When you hear the word ‘diversity’, do you normally think about hiring, work practice, and contract issues based on gender, race, or ethnicity? A lot of managers and other employees have participated in diversity training and are aware of what it means and its potential benefits.You know that being part of a team with a balance of genders and ethnicities is generally considered to be a positive thing. Although I’ve been through the same type of training as everyone else, I tend to think about the topic a bit differently. I look at team composition and the value of having a mixture of personalities, cultures, backgrounds, and approaches included therein. Both meanings of diversity are equally important, but what is most salient for me is the diversity that helps a team excel.
EDI and eCommerce operational teams often have a built in advantage with respect to diversity. Whereas a supply chain specialist may have majored in supply chain in college and maybe even possesses an advanced degree in the subject, an EDI specialist didn’t get hired for their EDI degree from State U. There is no such thing. EDI people tend to come from all over the place and generally work in the profession because it was a natural fit for their skills, not because they majored in it. Most EDI teams are comprised of people with backgrounds in many other subjects. As I’ve mentioned in the past, members of my team came to us with experience in supply chain, customer service, sourcing, marketing, programming, sales support, project management, and other areas. Granted, our team was pretty big, but I tend to think you’d find a similar mix of backgrounds on any EDI/eCommerce team.
Different personalities are always challenging to mix on a team. People will be on various spots on the continuums of talkativeness, pleasantness, positivity, creativity, intelligence, work ethic, and many other traits. As a manager, you sometimes get the opportunity to hire employees and will certainly try to get a feel for personality as you go through the interview process. A lot of times, though, you end up taking over a group and must play with the hand you’re dealt. Some managers, particularly inexperienced ones, will tend to hire people who are ‘like’ them and will try to weed out people from the team who don’t fit the mold. That can be a serious mistake. Heck, the last thing I wanted was to manage a team comprised of people just like me- managing a bunch of control freaks who all thought they were right all the time would be pretty challenging! Many companies recognize the variances in personalities on teams and provide training in how to identify and interact with those who may be different. The use of Myers-Briggs tests (and similar) is an example of how companies address education for this issue.
Diversity in how problems and other work situations are approached was also something I valued. We had people on the team who were very direct, others who were non-confrontational, some who were analytical (and even hyper-analytical), and a few who were adept at making decisions quicker with less information. Some people liked to step out of their normal routine to work on ad hoc projects and cross functional teams, but several preferred to stay in their comfort zone. In the normal course of a day, these approaches meshed pretty well on our small implementation projects and support activities. However, for large projects and in addressing ‘hot’ problem situations, it was sometimes challenging to keep people who were so different in their approaches focused on the objective and working at the same pace.
The one caveat I’d have in building a diverse team is that it’s best to avoid extremes. For example, It’s good to have an outgoing person in the group, but not someone who is so obnoxiously social that he or she can’t get the work done or interferes with the performance of others. By the same token, quiet people are fine with me, but you can’t be totally uncommunicative. Being analytical is obviously a good trait for an analyst, but taking an inordinate amount of time to complete projects because you’re overanalyzing details may be problematic. Being vocal is usually desirable in an employee, but not if the person interrupts conversation, feels a need to always be vocally negative about changes, or otherwise disrupts team dynamics. We had numerous situations over the year where team performance, individual performance, or team dynamics were impeded by people who were too extreme in their behavior or approach. A key part of our managers’ job was to moderate the extremes on their teams and to mesh the personalities and approaches that existed into a cohesive whole.
So, we understand that diversity not only refers to race and gender, but also encompasses work backgrounds, personality traits, life experiences, and many other things. If you’re a member of a really diverse team, what does that buy you? Well, to begin with, your workplace should be very interesting. Your teammates will have lots to talk about, they’ll have experience in areas you might be unfamiliar with, and they may even have contacts in other departments that can make your job easier. They can draw you out of your comfort zone a bit by attacking problems in ways that might challenge you, but that’s not a bad thing. They’ll also be a source of ongoing on-the-job training and education for you, since they probably have different tools and experiences in their skillsets. From a cultural standpoint, they may expose you to different aspects of their lives that are extremely interesting and valuable to learn. All-in-all, being a member of a diverse team is usually nothing but a positive experience.
As a manager, you’ll find that pretty much all the benefits described in your diversity classes will be realized. Building a diverse team takes work, but the end result is a group whose capabilities and performance exceed the sum of its parts. You have people who come at problems with all sorts of different viewpoints and approaches. You get insight into processes from other teams and businesses due to the variety in your team’s backgrounds. The toolset you have available for projects is greatly expanded since your people have brought not only their EDI and eCommerce skills to the group but also the talents they utilized in other roles. Most valuable to me personally was the wide range of opinions and options I’d hear on almost any subject, from company benefits changes to marketplace challenges to the Cubs-Sox rivalry. There never is a dull moment when you manage a truly diverse group, and more importantly there always is a feeling that you’ll figure something out and will succeed since you have confidence in the breadth and depth of your team’s capabilities.
When you hear ‘diversity’, don’t go on corporate buzzword alert and turn your attention elsewhere. Recognize that a diverse team can be a strong, successful, and fun team that you’ll love being a part of.
Have a great summer!