How I Learned to Select a Diverse Team (And Why it Matters)
August 28, 2018
By Mary Beth Bruggeman, VP of Program Strategy
At The Mission Continues, diverse teams are representative of the veterans and the community members that we serve.
Why bother to build diverse teams in the first place, and how can you do it effectively?
If you’re wondering why diverse teams matter, I’ll break it down in terms that translate to everything we (and others) do. Diverse teams — in race, gender, identity, experience, age and many other factors– are proven to make better decisions.
There is ample evidence that companies with the higher percentages of racial/ethnic diversity are more likely to have higher financial returns than companies with less diverse teams. Among other benefits, organizations that embrace diversity have employees that are more likely to feel connected to others in the workplace, which fuels collaboration and innovation.
It matters in our work at The Mission Continues, because diverse teams are representative of the veterans and the community members that we serve, along with being generally more effective decision making bodies.
Even with numerous studies showing the power of diversity on teams, building them can still be a challenge.
12 years ago, I was an active duty Marine, working at the Naval Academy. I led a company of 200 students — midshipmen — who are organized into companies that are led by fellow midshipmen in an effort to create a kind of leadership laboratory.
Each semester, my fellow Company Officers and I would choose our company commander from within the company using an internal process that was rigorous and transparent to our companies. However, we made our decisions in a relative vacuum within that company, without conferring across the 30 companies that made up the 4000-strong student body.
Once we’d made our selections, we sent them all the way up the chain of command, where ultimately a 3-star admiral signed off on them. That approval process often took months, and since it had always been a “rubber stamp,” we typically announced our decision to our companies well before they’d been officially approved.
This worked, year over year, and we never questioned the process.
Until one year, by the luck of the draw and a twist of fate, all 30 company officers working in our individual company bubbles selected 30 white male leaders. Without doing a mind-numbing amount of math, I can tell you that the odds of this happening are extremely low.
We had announced our selections within our companies well before the admiral looked at all of our choices in aggregate and immediately sent them back with a note saying “try again.” We were up in arms. We had just selected the “best person for the job” irrespective of race, religion, background, ethnicity, and now felt we were being told to go back and swap a black woman in for a white man.
We believed that our selections were completely unbiased, as did the midshipmen, but now we were forced to explain that some of us were going back to select women, or African Americans, Hispanics, or others, in order to satisfy a diversity quota. It was a public relations nightmare within the confines of the Academy.
As a leadership instructor, I found that this topic was the only thing on my midshipmen’s minds during class for two solid weeks. And I didn’t have the answers.
It wasn’t until I was able to express my own frustrations directly to the admiral that he, a much wiser man than I, broke through my inexperience and ignorance and allowed me to see the folly of our decisions.
Rather than building a strong team, we were building strong individuals. Rather than creating a representative body of leaders, we were narrowly defining what successful leadership could look like.
We went back to the drawing board, but this time each company officer recommended three midshipmen to be the company commander. Those three passed up to the battalion level, a collection of 6 companies together (18 total candidates for 6 roles), and the battalion commander looked across the nominees and had all he needed to work with to select a strong, diverse and entirely capable team.
There’s never just one person that can do a job.
When we deepened our bench, we were able to do so without sacrificing our standards. In fact, it was liberating not to choose between three fantastic and accomplished young leaders, because I was just as confident in my #3 pick as I was in my #1.
The effect it had was tremendous. Suddenly we had access to a diverse talent pool without stepping away from our high standards, and when we could honestly tell our companies that all three of our top candidates were equally qualified, then if the one thing that separated someone out was the fact that she was a woman, that was widely accepted.
Something had to be the differentiator, and once our midshipmen (and we, as their leaders) came to the understanding that a diverse team is far more powerful than a homogeneous one, they were entirely supportive of building that diverse team with intention.
We learned at the Naval Academy that while we get lucky sometimes, and sometimes even for years, building a diverse and strong team takes work, and it has to be intentional. The alternative is devastating, and a lack of intentionality can have serious consequences on a team.
Ultimately, only when we embrace diversity can we pull together the team that will win every fight. That was our task when selecting company commanders at the Naval Academy. That is our goal every day in the work we do at The Mission Continues.
Report for duty in your community with The Mission Continues. Serve at an upcoming service event near you or apply to our exciting new program, the Service Leadership Corps. You can learn more about our programs on our website and stay updated on the latest news and announcements on Facebook and Twitter.