How to drive diversity and sustainability

Written by
Chris Molloy

12 Apr 2016

12 Apr 2016 • by Chris Molloy

An evolution of diversity

Charles Darwin described it in this way: “During the modification of the descendants of any one species…the more diversified [they] become, the better will be their chance of succeeding in the battle of life”. The battle we fight in business is for quality of ideas and the ability to take them and make something happen.  This is the difference between winning and losing.

Survival of the ‘fittest’ is actually about fitting into a gap, not about ‘fitting in’ with the majority. The same applies to building a successful team.  You need a diversity of ideas and backgrounds able to exploit a variety of niches. The importance of diverse teams is well understood, so the message on diversity is much more than ‘we really should increase diversity’ because we are betting against a few billion years of evolution if we don’t try.

Focus on the gender agenda

Most of the focus in diversity is on the ‘gender agenda’. This must continue until there is a balanced level of male plus female thinking across all levels of business, particularly at the board, from where the culture of the business flows. Progress at Board level is achingly slow but seems at least to be inexorable. The more we support women in leadership, without first insisting they adopt the ideas and mentality of the current Board, the faster positive change will come. However there is more to diversity than gender: the vigour of youth and the experience of age are valuable additions to any team. Also experience in allied industries can add a significant amount of insight, which I have written on before. 


Even elite teams need diversity

The competition for quality of thought and deed is poorly delivered under conditions of group-think and team uniformity. Humans did get to the moon and back but Dr. Meredith Belbin coined the term 'Apollo Syndrome'  to highlight an underperforming team of ‘experts’. This elite team could have performed better if it had been more rounded and diverse. 

Fit to the gap in the team, not to the majority of the team. All too often ‘fit to the team’ is expressed in terms of similarity or compatibility to the existing group.  The tendency to hire ‘people like me’ is a very strong human trait. A key role of HR is to identify the gaps in a team and promote to the business areas where diversity can and should be added.

Getting buy-in to hire people unlike me

Investigating team behaviour as a precursor to a hiring process can actually bind team members into diversity. By understanding themselves and their team better they can recognise the need for someone ‘different’ and will engage in interviews in the right manner. Rather than selecting the people like them, they may interview for and select people different to them. They will also engage in the vital onboarding process rather than expressing concern about why the new person is so different. 

Challenges to overcome

In tech companies and start-ups this is an even bigger problem. Venture Capitalists are 89% white males and 73% of non-executive directors get their first roles through friends rather than structured hiring. 

These factors lead to Boards in the biotech sector for example that are 80% male and have an average age of over 60. If Boards continue to rebuild themselves in their current image they risk the long-term equity value of their companies and provide the cover for others in their businesses to overlook diversity too. RSA’s recent talent equity report on biotech boards shows just how dangerous this can be.

Evolution teaches us that diversity builds long-term strength, robustness and the ability to survive through changing times. Diversity should be seen as a core business requirement, not political correctness, and as the natural survival requirement of every Board, Executive and team.