Inclusive Teams: Elevate the Well-being and Effectiveness of Diverse Teams

Wei Zheng: Hello everyone, welcome to the third panel of the Stevens Leadership Portal’s Inclusive Leadership Discussion Series hosted by the School of Business. So the goal of Stevens Leadership Portal is to provide resources and community for all leadership learners and practitioners particularly on topics related to leadership technology and inclusivity.
My name is Wei Zheng and I’m the Richard R. Roscitt Chair in Leadership, a professor in leadership, and a co-founder of the Stevens Leadership Portal and I’ll be the moderator for today’s conversation.

Today is our third panel on inclusive teams. So our focus will be on how to build high-performance teams with diverse individuals.

Let me do a short introduction of each of our panelists and then we’ll launch into right into the questions. Our first speaker is Nancy McGuire Choi, Executive and Leadership Advisor and former CEO of Polaris, and COO of Development Gateway. Our second speaker is Linda Singh, the CEO of Kaleidoscope Affect and former Adjutant General in the US Army. Our third speaker is Jacqueline Welch, Chief Human Resources Officer at the New York Times.

A fabulous and esteemed panel today. Welcome so much three of you, thank you for spending the time and sharing your insights and stories with us.

So I have prepared some questions for a panelist, for our participants, please do feel free to type in your questions in the chat as we go on I’ll try to pick up as many of your questions as possible.

So let’s get started with a question of what does inclusion looks like, especially what does an inclusive team looks like, and how do you know you have an inclusive team or not?

Who would like to get started? Linda, would you like to get started? You have to work both civilian teams and also military teams, would you like to talk about what does an inclusive team looks like to you?

Linda Singh: Sure, thank you. When I first think about inclusivity and what that means, I really like to step outside of what we typically hear about it, but it’s really having that sense of belonging and psychological safety. And, I like to take it to that level because of a sense of belonging and being psychologically you know safe in your space, in your group, in your workplace.

When you have those two things you are going to feel more included, so you are going to feel like you belong, and I think everyone wants to have those two pieces, so I think an inclusive team, it should support and promote this whole thing of belonging, regardless of who you are, what you look like, where you’re from, your background, and it should also promote the sense that you are safe within your group.
So when I think of having an inclusive team, I want to promote that level of support and inclusiveness where they feel like they belong, and they feel like psychologically they are safe in that space.

Wei Zheng: Thank you. Jackie, would you like to add your perspective?

Jacqueline Welch:

Well, the first thing I’d like to do is to thank general Singh particularly on the heels of Veterans Day thank you for your service. I’m not sure how I managed to miss that detail, but truly, thank you. With respect to inclusion, it’s such an interesting question I think it’s layered. I think, like the general, it goes beyond representation, which I think is important and is a direct pathway to creating inclusion. And then I also think this idea of belonging and how inclusion lands for people runs a spectrum, so for me, it’s doubling down on asking the members of your team what they need personally to feel more included. So again, it comes back to as a leader really leaning in on what it means for your way to feel safe with my team and encouraging people to also articulate what they need to feel safe and included and productive on a team.

Nancy McGuire Choi: I deeply appreciate the insights that Linda and Jackie have shared and Jackie I’m going to adapt to that initial process of bringing new team members in. I had a former CEO who always used to say every time you add a team member, you have a new team, and I think it’s so vital for teams to take the time to slow down and pause at the stage of welcoming new team members and getting to know them because that is building the team’s cultural infrastructure that will be drawn upon.

Wei Zheng: That’s great, so the next question is what are some of the things you do to welcome a new member and extend this inclusion to them?

Jacqueline Welch: So I wanted to build on what Nancy said and I really like the idea that every time you add a new team member, you have a new team. One of the things that I live by is looking for cultural additions and not culture fit because when you’re saying culture fit, you’re basically doubling down on a culture as it is, which means that you’re not looking for diversity. Cultural addition on the other hand opens the aperture for change and for different points of view. If you’re going to go out and find people to join your team who are culture adds, that naturally creates a certain amount of tension and friction because you’re bringing somebody in who doesn’t necessarily think, behave, and process in the same way as the rest of the team and so one of the ways I think we prepare people for success when they’re joining a team is to be crystal clear about why them and why now for the team. You want to start to talk about that long before they show up so that people have an expectation or an understanding of the deliberate nature with which you’ve made a decision to add the person to the team, and in the same way, make sure that the team member which is joining knows why them and why now and that you’re clear about your ability and willingness to support them.

