The quick answer to the question is: No, not if the corporate culture is one that values and supports diversity.
I’ve been struggling with whether or not to write a post on culture. I usually try to make my posts be positive and forward looking. And yet, I can’t write an article on culture without first doing a small rant on what I consider the dark side of culture. The sometimes use of culture to exclude people that don’t “fit”. Even when they might have relevant skills and can add value. As a woman in technology, and now an older woman in technology, on the surface I don’t always look like I “fit”. Though, I guess I’ve been lucky. The teams and environments that I have worked in have been diverse, just by virtue of me being on them. And now, I’m at a point and level in my career, where I can positively impact a culture, not just “fit” into one.
Firstly, I want to delve into the term diversity. For me, diversity is more than just surface characteristics like sex, race, nationality and religion. It is having different outlooks, values, opinions, skills, and talents. Diversity is forged by bringing together people with different experiences. And why it seems to me to be sometimes at odds with culture is because culture strives to be a way we measure that people are more like us than different.
If you take my definition, then a diverse team can be one that brings together a cross-functional team of people from different departments to accomplish a company-wide goal. It can also be a customer project where the team is a collaborative mix of people from your company and the customer.
I’ve done some of my best work when I’ve actually managed projects that sit outside the culture, with a mandate to implement change. With the interesting side effect that end-results have had positive impacts on the culture.
Now, let’s take a look at culture. What is culture? It’s the shared values of an organization. It’s a collection of common processes and practices that come out of experiences – the way we do things around here. It’s how people communicate. It’s the successes we celebrate and the behaviours we discourage. It’s the unspoken norms and beliefs that impact day-to-day decision making. Looking at it this way, culture is neither good nor bad. It’s good if this mix of things supports success and progress. It is bad if it actually stifles people and gets in the way of achieving things. It depends on what it is in the mix.
So, why do I think that we need to embrace diversity as part of the mix in our culture? Because I believe the best way to learn and grow is to reach beyond yourself. If everyone that is around you is exactly like you, then you aren’t likely going to grow. Uniformity does offer stability and consistency, something that you also need in organizations. But if you want to also be improving and growing, then you need to also learn from others with different experiences. It’s actually finding a balance of this sameness and difference that will work for the culture.
The thing about culture in Tech companies is that it can be different at different stages in the company’s growth. There can be a company-wide culture and there can be functional team specific sub-cultures. I think that it’s really important to have a culture that has enough consistency to be a goal post for people, but also be fluid enough to respond to a need to be able to adapt.
I had the opportunity this past winter to participate in some sessions of a round table meetup group called Toronto Lean Coffee that was discussing the Y-Combinator ‘s How to Start a Startup series. While there is a session focused on culture, the real aHas came from an more over-reaching view of the whole program and the final wrap-up in the last session on Later Stage Advice.
With a number of startup founders in the room. A general comment on the Later Stage Advice session was that it’s interesting to look at the things that turn a startup that is project/product based into a company, but… the later stage advice discussed things that didn’t need to be acted on at the point that they were at. For me that is the real dilemma of being a founder – how to hold the short and the long view at the same time. How to identify that things you need to do today that position you to be the company you envision in the future.
Even with all the customer-focused aspects of agile and lean, a tech startup team is mainly made up of an engineering team that is building a product. Hires such as sales, marketing and service teams come later. While a startup is establishing it’s first teams, there is a tendency to build the team based on sameness. When creating a company, the founder wants to build a culture that fits and supports their vision. So bringing people in that immediately fit into the culture is important. And is probably why a lot of new hires for startups are actually referrals.
Yet as a company grows and interacts more and more externally with a growing customer base, the more it needs to respond and adapt to the customer’s demands on the culture. I think that more often than not the customer facing teams are often the most diverse teams within a company because of this fact. They often have to adapt to also fit the customer’s culture. (Of course, unless you only seek out customers that fit your culture, but that can really restrict your market!)
I think that diversity becomes more and more important to a company at later stages when it is trying to grow. Interestingly, one of the comments in the Later Stage Advice session was the need to embrace diversity earlier than most founders do. Because it’s harder to do it the longer a company waits.
A key part of holding the short view and the long view is to look at everything that makes up the startup in this way. So, a Founder has to take a short and long view of both culture and diversity. If they seem to be opposing at times, the key is to always be seeking to find the right balance.