It may be easy to look at your team and think you’ve cracked the diversity code based on the visual representation of or known differences in backgrounds, perspectives, education levels, cultures, and histories. But when you dive a little deeper, it is important to ask — Is this team truly exposed to a diverse range of voices, experiences, and opinions, and are we really listening when we hear a new viewpoint?
Exposure and true listening — are the keys to continual growth in diversity and inclusion in every organization, but especially in the technology industry.
When it comes to the tech world, we’ve made much-needed progress, but there is still work to be done.
Many people I’ve hired have come from CPG (consumer packaged goods) consulting backgrounds, they bring their varied knowledge, experience, and expertise to Reynolds without having to learn it anew. I have found that having a background in other categories or different portfolios brings that outside perspective into our team and helps us expand the way we think. This is something I learned from my own move into the company – I worked at Coca-Cola for 26 years. I’ve been able to apply best practices, strategies, and solutions here at the Reynolds American companies (Reynolds) in a fraction of the time it took me to do the same thing at Coca-Cola. Equally important is that we grow diversity by strengthening from the inside. We bring in external expertise to develop our internal teams while leveraging our existing employees’ vast business knowledge. It is a balance between bringing in new ideas while leveraging the knowledge and experience of our existing teams.
“Best in class technology expertise and best in class company knowledge is a winning combination.”
Ultimately, though, diversity comes from active inclusion. How comfortable do different groups of people feel, not only in our industry but also in our company? How can you—as a leader, colleague, and friend—ensure everyone feels invited, valued, and listened to?
Some tried-and-tested methods include active listening, encouraging participation, and building trust within a team — especially when inviting in perspectives that may not have previously been appropriately received and respected. This all comes down to learning and understanding the personalities and experiences of different team members. That quiet, introverted data analyst who rarely speaks up in meetings may just need some time to process an answer. Try giving them a little warning by saying something as simple as, “Hey, when we finish this, I’m going to ask your opinion.”
Or maybe, a team member is conflict-averse as a result of being previously shut down, merely ignored, spoken over, or not listened to when raising issues or offering valuable perspective in a previous job or life experience. In these situations, inviting and coaching someone to speak up despite discomfort and reminding them their input is wanted builds trust and enforces the idea that they can and should offer opinions consistently.
As a leader, it is your job to ensure you are cultivating an accepting and inclusive environment — and creating a better team because of this diversity — by encouraging everybody to speak up. This is one of the most impactful ways to make a difference each day in any industry.
It all starts from the top
We all look up to people. We’ve done it our entire lives. We admire the people we see in the roles we aspire to be in, both personally and professionally. You, as a leader, are a role model for your team, so diversity and inclusion within the leadership team is critical, both in what your team sees and the variety of opinions they hear. It is critically important for under-represented individuals and groups to see many people who they feel represent them in leadership and groundbreaking roles for diversity to continue to grow.
As a leadership team, we continually work to set this example. We strive to create an environment of trust, vulnerability, and supportiveness where we can go to one another with a concern and find a solution together in a constructive way that reflects how we welcome all varieties of input.
Behaviors and attitudes at the top inevitably trickle down to employees. So, when we as leaders can speak up and share our opinions openly, our staff should also be able to. One interesting method we’ve tried at Reynolds among our leadership team is a pseudo ‘speed dating’ approach to meet and hear everyone on the team. It’s a simple exercise where each person speaks to everyone on the team for 15 minutes, welcoming their new perspective while also providing the opportunity to give constructive peer-to-peer feedback privately.
It has not only aided participants’ personal development but also built trust within the team. Everyone leaves these experiences knowing they can always share ideas and learn how to take and give impactful feedback without doing so in a way that quiets voices we all need to hear and respect. Because of the success we felt and the trust we developed through this, I am having my team go through the same process to learn how we can hear one another better and cultivate diverse opinions and voices with more confidence.
“If you see it in leadership, others in the environment will follow suit”
Breaking stereotypes and tackling the problem at its source
Of course, one of the biggest challenges we face in the tech industry is addressing the disproportionate number of female and minority talent. While you may be making every effort to increase the representation of these groups in your team — encouraging these groups to dive into new roles, inviting and listening to their perspectives, and applying their feedback and advice when it’s given — the problem will never be truly solved unless it is fixed at its source.
I’ve seen it with my daughter. She has a passion for robotics and even joined a Lego robotics program at her school growing up. At the time, she was the only girl and would often come home and tell me that she felt a little insecure among all the boys who had been there longer and who she felt knew more than her. But thanks to a fantastic teacher who helped her to realize that everyone has a different skill to offer – one of hers being organization – she felt valued and began to thrive. Two years later and she was the one walking around with the clipboard helping to lead the program!
Others face barriers that are even more fundamental. At my previous company, I worked on various outreach programs and saw for myself how common it was for those in disadvantaged communities to live in homes without laptops or PCs. How can we expect people to develop a passion for technology when they don’t even have access to it? Clearly, if we want to diversify the future tech talent pipeline, then we must take positive actions to welcome and include people from traditionally ostracized groups. And, as the two examples above demonstrate, those actions are likely to be very different depending on the specific barriers individuals face.
When I think back to my time at engineering school at Georgia Tech, when there were just three women in a class of 300, it’s clear that the tech industry has made some massive improvements. But in the end, when I look at the tech talent pool, there’s still a huge opportunity for growth.
It’s all about creating a team with diverse work and life experiences who have the confidence to speak up and challenge opinions. And it’s about leadership being able to truly hear those perspectives.
If you’re interested in being part of it, join me at reynoldsamerican.com/careers or follow my page for future blogs.
Aaron Gwinner – SVP & Chief Information Officer