Team Meritocracy? Team Diversity? ~ Can the former be achieved if the latter is a constraint?

“Lessons Learned: Why diversity matters (the meritocracy business)”

Preamble:
First let me acknowledge that the above subtitle has been taken directly from the title of a blog posted originally in February 2010 by Eric Ries ~ @ericries the guru (along with Steve Blank @sgblank) of #lean in web start-ups ~ that came back into focus recently; an event that was the stimulus to write this blog and which led to the choice of wording for the primary title for this blog. More about this below.

In the course of this edition of the MISSIcom blog, and in the context of the title and sub-title, I want to discuss with you some of the related issues underlying such key staffing considerations as I perceive them: Recruiting and Maintaining the best and the brightest; what are the factors to be considered in the effort to achieve a Meritocratic team comprised of an appropriately Diverse group of recruits? Is the goal of building a meritocratic team even capable of achievement if diversity has also to be achieved or are these actually mutually exclusive objectives? What do we mean by meritocracy and what do we mean by diversity?

In regard to recruiting processes, this discussion is not just about being, or even about attempting to be, politically correct in our choices of candidates or even about functioning appropriately under the directives of Affirmative Action nor is it about discrimination or avoiding discrimination per se albeit that we are naturally obliged ethically and morally as well as legally to bear such issues in mind when making recruiting choices. This is about how, in reality as individual human beings charged with responsibility for putting together a team, we most often tend to go about achieving what we individually consider to be a well balanced team of the best, brightest, appropriately most capable staff for most effectively achieving the objectives we have at hand while knowingly functioning within the bounds of these various constraints.

Though the inclusion of a reference to Diversity in the title was not intended to suggest a focus herein solely upon issues arising in comparing men to women in entrepreneurship, we often, when hearing mention of diversity, tend to first think that the discussion is quite likely about the general lack of inclusion of entrepreneurially and/or technically inclined women in the new ventures work force as distinct from any other issue if only because the inclusion of a broad hue of male candidates, relative to any other demographic characteristic, has largely become the norm in recent years yet the proportion of highly educated, experienced and skilled women that are included in consideration, never mind actually ending up being included in the team or even being available for inclusion, is still significantly lagging in relative terms.

In fact, much has suddenly been added to this debate along those lines within just the past week. References to these various recent posts have been added so as to expand awareness of that particular set of issues but this discussion regarding Diversity and Meritocracy is actually much broader than just the issues relative to the inclusion of women in the formation of a team comprised of best and brightest.

Flurry of Posts:
Amongst these recent posts, we noticed that Silicon Valley‘s “The Mercury News” published an article that directly addressed the issue of a lack of women in technology (Harris: “Startup boot camp illustrates dearth of women in tech” – San Jose Mercury News) 07/14/2010. Then, while preparing to write a comment related to Eric Ries’ “Lessons Learned” blog, we become aware of additional just published material touching upon this topic such as a blog in which Brad Feld posted his thoughts on “The Discussion About The Lack of Women in Tech” and Fred Wilson, in his ‘AVC musings of a VC in NYC’ blog, first posted on the subject of “Some Thoughts On The Seed Fund Phenomenon” which drew many observations related to the ‘women entrepreneurs’ issues and subsequently posted his thoughts in reference to the idea for an “XX Combinator” (refers to chromosomes XX or XY, female or male and the already established Y-Combinator for entrepreneurs who, thus far, have tended to be young males rather than females of any age) that was first proposed in a blog by Tereza @terezan where she outlined her idea for an XX Combinator.

Fred Wilson Triggers Avalanche:
The comments that have been drawn to @fredwilson‘s (and @avc) blog in response to the XX Combinator idea have been little short of amazing in both the overall number and the overall high quality of feedback and additional ideas and information. It has been very enlightening and encouraging to notice how many entrepreneurially inclined women literally have come out of the shadows and participated in that feedback. @fredwilson‘s ‘AVC musings…’ blog on this XX Combinator topic (see above) is therefore well worth reading from beginning to end but be aware; it is now quite lengthy which makes it even more worth reading.

Consequently, it seemed more appropriate to consolidate my comments into a MISSIcom blog instead of inserting disconnected comments variously into Fred’s blog or into Tereza’s or Eric’s blog so as to cohesively reflect my own thoughts, experiences and ideas about the related topics in one common place and to add some additional considerations into the debate.

Eric Ries:
The blog by Eric Ries Lessons Learned: Why diversity matters (the meritocracy business) that led to this blog being written reads rather like an outline for a ‘thesis’ on this topic and it promoted a really interesting thread. In his blog, Eric laid out some very challenging, thoughtful ideas on the concept of connecting Meritocracy with Diversity in the hiring choices to be made while attempting to build successful teams: This resulted in attracting a number of equally challenging comments and observations to be offered in response. Eric also referenced a number of books and sources of relevance to this topic as well as highlighting his own direct experience as a start-up founder. I feel that this is a very well articulated article. Eric has put considerable thought and detail into his commentary which also makes it well worth reading.

