“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together” – Malcolm Forbes
Studies show the correlation between diversity and innovation. Yet Silicon Valley, the cradle of tech innovation, portrays the image of a “bro-grammer” culture where 20-something white guys work in a testosterone-fueled environment to create the next technology revolution. This sends a confusing message to leaders – fostering diversity is good for you in theory, but it is hard work, and it is not how the cool kids do it.
In this blog, I want to make a different argument: Working on a diverse team is delightful! Leaders can use team diversity to enhance their employee engagement.
Let me share with you some examples of delightful diversity in the Design and Co-Innovation Center (DCC) here at SAP.
SAP is a global company, and we work with colleagues and customers all over the world. Even in one location, we have team members from diverse counties of origin. It is not unusual to hear different languages and accents in the hallway.
For example, in the DCC in Palo Alto, we have 25 colleagues who speak 19 languages among us. And this translates to tangible customer value. When assigning team members to projects, we consider languages spoken in addition to domain knowledge, skill set and availability. This diversity enables us to delight the customer in unexpected ways.
Case in point: A few months ago, a customer delegation visited us from Thailand to learn about our design process, and we were able to present to them in Thai. This was a pleasant surprise to the customer who had expected English. The customer’s group appreciated us going the extra mile, and this gesture enabled us to establish a deeper connection to them. Of course, this was only made possible by the multi-lingual nature of our team.
We celebrate our cultural diversity by observing the various regional celebrations during our team meetings. Here are some of our team celebrations from the last two years:
Christmas with German Glühwein (festive wine)
Diwali with mithai sweets
Nowruz (the Persian new year) with Haft Seen (the seven traditional table settings)
Rosh Hashanah with honey and apples
Chinese New Year with red envelopes and chocolate gold coins (similar to Hanukkah gelt)
Chinese moon festival with moon cakes
Thanksgiving cross-cultural potluck
Halloween with costumes and candy
This diversity comes with small inconveniences. When organizing team lunches or dinners, we make it a point to accommodate everyone’s dietary restrictions and preferences — whether it is someone who is a vegetarian or someone fasting for Ramadan. It is worth the extra step to accommodate our diversity.
In the DCC we have team members who are recent university graduates, and those with over two decades of experience. We assign experienced mentors to new employees to accelerate their learning curve. Interestingly, we find the experienced team members learn as much from the new graduates as the other way around. This generational diversity has to be managed carefully, so the experienced employees do not feel threatened or devalued, and the new employees are integrated quickly and start to feel productive.
We foster a culture of team reviews where we openly share our work and invite feedback from peers. Good feedback can come from anyone, regardless of his or her seniority. This reinforces our focus on learning, and it inspires our team every day.
Of course, this generational diversity means we have to be thoughtful in picking team-building activities. To be inclusive, we request the team members to suggest activities, and the team votes to pick a winner. Recently, we went through this process and the activity that won was a graffiti workshop in San Francisco. It took us a few weeks to go through the selection process but it was worth it, since everyone felt included and had a great time.
In our team, we don’t entertain any stereotypical view of gender. We have strong women and empathetic men just as we have strong men and empathetic women. What unites us is our love for design and our customer focus. As a female leader, I strive to set a good example by being authentic in my leadership style. Compassion, empathy, professionalism, customer focus and design excellence are values we live by regardless of gender.
Our focus on family benefits all. We have new moms and dads in the team, and people in different stages of life. We consider a team member’s personal commitments and plan project work or travel around it. It adds an additional layer of complexity in planning, but is worth it since it builds strong bonds in the team.
We invite family and friends to visit our beautiful open offices in Palo Alto. We have had our team members’ children, spouses, siblings, parents, in-laws, aunts and uncles stop by. We take the time to show them our work and explain to them what we do. I personally love to do this, since it helps me articulate our message of design innovation in simple words that will resonate with a non-technical audience. We keep our team table stocked with treats such as fruit bars and baked goods, so visitors feel welcome, embodying our team’s empathy and service mindset.
To conclude, working in a diverse team is delightful, and you are missing out if your team is not! If you are inspired to make your team more diverse, check out my next blog Diversity by Design.