Michelle Palmer: ‘Building diverse teams is not about building Noah’s Ark but harnessing the power of different perspectives’

To answer the question of how tech entrepreneurs can recruit diverse talent, they must first ask why this is important to them.

Building diverse teams is not about assembling Noah’s Ark. It is about harnessing the power of different perspectives. Cognitive diversity moves companies away from accepting the status quo and challenges established norms. This sets the stage for unlocking innovation, yielding breakthrough results.

I have worked with many terrific entrepreneurs over the years, and those who achieve game-changing results genuinely understand the importance of diversity. Leaders who reject homophily (selecting in your own image) and groupthink are able to spawn innovations more quickly than rivals.

When these leaders truly understand the benefits, the drive to find, attract and retain diverse talent becomes more achievable. The boldest leaders will look beyond their immediate locale to the global pool of talent. Relocation and sponsorship are not seen as barriers, rather stepping stones to enable access to the best.

Identify what skills you need

Move away from “I want people with X years’ experience of this tech and a graduate with a given degree score from these universities”. Instead, focus on traits that would make candidates successful, such as intellectual curiosity and rigour, initiative, collaboration skills, commitment, and technical knowhow.

How you assess these attributes is crucial. For example, for coding roles, move away from time-boxed, monitored online tests in favour of take-home exercises where a candidate can invest time as they see fit over the course of, say, a week.

Be flexible in the coding language choices. Perhaps your ideal candidate does not know Java but they can ace the exercise in another object-orientated language such as C++ and then cross-train.

Spend time determining how you will ensure a fair and consistent interview experience for each candidate. Be consistent with the topics that are covered, the assessments performed and, most importantly, the assessors involved.

Diversity means ensuring that you make space on your team to support outliers. I started my IT career working alongside an excellent colleague who had graduated from Cambridge university with a degree in modern and medieval languages. Were it not for the creativity of our employer, she would have been given a short shrift. Instead, she has gone on to a successful career as a senior leader in corporate IT.

How to attract the right employees

Start with demonstrating consciousness about a candidate’s first experience of your company.

How is your company viewed externally, from Glassdoor — a platform where employees review their businesses anonymously — to your website to social media? Is your content representative of your culture, your values and your workforce? These channels must be a reflection of your brand and values.

Also think about the candidate journey and each encounter they have with you, your team or any suppliers you have working on your behalf. Do these people genuinely understand why diversity is important to your business and are they in tune with their unconscious biases — those snap judgments people make based on life experiences?

As a twenty-something attending an interview with an investment bank at the turn of the millennium, I was directed by the receptionist to sit in the waiting area with four men in suits and two fairly casually dressed women. All were Caucasian.

The interviewer, an older, well-spoken gentleman first approached the men, asking for a “Dr Palmer”. Receiving negative responses, he then moved to the two women. Only then did he realise that “Dr Palmer” was the mixed-race woman in the navy suit.

We all exercise bias — it is impossible not to — but the key is to recognise your own and then challenge it as you go about your decision-making. Ensure that every candidate experiences a consistent approach to interview and ensure that every part of your hiring team is onboard.

Beware political correctness

Nothing kills diversity quicker than a box-ticking exercise — the impact on those who are truly affected by the subject will be one ultimately of fatigue and dissent. No one wants to be objectified as a corporate social responsibility publicity stunt.

It is important to surround yourself with highly capable staff with differing viewpoints who are confident to respectfully challenge your business and its ambitions. Success comes from hiring passionate advocates working across your business, not people merely handed mandates to perform tasks.

Michelle Palmer is founder and chief executive of the Difference Engine, a global executive search company, and a mentor with the Imperial College Ventures Mentoring Scheme (IVMS)

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