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What Lunch with College Students Taught Me about Diversity

Diversity of experiences improves team performance

I was recently on a college trip with my daughter and saw first-hand how diversity can improve team performance. We were at Middlebury College in Vermont, a traditional liberal arts college founded in 1800. We were having lunch in a student dining hall and joined a table with two students who were working intently on an important project: the NY Times crossword puzzle.

I have always been impressed by people who could do crossword puzzles. Maybe because I am really bad at them. When I was a freshman in college, I would watch with awe a group of upperclassmen do the NY Times crossword every lunch. A team of 3 or 4 of them would complete it in 10-12 minutes tops while eating lunch. They would time themselves. They used pens, and would scoff at anyone who dared to bring a pencil or an eraser. No internet. No Google. Just their minds and the collective wisdom of the group.

These two Middlebury students were doing the same thing, and were almost finished with the crossword. One said to the other, “So it’s just down to the last word,” and somewhat exasperated, seemed ready to give up. I asked what word they were seeking. He said,

“It’s a web address. 3 letters and ends in L.”

As someone who works in technology and lives in Silicon Valley, the answer was so obviously “URL”, that I assumed they had already considered that and dismissed it. That would be too easy and these guys were good. So before I could even look at the crossword for other clues, my wife from the other side of the table says “URL.” They both said excitedly, “That’s it! We got it!”

So how could two intelligent college students solve the entire NY Times crossword puzzle and miss (IMHO) the easiest and probably the only word I could get? How could I assume they must have known that word and already dismissed it as the right answer? We came from very different worlds and were living in our sheltered and comfortable bubbles. The solution to improve our performance?

Diversity of experience.

LinkedIn recently published their Global Recruiting Trends for 2018, and it was not surprising that Diversity was the dominant trend in recruiting, with 78% of companies rating it as “Very/Extremely Important.” But diversity is not just racial or gender diversity, its experiences and perspectives. Different people who come from different backgrounds and experiences bring different perspectives to every conversation and decision, which in general leads to better decision-making and better company performance. Hiring diversity is not enough. You need to foster an environment where these diverse opinions and experiences are welcomed and valued for what they bring.

When I was hired into Taleo as CMO, the CEO said that one of the things he really liked about me was that I was not from Peoplesoft, where most of the current management team and employees had come from. I brought a different perspective and set of experiences from companies like Sun, Sybase and JasperSoft. This was reinforced when I interviewed with the head of International. He said he was looking for someone with solid international experience because Peoplesoft didn’t do much international business. Peoplesoft was a great company built by a great team, but too much of a good thing can be a bad thing because its the same thing.

My very first executive meeting at Taleo on my first day, the executive team was talking about whether to enter into a new business area where there seemed to be a lot of customer demand. All the execs were very negative on this business, saying it had been tried at Peoplesoft and had failed repeatedly. I added that I didn’t know much about this specific business, but in my experience, where you saw a lot of demand, but could not build a sustainable business could be because it would not fly as a standalone solution. It needed to be part of a bigger solution. They looked at me like I was from Mars, and I wondered if I had stepped out of line. Two years later, with some additional perspective and analysis, we got into that business as an integrated part of our product suite and it became very successful.

Openness to other opinions and experiences is incredibly important to building a GTM team that functions as a cohesive unit. Sales, Marketing, Sales Development and IT are all very different worlds with different goals, different personalities and different ways of working together. But they all need to come together to get GTM right and drive rapid growth. That can’t happen if there is not acceptance and respect for the different experiences and perspectives that each member of the team brings from their functional area.

Build a culture that solicits and accepts other points of view, otherwise hiring diversity is useless and will deliver no value to the company except to prop up HR’s diversity charts. Whether you are doing crosswords or growing a company, diversity of opinions and experiences will always improve performance.

As we wrapped up lunch with the Middlebury students, they thanked us for helping out with the crossword. As the students got up, one said, “Teamwork makes the dream work.”

How true that is.

Al Campa is Founder of Rocket Scale, which advises companies on how to accelerate revenue with powerful go-to-market engines. He can be reached via www.rocketscale.net.

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