While Eric makes some very cogent points in his blog, naturally, in such a subjective topic that has been debated for quite some time, of issue is the fact that, aside from substantial research originated within the past 5 years under the auspices of the National Center for Women and Information Technology which deals directly with the issues relevant to women in technology, actual quantifiable data relative to the overall much broader scope underlying issues of Meritocracy versus Diversity to back up or refute the arguments in Eric’s blog are sparse and we are obliged to look to anecdotal experiences for possible relevant indicators rather than turn to any hard facts.

Vivek Wadhwa:
More general studies have been under way including ongoing revealing research by Vivek Wadhwa ~ @vwadhwa who also published a very interesting and relevant article back in February entitled “Silicon Valley: You and Some of Your VC’s have a Gender Problem“. However, lack of supporting statistical data in the context of the blog does not, in any way, detract from the main thrust of Eric’s proposition ~ that meritocracy and diversity are not necessarily mutually exclusive and that the best and brightest teams in any given situation may well be those that are inclusively diverse in makeup as distinct from those that seem to be more clearly homogeneous. Perhaps one could even argue that it all comes down to the meaning of “diversity”.

Diversity:
Note that, in discussing diversity, the issues are far broader than just gender, race, ethnicity, age, culture, sexual orientation for example and certainly far broader than might be implied by considering only those issues involved when all we are doing is simply comparing men against women in the entrepreneurial field and asking why the differences?

Obviously any one of the above characteristics can become an issue and a stumbling block in the effort to build the best and brightest team due to our unconscious prejudices (out of sight, out of mind) holding sway over how we make our choices unless we really commit to being alert and aware to the possibility of such influence playing in our decision processes.

Male<>Female Dichotomy:
Yet the most fundamental unconscious bias arises from the undeniable though simplistic fact that nominally half of us as a potential resource are men, often the ‘half’ that is making the recruiting decisions, and half of us are women who are thus more likely to be the potential recruitees: Add to this the fact that, accept it or not / like it or not, there are such inherently strong cultural biases held in our society against not only the idea of inclusion of women in new ventures but even against seeing women as potential equal partners deserving of equal respect never mind the impact of any other unconscious biases based upon race, age, smarts, appearances, etc., which often leads to the choice being made against rather than for including even a well qualified female candidate; even more so if she is both extremely intelligent and self-determining which is often seen as relatively unattractive.

A particularly sad but undeniable factor in the constraints affecting both the availability as well as the actual inclusion of technologically competent, experienced, skilled women in many teams it that there are still parts of our country that subscribe to the ages old sexist idea of “The Subservient Wife” ~ I shudder at this thought! Amazingly there is actually a book published with that title. With this mentality, even today, in the minds of many parents and areas of society, many young girls in families and schools where life pattern ideas are typically first formed are not only unlikely to be granted any encouragement to pursue technical interests that they may display but will actually be actively discouraged from following such pursuits. Without any nationally broad early stage mentoring, modelling and encouragement for young girls as we have quite naturally for young boys, this leaves the field of budding entrepreneurs inevitably biased towards a preponderance of up and coming young male entrepreneurs.

No Significant Differences in Aspirations:
So while this is not the only question at issue in the debate around characteristics involved in selecting for Meritocracy and Diversity, whatever underlies the male/female dichotomy is an issue about which we need to stay alert when making our choices especially as there actually appears to be no significant difference in the apparent aspirations, intent and commitment of individual “entrepreneurially” inclined men and women – especially so when comparing these aspects of post 40 entrepreneurial adults as distinct from those same aspects of entrepreneurially inclined college age pre-adults – and especially as there appears to be no real biological reason to believe that women are any less capable than men on equivalent levels of learning and capability: Just take a look at this slide presentation created by Terri Oda ~ Very informative since it demonstrates the fallacy of a commonly held misperception about women’s science oriented abilities. How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science? Hint: it doesn’t. In fact, there are many examples now of very successful women led start-ups as well as more and more women successfully breaching the board room and reaching executive ranks in established and in young growing businesses. For an example of the latter, check out the article about Quake Global in the San Diego Tribune about Polina Braunstein.

However, while as yet no definitive conclusion has been reached in regard to any of the specific reasons that might explain disparity in numbers of women entrepreneurs versus the number of men apart from the ever obvious one of cultural expectations in relation to the age-old implicitly established cultural roles of men and women in our society: Nature, nurture, whatever, the question is still open but is under ever increasing study.