Wei Zheng: Jackie, I liked your point about the culture add instead of culture fit, could you give an example of what it looks like?

Jacqueline Welch: Yeah, so I’m using myself as an example. So one of the ways that I continue to grow my career and expand my skill set is anytime I have an opportunity for a new compelling thing for me, it needs to be in a different industry. It needs to be in a different environment with a different economic model, just because that’s how I feel like I challenged my skill set and have an opportunity to deliver and learn. So to your question of getting out of your comfort zone relative to your skillset, one way I think that we can all approach how to continuously grow and contribute is when people take that chance because it comes up as I’ve never worked in publishing before, I’ve worked in media entertainment, but print media is a completely different entity, so I am fully cognizant that my boss, our CEO, took a chance. So that’s an example of where or how that looks where you’re willing to sort of taking the thing the person, the entity that doesn’t have a sort of intuitive place in the structure.

Wei Zheng: Thank you. Nancy, would you like to talk about how you add a new team member?

Nancy McGuire Choi: Sure, I just wanted to pick up on something that Jackie said. I really appreciate the why them, why now and what I think is so important about that is it shows the intentionality of the leader and it shows that they’re communicating, so it’s not enough to just have those intentions but to be communicating both to the person and to the team frequently and often in advance of that person coming. So these are some key quality leadership qualities in general that are needed as we look to leadership in the future, so I just wanted to mention that I’ll just give one very practical tool that we have used that I was initially skeptical about, and so for me, one of the executive teams that I formed went from two people to six over the course of a year and a half and so every few months the team was adding a new person and becoming a new team, and so the question then became how do we make sure that we do not sort of going back to the beginning when we add that fourth person. We want to make sure we’re incorporating and welcoming the person while also bringing them along to where the team is. One of the ways that we’ve done that is through investments in individual coaching and coaching for that leadership team. One of the exercises that we did that I have circled back to on multiple occasions is called the manual for working with me and I just thought it was so helpful because it reminds us that all of us need to adapt our styles a little bit depending on who we’re working with. This was one tool that helped me understand and be mindful of how my teammates wish to be treated and not assume that everybody wants to be treated the way that I may want to be treated.

Wei Zheng: So do you ask that new person to fill that out? Does everybody fill out and then share with each other? How does it work every time you add a new member?

Nancy McGuire Choi: So it’s definitely not the first thing that we would present to a new person, but within a couple of months, we would share the work that had been done and prepare them something that we’re doing as part of a set of tools that we’re developing so that we have some kind of common norms for how this team wants to approach routine communication.

Wei Zheng: Thank you very much. Linda, what’s your experience been like? I assume the civilian team formation in the military is different. What’s your experience and what do you see as good practices of incorporating new members?

Linda Singh: The thing that’s important for me when I’m bringing someone new onto the team is making sure that I’m doing that warm introduction. Someone has to be responsible for doing the warm introduction of that new person to the rest of the team. It helps to kind of bring the tension down just a little bit of being the new person. It really is about trying to ease them into that environment so that they feel comfortable. I would have already had a conversation with the new person, especially if they’re working with me on a team, about what they are expecting as they’re joining the team and what would help them transition easier into the team environment. I want people to understand what I’m expecting, but I also want them to hear what they’re expecting because I think that’s extremely powerful, even on the military teams. When I went in as the Adjutant General for the state of Maryland, I met with all my senior leaders and one of the first questions I asked them is what they are expecting out of this working relationship. That kind of threw them for a loop because they were like no one’s ever asked me that question, usually, the general says tell us what to. I think it’s extremely powerful when I’m looking for new members on the team, I’m looking for individuals that are going to bring something different to the team that we may not have and that does cause some friction, but it’s good friction and you know case in point, one of my teams, the team that I had in Afghanistan, as we were selecting team members, we were kind of going through this process of how we were building our teams. One of the guys that I picked on my team was a rocket scientist and he was unique, let me just say you can imagine being a rocket scientist, he was very, unique and people were looking at me like I had lost my mind selecting him for my team because no one else wanted to pick him. Finally, one of the big ones of my senior leaders came back and asked why I picked him for my team because he was intrigued because it just didn’t seem like me to would pick someone like that, and I said one because we are going to be doing a lot of data analysis so I want to be able to up-level our models, and he is the person that will drive me crazy with data, and two, we will be able to create something very different together because he’s going to think about in the details, and I’m going to be more of the conceptual and strategic side so putting those two pieces together I think will create magic. And at the end when we finished this particular team, people were coming to us, and they were like how did you see that, and I go sometimes you have to see beyond what you would typically select yourself. You have to be able to read a little bit deeper and challenge yourself to step outside of your own comfort zone when you’re selecting your teams.

