed that one of the pillars should be diversity.
Having worked on numerous startups in my career – some phenomenally successful, some less so – what I have learned is that coming up with the new great idea is the easy part. The real challenge is bringing that idea to life.
And while you certainly need a strong idea, as well as a market to sell to, and access to capital (among other things), the one thing you need more than anything is a team capable of delivering at the highest levels.
While creating Mariana Tek, we focused, laserlike, on creating a diverse team.
Our definition of “diversity” was broad, as it should be: we sought in our team hires diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, age, and sexual/gender orientation, but also diversity of thought, background, experience, and pursuits. Achieving diversity was essential because we believed (and study after study affirms) that it begets critical qualities in a team like high awareness, empathy, collaboration, respect, accountability, commitment . . .
My experience is that when a team is diverse, the members care more and the team is more complete and well rounded. They are inclusive, they are curious about each other, they are open minded, they believe they can learn from one another, they respect that everybody brings something unique to the table, they collaborate well, and they are accountable to each other.
As a woman who has held leadership roles in business for 25 years, there have been times when I didn’t feel like I belonged. I saw male peers invited to golf outings at all-male golf clubs, helping to advance their careers…I’ve even been asked to step out of an executive meeting so that men can share sexist jokes.
Nearly everybody has been excluded (or worse) at one time or another for a whole host of reasons. Some people have been considered outsiders because of their gender, their race, or their sexual/gender orientation. Some have felt excluded because they are introverts or have “nerdy” interests, or because they’re vegan or don’t drink alcohol. It’s terrible and demoralizing to feel like you’re on the outside. And when you do, you can become distracted, disillusioned and disaffected – none of which is conducive to high productivity.
I wanted something better for Mariana.
I wanted people to show up for work excited to tackle our challenges. I wanted them to feel valued. I wanted them to feel responsible. I wanted them to feel accountable and empowered. And I knew that if we could create an environment that delivered all that to the team, that the team would deliver for the company. I’ve always believed that small teams can move mountains. If we can shed the nonsense, the fear, the discomfort, the insecurity, then we can work miracles. Our small startups can loom large and take on Goliaths if given the chance.
Over the years I have spoken to business associates who think diversity is an HR goal, or a moral obligation. It may in fact be those, but simply put, it’s good for business. And when leaders accept that, there should be no choice but to pursue a path of diversity. Last fall, the WSJ published the results of an analysis that proved just that. It demonstrated that companies with diverse and inclusive cultures yielded stronger financial performance than companies without such cultures.
I have also heard many executives express a desire to improve diversity, but make excuses as to how difficult or time consuming or costly it is. Well, that is likely true if they are not willing to change their approach to attract a wider range of talent. At Mariana I learned that while of course managers have to work hard to find top talent, we managed to hire highly-sought-after diverse candidates in a booming economy. There is no shortage of super-qualified women or Black and Brown or LGBTQ people; it’s simply important to be thoughtful and creative to discover the best paths.
Some of the specific actions we took at Mariana included:
- Defining Culture. We created – and institutionalized – our mission and values that focused on diversity and the qualities that diversity breeds. Those became the cornerstone of our culture.
- Sourcing candidates. We hired search firms with a strong track record placing diverse candidates. We leaned heavily on our colleagues to drive referrals, knowing they would refer people who shared our value system. We were creative about discovering other sources of talent – meet-ups, universities, professional organizations.
- Interviewing/Assessing candidates. We started the interview process with a culture interview to determine if the candidate possessed the values we cherish. It was important to do that at the beginning of the interview process so as not to waste anybody’s time hiring the wrong employee. We also included peer interviews – another critical check in the process. If team members had serious reservations about hiring a candidate – and for reasons that could be explained – it would have been unconscionable to hire that person and make our colleagues uncomfortable.
- Including values assessments in reviews. For our values to have teeth beyond the hiring process, we had to make sure that people were accountable to them.
- Encouraging anonymous questions at team meetings. We used a tool to make it safe for people to ask hard questions to the management team. And it was used! As CEO, sometimes it wasn’t fun to get those questions, but we never failed to answer them and they made us better managers and better people.
- Being human. Everybody hits a rough patch now and then. What’s considered important or a crisis isn’t necessarily the same for everybody. We listened. We heard. And we were flexible with the rules when appropriate.
- Walking the walk. We worked on inclusivity all the time. We encouraged shy people to find their voice in a way that was comfortable for them. We supported each other’s charities. We made sure that menus at company events reflected everybody’s needs. We were there for each other.
As we witness the world waking up and coming together to address systemic racism, we are seeing that when people care enough to put their minds to it, and are brave enough to step up, they can create massive change quickly. I urge everybody to take a hard look at the diversity in your companies. Quantify it. Benchmark it. And make it a priority to improve.
It is the right thing, AND it has the added benefit of strengthening your business.