From Experiences in Building Winning Teams:
Having now covered the background, my own take on the issues raised by Eric’s observations about selecting potential recruits in my various attempts in differing situations to build dynamic, successful, innovationally driving and driven teams on both sides of the Atlantic over the years is this: Historically, I have always recruited without fear or favor to achieve the aggregation of the best and brightest skills / talent / capabilities / experiences that I can get to be within my team regardless of any other characteristics of those potential recruits and budget considerations aside. I also firmly believe in “small is better” rather than empire building ~ ie: by carefully avoiding adding more staff than necessary to accomplish the objectives. Mark Suster ~ @msuster posted an article about the dangers of overloading a team with too many people on TechCrunch and his blog Both Sides Of The Table under the title “9 women can’t make a baby in a month“.

Obviously, the people one selects have to be compatible with you and the rest of the team but beyond that and their proven competence, I believe it is much more important that you have respect and regard for your team mates and they reciprocate likewise in regard and respect for you. This simply means that you do not have to be “friends” or bosom buddies with them; in fact, as a leader of the team it is usually better that you are merely friendly yet also not standoffish.

First Rate Hire First Rate > Second Rate Hire Less then Second Rate:
There is a well know aphorism – because it represents a sad but true reality – that “First rate people tend to hire only other first rate people whereas second rate tend towards hiring third rate and on down the line”. First rate people know who they are without either arrogance or fear: Not afraid that someone else might challenge them in their work or position, humble in their attitude towards team-mates and others and always keen to help and support where help and support is appropriate whereas, as you go down the line, you find that the second rate, and more and more so with those one would rate lower, tend to be more concerned about their position in the game and with whatever they can take from the game than they are about their contribution  to the game.

Why is this important? The moral of this characterization is simply that you do not allow any hiring to take place by anyone in whom you do not have complete confidence in not only their own abilities but also in their abilities to actually make intelligent hiring choices. By “rate” I’m referring to overall performance capability and team integration characteristics, not just academic and skill based qualifications.

Without making any claims as to my own ‘rating’ – you can be the judge, I want people around me who know more than me and are better than me at least in any of the areas of expertise relevant to accomplishing the objectives before us because that then helps me and the team achieve our objectives far quicker and more reliably than otherwise. Besides, I can, and always do, want to learn, to discover more about what I do not know. But I regard myself as a coach and a people person with practical knowledge of how the game is played and, like my favored guru Peter Drucker, though he has passed on his words and ideas stay with me to guide me in my responsibilities as a manager and team leader. Accordingly, I do not aspire to be the best coder in the team or the best design engineer or the best anything specific in the team other than the best coach, mentor and leader. My goal is to to weave the players together into a cohesive team and my objective is to facilitate the teams ability to accomplish the team goals so of course I want the best and brightest regardless of any other considerations or characteristics. That goes particularly to all of my team mates that join with me in building MISSI in providing our services to our clients.

Confronting Start-Up Team Building:
So when you are confronting a start-up situation, a business growth or turn-around situation, clearly you want to hire and build a team consisting only of  first rate people – the best and the brightest that you can gather around you and, while still in the early stages of building your business you still have the opportunity for maintaining a high threshold in hiring standards: It usually not only is still practical to do that in the early stages of developing a business, it is essential: You are on a journey that has no specific end point as your business flourishes so you must surround yourself with a continuing high level quality of people as committed as you are to the ongoing business development plan.

Nonetheless, more often than not somewhere along the line as a business develops and adds significant numbers of people, becomes established and reaches into maturity stages, the continuous flow of people additions typically ends up diluting that original team of star performers into an “average team”: In fact, many of your early stage star players may have moved on to other opportunities more appealing than those they see for themselves within the perceived confines of the maturing company. Ironically, your team may now be extremely “Diversified” but is actually now so diverse in the worst possible way and consequently is also now anything but “Meritocratic”.

That is where innovation ceases, ingenuity wanes, initiative becomes lost, even discouraged; the bureaucratic mindset creeps in. The original star team that created the company ends up being the average team – if not even worse than average – that now accomplishes no more than simply maintaining the status-quo. It happens as much as because the natural team expansion, as the business grows, so often evolves to eventually include a “Wally” as that it still includes an “Alice” and it has its “Asok” and its pointy haired boss plus it invariably also has its “Dilbert” (thank you Scott Adams) trying to make the best of what he has been given to achieve the objectives. This is what happens when the ego finally rules the roost, short term money goals trump long term vision goals, poor quality gets shipped regardless just to meet month-end or quarterly numbers and the original impetus that led to creation of the business gives way to “business as usual”.

And this is where the turn-around becomes critical: Once again, to achieve such an objective, you have to start by convening a team of best and brightest while weeding out the Wally’s and pointy-hared bosses; inevitably the core mindset has to be changed in a radical fashion if new life is to be brought into play because innovation and ingenuity must be once more respected and promoted.

