When building teams diversity is the key


cupA typical mistake hiring managers make when building a team is to aim for the best person for each and every position, but anyone who follows sports knows that it’s not the most talented team, say the Kansas City Chiefs, that wins. It’s the New England Patriots.

Back when the Patriots played the heavily favored Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl in 2001 I knew the Pats would win before the coin flip. How? Because Bill Belichick flouted NFL tradition, by not introducing his offensive team. No he didn’t introduce his defense or even his special teams. The entire 53 man team ran out onto the field! That said it all. As Lao Tse said, “Battles are won before they start.” Belichick’s “team-first” philosophy beat the “Greatest Show on Turf” because he didn’t hire for the most talent, he hired for intelligence, for grit, for willingness to play any position, and most importantly, for the ability to put the team first.

So what does this have to do with your startup? Read the Fast Company article by Scott E; Page Want to hire the best team? Don’t hire the “best” people, sub-titled Hiring high performers doesn’t always lead to great results. The article is based on the book by Scott E. Page, The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy.

Yet the fallacy of meritocracy persists. Corporations, nonprofits, governments, universities, and even preschools test, score, and hire the “best.” This all but guarantees not creating the best team. Ranking people by common criteria produces homogeneity. And when biases creep in, it results in people who look like those making the decisions. That’s not likely to lead to breakthroughs. As Astro Teller, CEO of X, the “moonshot factory” at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has said: “Having people who have different mental perspectives is what’s important. If you want to explore things you haven’t explored, having people who look just like you and think just like you is not the best way.” We must see the forest.

The complexity of modern problems  often precludes any one person from fully understanding them. Factors contributing to rising obesity levels, for example, include transportation systems and infrastructure, media, convenience foods, changing social norms, human biology, and psychological factors.

So how do you hire for the best team if it’s not the process of hiring a bunch of the best specialists? You need to act like Bill Belichick – hire for team fit, after you have made sure the candidate checks off the necessary expertise and experience boxes. The best way to insure that I’ve found is to involve not only the team but staff whose function is orthogonal to the team – they have no vested interest in filling a position, as the team leader and team members may have. So I might ask the CFO to interview a candidate for a graphic artist position or a programmer to join the interviewing process for a marketer or sales person. Back to our friend Alan Kay’s statement, Perspective is worth 80 IQ points.

Another technique is to dive into the candidate’s background, below the shiny surface of recent jobs and academic accomplishments. Do they play sports? Is it an individual sport like golf or swimming or a team sport like basketball or baseball? If their entire sporting life consists of individual sports experience they may not work well in teams. What are their interests beyond work and family? Do they display curiosity? A wealth of interests or a narrow slice?

Many ideas come from group sessions where each person builds on the previous statements of others. There are no “mistakes” or “wrong answers”, rather every attempt at solving the problem can be thought of a stepping stone to reaching the solution. How does your job candidate function in groups?

Attempting to “hire the best’ inevitably leads to ranking. In the field of neuroscience upwards of 50,000 papers were published last year. How could you possibly rank the authors of all those papers? “Optimal hiring depends on context. Optimal teams will be diverse.”

Let’s be clear that hiring for diversity should not be confused with treating women and minorities equally – that’s table stakes. The winning teams will meet or exceed that type of standard by digging deep into candidate’s lives, not just their resumes.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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