Wei Zheng: Excellent story, thank you so much. I wanted to follow up with a question about friction and I like that usually if we have people who are from similar backgrounds, there’s less of a chance for friction, but as soon as we go outside the norm of how we select people, then there could be a different emphasis in terms of values, perspectives, and priorities like in your example with the rocket scientist. How do you manage that sort of friction and handle the differences?

Linda Singh: I think the first thing is that you do have to be very clear about your vision and mission on getting people to align around a vision and mission. It really helps to provide that guidance and if you have something that’s not very clear then that is going to not only cause the friction to be worse, but it’s going to cause people to kind of go off into their own areas. So it’s having this level of clarity so that everyone understands what we are trying to achieve at the end of the day. And when I think about all of our lives and everybody that’s on this call, we’ve all done amazing things, but we’ve arrived at those various places in different ways and so while we have a mission and vision that we can all shoot towards, it’s realizing that we’re going to come at it from different angles and that to me is where the magic can really happen if you allow it to happen. It can really be an amazing kind of morphosis. When I think about corporate boards and nonprofit boards, you want to have a little bit of that friction or differences of opinion and thoughts and how people approach things to ensure that you’re bringing the best and so when you think about high performing teams, it truly is those differences that allow you to reach new heights. Where I am in my life, I like to be on teams with people that are so not like me and that is going to continue to push me to be better than what I am, so I look for that difference and I even like to join teams where it’s completely outside of the realm of what I would usually do. I’m on a bank board, but I wouldn’t have chosen a bank board normally because banking is not my background, but it turns out that I’ve had the most fun on this particular board because I’ve had to learn something new that I wouldn’t have thought about before, and now I look at banks differently. So what I would say is you know, we just really need to think about that mission and vision and let people come from different angles and allow them to bring the best of who they are to the team.

Wei Zheng: Thank you. Jackie, did you want to follow up on that?

Jacqueline Welch: I did. So there are a couple things I’d like to bring to the forefront. One is that words matter, and I do think that there are words that trigger unnecessarily and unintentionally and friction is one of them. Friction is a natural thing, you need a certain amount of friction, it’s not always a bad thing. I do think that we all have to be mindful of how we say things. As an example, one of the norms I’ve adopted as a leader is to ask where am I wrong and that’s a subtle way to invite friction and get that contouring and point of view, and it sets the stage for like yes, I’m completely open and really desirous of a point of view that’s different from my own. The other thing that I’m morally obligated and duty bound to point out is there’s a movie called Tenant and it’s a Christopher Nolan movie, it’s very complicated so watch it starting in the middle of the afternoon because you’re going to need all night to process it, but in it there’s a female Indian protagonist and all along the assumption is her husband is actually the head of this thing that she’s responsible for and they break into her home and immediately go to the husband because they perceive him to be the power behind this operation and she interrupts and basically says honey go get drinks while I entertain our guests and they are like wait you’re the brains behind this and she says so elegantly it pays to have a male front in a male world. So I’m always mindful of the idea of friction and the thing that we’re working on. There have been situations where my spidey senses go up and I have to pull someone aside and say, there is an issue here, but again, sometimes friction isn’t the friction of the content so much as the friction of who’s on the team and perceptions and data, so you sometimes have to call a bigger thing.