On the other hand, if your start-up, as it establishes and then matures, not only retains but continually builds upon, and refreshes, the vision upon which it was founded, stays alert to the market it is servicing and there is true high quality team and business leadership in all key areas of the enterprise that is committed to maintaining a high degree of meritocracy across the board, then having once successfully built your team and successfully launched your business, just as long as your leadership continues to grow and be continuously developed across the board at the highest level of competence and capability, your business has the greatest opportunity to keep growing and to survive any unexpected curves in the road ahead. In other words, regardless of the makeup of the team at any point in time, ultimately the degree of meritocracy achieved and maintained will be determined by, and be dependent upon, the overall qualities of the leadership.

So now that we are convinced of what kind of people we need to hire and why we need to hire only them, naturally, attempting to actually hire the best and the brightest is fraught with challenges.

The first core question to be addressed in attempting that objective, would be “How can I ever be sure that my own unconscious biases (read ego) do not influence my choices in regard to whom I would choose to interview and whom I would reject” but that question just considers diversity from stereotypical gender, race, age criteria about which one is supposed to not have any bias. Good luck with that: The reality is that we all do have, to varying degrees, unconscious prejudices based from within our culture of origin and regardless of whether or not we would ever even admit that to ourselves: That is why we have had to introduce laws intended to prevent discrimination and promote affirmative action; to encourage recruiting to be based upon choices for competency and ability as distinct from choices being made based upon the ‘People Like Us’ mentality.

Of course, this does not mean that you have to add into your team any individual, male, female, Black, White, Asian, Latino, tall, short, fat, thin or whatever just for the sake of achieving apparent diversity where such inclusion would tend to have a disruptive influence on the cohesion and spirit of the team or on the collaborative and cooperative nature amongst all team members: Firstly that is not what achieving diversity means and secondly, if a potential recruit show signs of having an inherently disruptive personality relative to the rest of the team, then clearly regardless of however well qualified and competent they may otherwise seem be on paper they are clearly not appropriately qualified, competent or compatible enough to become a member of the team.

Inevitably, not everyone is temperamentally compatible with everyone else regardless of any other consideration, but at least if we can acknowledge to our self, while looking through résumés of prospective candidates, the possibility of our holding any form of bias, we can then at least make a conscious effort to remind ourselves to stay aware and alert against allowing such judgement to interfere with our choices or otherwise, even if a we have a really good candidate before us, we might yet fail to recognize them as such.

Sometimes it is even possible that a person that may initially appear on the surface to not be a good fit can actually be a great asset once established within the team; not everyone creates a good first impression for a variety of reasons that may have nothing to do with their actual competence and ability to contribute to the team.

Which brings us to the second core question: What about diversity of thought, experience, even culture – our own and that of our potential candidates? The characteristics that still define a person but have nothing to do with the former group of criteria? Where diversity of the latter kind becomes very important – even to the extent that its importance transcends biases, conscious or otherwise, about gender, race, age, etc., is when you consider “what is the make up of my target audience?” Who are the potential customers for my products or services? What is that profile?

In conclusion, given all of the inevitable natural human nature obstacles as well as the potential legal stumbling blocks that are strewn across our path towards assembling a team of the brightest and best, we have to start by clearly identifying and laying out in detail the full scope of the respective expectations that we have for each of the different types of job functions and related tasks that we think we have reasons to staff in terms of what we want to have accomplished by the respective hiring of each team member in order to achieve our overall stated objectives. Armed with these definitions of responsibilities to be executed by respective members of the team, we can begin to recruit based upon matching verifiable quantifiable credentials rather than basing choices solely upon subjective, debatable, ideas.

Under such considerations, regardless of the academic “brilliance” and overall capability and capacity of the assembled team, I would posit that unless the relative diversity of your team reflects the scope of demands, expectations and customs of your intended target market place, you have failed to collect the most likely to succeed group of people into your team: Ultimately, a contradiction or disparity in diversity between your team and your market place will lead to a team that cannot relate to the needs of that market no matter the degree of brilliance and best. And if , as business team, you cannot relate to your audience, how can you ever hope to influence your audience? How can you hope to understand their need – the origin of why you have a business in the first place – well enough to respond with an offering that meets their need?

The debate continues; naturally. As always, we welcome and look forward to getting feedback: Do not hesitate to share your constructive criticism, positive suggestions or actual experiences; we can always learn more because we are always curious, always inquisitive: We are keen to become “the brightest and the best” that we can be while also expanding awareness and our own innate diversity of  character, culture and opinion. Thank you.

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  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Just found your blog Peter, I’ll get a chance to read through this tomorrow morning cached in my mobiles instapaper app.

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