In my inbox is a piece from The Guardian** about the importance of diversity in team-building. Beneath it, a press release from a charity about the appointment of their next CEO.
The next CEO of the charity is the previous CEO of another charity.
To repeat that: they’ve appointed a CEO whose past experience is of being a CEO. Under “relevant experience”, this person would have written “I’ve been a CEO before” rather than, for example, “I have experience of, or even familiarity with, the work of your charity.”
There’s a “CEO community” and this person is a member of it. A “charity CEO community”, in fact.
The Guardian’s piece on diversity makes the point that if you build a team of CEOs, charity CEOs, you’ll only get one mindset. Everybody will come up with roughly the same solutions to problems – sorry, challenges.
Not in those terms, you understand; the subject wasn’t CEOs and nor was it charities. Teams. Diversity.
My post today is partly about team-building – and let’s agree that a CEO is a member of a team – and partly about diversity. My argument is that (1) the most effective teams have diverse people in them, and (2) the departure of a key person is an opportunity to diversify. To cast the net widely. Not to recruit the same person again.
The photograph above The Guardian’s piece shows a team of people – I guess they’re a team because they’re standing and sitting in a sunlit open-plan warehouse-type office reminiscent of Anne Hathaway’s workspace in The Intern (2005) – a team happy in their diversity: more than one gender is represented, as is more than one skin colour.
There’s a person in a wheelchair, and one of the guys might be ten – five? – years older than the rest of the group. No grey hair, nobody above a fashionable age (and no teenage climate-change activists either), but it’s a good effort.
There's an idea of diversity that isn't the real thing. And the issue goes beyond the usual suspects. A team of radical feminists would all think the same way, as would – oh, here we go, can’t keep them out – any group of fifty-something men in grey suits gathered around a boardroom table.
The idea isn’t that the radical feminists should hire a recruitment agency to find them an Oxbridge-educated public-school boy for their next vacancy, but that the recruitment process should be without bias. Beyond relevant experience – the England football team doesn’t need hockey players – anything should be possible.
If I was recruiting for the mission-critical enterprise that gives me my livelihood, in an unpredictably difficult world, I might want to open my mind to the possibility that there might be ideas and insights beyond anything my immediate peer group can offer.
Diversity is a resource. A misunderstood resource and perhaps a misapplied ideal as well. Is there any difference between replacing a fifty-something man in a grey suit with another fifty-something man in a grey suit, and replacing a CEO with a CEO?
Your new CEO might be ten – five? – years younger than your previous CEO, and might not be the same gender, orientation, ethnicity, et cetera – but you’re still replacing like with like. Diversity is more than skin-deep and it depends on more than just the set of reproductive organs that the candidate brings to the interview.
Recruiting people who don’t look like us is a step in the right direction, and with any luck we’ll learn over time that difference can be positive – and full of ideas. But real diversity is about life-experience, personality, imagination, creativity – and a different combination of those in other members of the team.
The case for recruiting somebody different – rather than a new person with the same CV as the old person – is that by doing so, you open up possibility. You widen the horizon.
You’ve got no chance of reaching a new destination if you insist on running the train along the same old tracks. You need somebody with the authority to switch the points. Who actually wants to explore where else you could go. Enough with the train metaphor already.
Maybe we should recruit inspiring people rather than taking our cues from job titles? Subject to certain essentials (“How good are you at football?”), what’s needed is an attitude. You feel strongly about the job; you want to do it; you have some ideas as to how you might do it.
Or maybe we should think about the challenges we face – think about the jobs for which we’re recruiting. If they were really mission-critical, et cetera, we wouldn’t be having these prob– challenges. We’d just do what was necessary to get them done – sharing out tasks according to aptitude.
Teams form naturally in the wild. If you’re a tribe of hunter-gatherers, you build teams around the task of finding lunch. In the interviews, “I provided lunch last week” will be less impressive than “I’m hungry”, especially if last week was Cabbage Surprise (again), and today, you can see the main ingredient for Alligator Creole swimming appetisingly towards you.