Wei Zheng: Wow, that’s profound. So you’re addressing sort of the power dynamics or ownership of who’s in charge. So how do you solve the friction there too, for example in Linda’s case with the rocket scientist, how would you approach that conversation to allow the project to go forward in a productive direction?

Jacqueline Welch: I think in Linda’s case I would say I’m the general and I think that would clear a lot of confusion about who’s in charge, but Linda said something really important that I think is important to repeat here, which is what are we trying to accomplish. And certainly as the general if you have a target in a mission and a life or death situation as is being in Afghanistan for example, I have to imagine it’s we have this mission and we got to get it done, we are to be respectful, we’re supposed to honor each other’s boundaries to the extent that we’ve established them, just be a decent human being. The focus is this mission, the vision is the product, delivery, or whatever it is, and you’re on the team because we’re expecting that you will add value in these ways. And to the extent that there’s friction let’s be sure that the friction is about the work and not about the interpersonal relationships and if they are about the interpersonal relationships, let’s set aside time to deal with that. So that mission clarity is huge because that you can always come back to.

Wei Zheng: Thank you so much. Nancy, would you like to add perspective on this?

Nancy McGuire Choi: I think what has been said so far is absolutely resonates with me and is spot on. What I would add is I’m curious about the questions that inclusive leaders ask of themselves and other teams consistently. So Jackie mentioned where am I wrong and I’m thinking about how in order to achieve the mission, vision, and purpose, what perspectives we need and who isn’t around the table. It’s not just about who is technically a team Member or an employee, but who else do we need to bring in to make sure that those perspectives and voices are heard. I love those questions that reflect a certain humility because there needs to be this openness to what we’re missing.

Wei Zheng: Well, excellent discussion. So what are some considerations you will take that you wouldn’t be aware of when it comes to things like task assignment, maybe it’s a key client versus not a key client opportunity like training opportunities and resources among team members? How do you do that in a way that’s sort of fair and equitable?

Linda Singh: When I think about teams, opinions on the team, and what we’re doing, that may not gel right because you may have someone that has a certain level of responsibility that needs more resources and resources are not going to necessarily be equally distributed because that may not be realistic, so I think the reality of it is making sure that individuals on the team have the resources they need to be able to get the job done. Sometimes I find that it’s easier to ask them what they need in order to be able to meet whatever the objective is. So if they’ve been given an assignment, if they’re moving towards an assignment, or even if they want to grow in their career, the question that I always like to ask my folks is what do you need to be able to move to that next level? What do you need to be able to accomplish the tasks that you’ve been given? Is there something that I’m missing here? I think you have to challenge people, even when they know you’re the boss, to put something on the table.

Wei Zheng: Thank you. Nancy or Jackie, who’d like to go next?

Nancy McGuire Choi: I love the question of what do you need to get to the next level, and I think it’s such an important conversation that leaders should have continually with their team members because it’s really figuring out what the overlap between the organization or company needs and the ways in which this individual wants to grow and learn is. Everybody will come with different ways in which they want to grow and learn so just as the resources will not be distributed equally, the opportunities that people seek will be different, and so I think that the leaders should be both generous with those stretch opportunities and thinking about how do I do this equitably, how do I communicate the why this person why now and how it connects to the mission and vision as well as how it connects to the areas in which they want to grow. It’s not easy to do and I think it comes back to that what is needed for the mission and vision. At the end of the day, with the kind of workforce and the kind of teams that we’re trying to build, it’s essential to know and to be investing in people in ways that they think are helpful, so I’m curious if others have ways of tracking those exposure opportunities or growth opportunities and thinking about how to make sure they are then equitably distributed.

Jacqueline Welch: The only thing I would add is be emphatic unclear about distinguishing equity from equality and so one of the things when starting a new team that I’m always mindful of is to say there are going to be moments where you’re going to feel like gosh that’s not fair, and then I draw that distinction between equity and equality. All people entering the team will have different points of entry with different needs and so as long as it’s not impinging on other people being able to get treated in the same way, that’s equity, when everybody’s not going to get the same thing, so I think that the sooner that you can set that as an expectation, it spares you the unproductive friction. I think you have to declare how you’re thinking about things like equity, fairness, and equality upfront when people aren’t already emotionally invested in an outcome because then at the end they just feel like that wasn’t fair, but if you do it when there isn’t an issue present and could rationally have the conversation, then you’re better position for when the event takes place.
The other thing I want to say, there’s in many instances a hierarchy and so I’m also very emphatic and clear. At the end of the day, I’m accountable and there may be times where even after all the input, my decision isn’t going to be satisfying to you, but that’s not my objective. My objective is to make the decision that pushes forward the mission, the vision, the values, the purpose, and that’s something that I think you have to say before there is a heated moment.

