How to build more diverse IT teams: 3 strategies

Tech diversity demands creative tactics by CIOs
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Business leaders are tuning into the quantifiable benefits of workforce diversity, which have nothing to do really with arguments of what is the right thing to do or what is fair. While those arguments matter to society at large, businesses tend to focus on what will impact the bottom line. And, thankfully, the bottom line value of diversity is huge, according to studies from organizations including Morgan Stanley, The World Economic Forum, and McKinsey. 

The increasing awareness that inclusivity is good for business sparks critical questions for leaders, including CIOs, who must create the environments to retain diverse teams.

[Want more on shaping your team? See our related article, A CIO's leadership advice for female executives.]

Before we dive into the questions CIOs should ask to successfully lead inclusive teams, let’s cover why they should do so. McKinsey found that gender diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to outperform, while ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to outperform. CIOs can help their companies realize that potential by fostering diversity within their teams.

Examine these three questions:

1.  Am I seeking to understand?

Inclusion starts first with understanding, then acceptance, and ultimately empathy and compassion. But it’s hard to develop empathy and compassion for someone if you don’t know what it’s like to be them, what they might be challenged with, and what shaped them.

When my son starts school each year, the teachers dedicate several days for the kids to tell stories about themselves. My son didn’t like this at first, but about three days in, he realized his community of friends had expanded and he had developed a greater level of compassion for the kids in his grade. This has served him well in a school heavily focused on project-based learning – an environment much like work. 

CIOs can do this, too. Be genuinely curious without judgment, and others will open up. Ask questions like:

  • What was it like growing up in China, India, Egypt...?
  • What are the cultural differences you’ve had to work around coming here?
  • Do you see this problem we have in front of us differently than I describe it? How and why?

You can also invest in structured icebreakers around diversity for your teams. For example, take a Friday afternoon and:

  • Have your team watch “It Aint Pretty” or “She Started It,” or ask them to read the McKinsey report on women in the workforce, and then discuss it.
  • Invite YearUp to talk to the company about its inner-city programs around training underprivileged youth to gain tech skills.
  • Implement reverse mentoring by pairing Millennials with Boomers or GenX’ers.

2. Am I helping my team to envision the future?

We know from studying women in the workplace that they suffer self-doubt that holds them back. In my opinion, other under-represented groups do the same. We don’t see others like ourselves advance, and so we are cautious about pushing forward. 

There are ways to pull anyone forward, though. Start your 1:1 meetings with, “What do you want to talk about?” If employees aren’t all over that opportunity, ask questions like:

  • What are you working on that excites you?
  • What hurdles have you overcome recently?
  • What is your stretch goal with this project, this year, or this role?
  • What skills are you hoping to build next?” 

When you need to have a difficult conversation that involves criticism, try “feeding forward” instead of “giving feedback.” Feeding forward focuses on the future, with questions like:

  • Did that go as well as you would have liked?
  • Knowing what you know now, how would you approach it differently? 
  • How else could you apply this new skill or experience and build on it?

If people trust they can make mistakes and grow with your guidance, they will be honest with what they need to do. 

Finally, ask your staff about the future. 

  • Are there roles here you want to strive for?
  • What do you think might stop you from achieving that?

3. Am I enabling my “diversity developers?”

Finally, let’s say you got that diverse individual hire (perhaps one African-American man among a sea of white women). One of the most common reasons individuals from under-represented groups cite when they opt out of a college major or a job opportunity is not having others like themselves to help keep them there. It’s lonely being the only one. 

PayPal conducted a study of 1,000 managers with five or more employees under them, which showed that women managers had twice the number of women on their teams as male managers did. What PayPal realized, and what other studies indicate, is that when you find diversity developers or diversity magnets, you need to nurture them, learn from them, enable their efforts, and engage them in bringing on other diverse hires to boost everyone’s chances for success. 

To do that, make sure these employees know when positions are open, and advocate for the qualified candidates they put forth. This is something leaders who represent the majority can do more effectively than employees of under-represented groups. According to a study cited in Harvard Business Review, women and minorities are often penalized for promoting diversity at work, making it imperative that CIOs enable diversity developers by listening and acting themselves.

Given the bottom-line implications of workforce diversity, CIOs need to be more proactive in creating and fostering inclusive teams. By incorporating the above questions into your leadership practice, you can move your organization in the right direction.

Coco Brown is founder and CEO of The Athena Alliance, an organization dedicated to advancing diversity in the boardroom by preparing executive women for board service and facilitating board matches.