And come to think of it – even corporate team-building exercises are built around tasks. You send your middle-managers off to an expensive weekend in the Cairngorms, where an ex-paratrooper will challenge them to get across a river using only a teaspoon, a ball of twine and a cheese-grater – and a team will emerge.
It may not be the team as defined on the business cards, but it’s the real team. Soaking wet, lost the cheese-grater – but working together effectively. Probably laughing their heads off.
Yes. The work is what matters. The task facing the team.
I suppose a CEO might evolve naturally into the role via their work on the team (actually, in the real world, I don’t suppose anything of the sort), and perhaps a CEO’s skills are transferable from caring about waifs to caring about strays (not), but imagine a world in which the work was so worthwhile that we just did it, without managing each other or needing to be managed.
In which work wasn’t boring or pointless or possibly even dehumanising. In which we were all valued for our distinct and individual contributions. And nobody's job was to conduct our performance appraisal.
I mean, come off it.
*”What do they know of England, who only England know?” Question posed by Rudyard Kipling in his 1891 poem The English Flag. If I’d read the poem before I wrote that opening sentence, I think I would have written a different opening sentence. Kipling wasn’t big on diversity.
But there’s an interesting account of George Orwell’s take on the question here – Orwell considered Kipling’s attitudes and views “unforgivable” – and I’m inclined to suggest that if you only know management, you don’t know much about the company you’re managing – the workers, the vision, the day-to-day routines, the relationships with customers and suppliers, the whatever-it-is that makes it a good-enough place to work.
I’ve used Kipling’s question, but my intended meaning is opposite to his.
**Strictly, The Guardian Labs. Content paid for by The Open University. Convincing piece, written by Megan Orpwood-Russell. Sorry about all the asterisks.
The EU want us to be like the EU, so we don’t have a competitive advantage, and our lot want us to be different from the EU, so we do have a competitive advantage. Straightforward negotiation.
Meanwhile, Covid-19 is making it difficult to blame Brexit for whatever’s wrong with the world economy. Something would have turned up, because there are always “events”, but Covid-19 unambiguously sucks the blame away from everything else.
No, we can’t blame Brexit for Germany’s near-recession, nor for the economic slowdown in the UK. Thanks to Covid-19, we now believe that the real weakness in the global economy is supply-chain dependence on a single country beginning with Ch–. Brexit’s not guilty after all.
But never mind all that. We have a prime minister whose principal concern is to ensure that we all wash our hands, and a contagion that threatens to take us all away from our day jobs.
To be struck down with Covid-19 would be a very unpleasant experience, no doubt, but it’s also hitting trade, tourism, finance, international business, Corporate America, the bottom line, profitability, local businesses, cash flow, staff turning up for work … the way we live now.
You wouldn’t want to, but if you did, you couldn’t make this up. In China, the “surveillance economy” has failed to stop Covid-19, and I doubt that 2020 is going to be much of a season for cruise liners or international travel generally. Invest in companies delivering home-office kits and video-conferencing technologies.
We’ve got a new crisis now, but I’d like not to forget how passionately we all* felt about Brexit. Not to go back over it, but we all believed that this was a big-time crisis, et cetera, families split asunder, shouting matches in TV studios, marches, demonstrations, social media, civil war, blah blah endlessly blah. This was the worst thing ever!
Much of that angst was expressed by people who believed that they could see the future. Remember? We were all going to be richer, poorer, deprived of essential supplies, living in a lorry park on the motorway just outside the Dover ferry terminal, signing trade deals all over the world and bringing new meaning to the word “swashbuckling”.
And maybe we are. But none of those forecasts allowed for anything other than Brexit as the event that would cause the future. There was never any mention of – oh, I don’t know, contagious diseases, say. Or indeed anything else.
Bit much to expect a rabid (sorry) Brexiteer/Remainer to foresee Covid-19, but maybe we could learn to dial down the certainty about the future?
To allow for the possibility that we don’t know everything?
Even, to bring a little humility to the self-appointed task of tempting fate?
*”all” in the current sense that in the worst-case scenario, an infection such as Covid-19 or an argument such as Brexit will reach around 80% of the population.