Wei Zheng: Thank you. Let’s imagine you have a team and some folks that are more experienced and can perform right away on critical assignments and then you have other folks who still need to grow to be able to do those things. Probably for some leaders, the easy thing is to always pick on those folks who perform right away. As a result, the other folks who need to grow lack the opportunity to actually grow and take on those major assignments that are going to advance their careers more. In those situations, are there operating principles or considerations that you could use to make sure people who can perform right away get to perform right away while also allowing the folks that still need some growth to have more opportunities to get to those critical assignments, resources, or client relationships?

Linda Singh: I would say it’s sometimes taking that that A player and putting them with a B or C player to get them to help to stretch the team because what you want individuals to do is realize that they are all going to kind of approach it from where they are, but you want them to upscale and the only way we can level ourselves up is to work with someone that is better because, if I put them working in groups where they’re all the same, they’re never going to grow and so I always like to get people to up level and that means that you’re going to feel uncomfortable as you stretch and if you’re used to getting up in the morning and you do your stretches where you’re just up and down up and down, then I’m going to ask you to stretch horizontally. It’s going to be uncomfortable until you get used to it, but then when you get used to it, I’m going to ask you to stretch in a different way and I think it’s really getting some of those A players to say you know you’re not going to be here working in this role forever so how do you work yourself out of a job, which means who’s coming up behind you that you’re going to help to grow. I don’t have to do it all myself, but I do need to make sure I have others around me, helping to grow that team and I agree as I’ve been in the military, I would have individuals that I would go to for their roles because that was their job, but then I would actually turn around to some of those leaders and say who do you have that’s going to approach this from a different angle, where we can get them in on this to maybe see some things that we don’t and when you think about it and you go out and look, I assembled an all-female leadership team right before I left and that wasn’t because they were all female, it was because they had the diversity of background and capability and they were the right individuals for the job.

For these individuals, as they did not want to be in the limelight, my thing to them was well this isn’t about you, this is because you are the best person for the job, but you know, highlighting this is not about you, it is about those individuals that’s coming behind because I want other young women to see you can aspire to be this, even if you’re at the lowest level, to be where we are. They’re only going to do that if we show and talk about it and I don’t think there’s a set playbook. I think that you really have to just kind of lean in to see what’s happening within that team and how can you get them to stretch a little bit and make them feel uncomfortable. I still get people saying to me today, Ma’am you know you really pushed us, you really pushed us and we really miss it. They weren’t saying that when I was there, they were just like oh my God, this is a little uncomfortable, but the fact is that they know they need to somehow get back in that space, and so my comment to them is how do you get your team back into that space where you feel a little uncomfortable, but you know you’re moving towards high performance.

Wei Zheng: Wonderful. Nancy, would you like to weigh in?

Nancy McGuire Choi: I think that’s incredibly powerful and one of the themes that we keep coming back to today is it’s about mission, purpose, and values and as leaders helping connect everything back to that. So, it’s an invitation for all of us to think about what the legacy is that we want to leave behind and it’s not who’s coming behind you, it’s how do you leave the institution better to fulfill its purpose for this next generation and show people what that looks like. So, I think that’s an incredibly powerful way of connecting people’s values and contributions to something much bigger, which also inspires them to step outside of themselves and step into whatever those stretch opportunities are.

Jacqueline Welch: One of the things I tell people is you are not ready for your next promotion until you can tell me who behind you you’ve groomed to be you. We have an obligation to the organization and you got to pull the people that are behind you.

Wei Zheng: Great, thank you so much. Wow, I’m going to have to say the hardest thing today which is that our time is up. Thank you all so much for all the gems of wisdom and the tools you have offered, I really appreciate it.