For International Women’s Day – 5 Things I Learned When I Built A Diverse Team

By Stephanie Nashawaty | Chief Customer Innovation Officer, SAP North America

The business benefits of diversity are undeniable. Research suggests a diverse work environment boosts profitability, productivity, creativity, inclusivity, innovation, and much, much more. Many will also point out — rightly — that diversity isn’t just a business imperative; it’s a moral one.

But what are we talking about when we tout our “diversity”? Do we know the scope of what “diversity” can entail? Do we know what forming a “diverse team” really means? Do we know what it actually looks like to be a “diverse company”?

I have the privilege of leading a large and varied team of technical experts. This team proves every single day the power of unique perspectives and expertise as they help our customers navigate strategic business transformations. Over the course of my 25 years in the technology industry, I have led and been a part of many teams that have shaped my approach to inclusive leadership today.

One experience I often think back on was in my early days with SAP, about a year after joining the company.

In 2017, Nicole Pisklo, SAP global sales lead, and I set out to support a leading media and entertainment company based in California. The customer we were working with had embraced diversity in its leadership team much earlier than other companies, especially across its technology leadership, as reflected by female representation and diversity of sexual orientation.

Over the course of the next three years, we solidified a strong and collaborative relationship with the client based on empathy and trust. I attribute much of that success to the diverse team that we built which in turn reflected the organization that we were working with much better than our previous sales motion. And we learned a lot along the way.

In this blog, I have synthesized the five most important lessons on diversity that I learned while building this team.

Expanding your perspective on the definition of “diversity” is where any conversation around the topic must start.

Are you talking about racial diversity? Gender diversity? Ethnic diversity? Economic diversity? Religious diversity? Diversity of thought? Diversity of location? All of these things?

Clearly, having diversity is far more than a simple “binary yes or no.”

Look at how often companies tout their interview and hiring practices that claim to improve diversity. Perhaps, they’re bringing in more diverse groups of people, but do those people want to stay there once they are hired?

Are companies sending potential employees through revolving doors because they don’t know how to support and manage different types of people?

When we began to work on the project for our media and entertainment customer, Nicole was quick to point out that assembling a team of people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives is a good start.

But fostering an environment where each team member feels free to be their true self is the only way to unleash, cultivate, and amplify the full potential of every member of that team.

This may sound counterintuitive but think about it: You don’t want your team to be a homogenous bubble.

As the leader, if everyone agrees with me, then what do I need the team for? With great difference comes great power, and while it’s a challenging thing to learn as a manager (and it took me many years to realize), it promises to give your team a distinct edge.

You’ll be able to push the boundaries of your organization to make it truly stretch and flourish. However, this stretching does come with an enhanced level of initial friction amongst the team, as people who think differently by definition must convince others of their point of view and learn to find a middle ground or alternative approach.

Sacrificing your opinion to the collective perspective of a group is an art form.

As a leader, I’ve found that my role is not to manage people or groups, but to set the vision, provide the resources and “guiding principles”, and then be comfortable with letting teams flail a bit as they find their way forward. It can slow down decision making, but ultimately results in a stronger foundation.

Real diversity doesn’t just make everyone the best version of themselves; it makes the entire team far greater than the sum of its parts.

When Nicole and I built our account team, we focused on these values — taking what we called an “All Team” instead of an “All Star” approach.

In the end, everyone was engaged, purpose-driven, and passionate about the customer’s success above all else. Without that focus and ambition, we couldn’t have built the successful partnership we have today.

Contrary to many companies’ glowing press releases, diversity doesn’t just happen by saying several important-sounding words. Building a diverse and inclusive organization takes continued focus and determination.

And while companies shouldn’t adhere to strict quotas or look to “check off” required diversity to-dos, we should have goals and targets — around gender and racial equity, for example — that we aim toward directionally.

Without intentionality, the truisms are all meaningless. You need easy access to data to spot worrisome trends or to be able to recognize and praise true progress.

There’s no space for wiggle room when it comes to equity and justice in the business world. We must constantly measure and track ourselves and our results to ensure we’re routinely snuffing out problems — and consistently moving in the right direction.

The organizations that do this the best also have a zero-tolerance policy for any type of behavior that indicates bias or discrimination.

“You can’t be what you can’t see.” And I, for one, would have never come to work at SAP if I hadn’t witnessed the brilliant and strong women in executive leadership roles throughout the sales organization.

Frankly, I didn’t even know how much I had missed being surrounded by women my previous 25 years in software until I was working with and for so many talented women again. I loved the focus on listening, collaboration, empathy, and trust.

As leaders, therefore, it’s so important that we bring people along with us as we move up during our careers. If we work to lift others up, we can build companies that actually look like the country and world around us.

When Nicole and I began working together on our project, I wanted to take the opportunity to coach and mentor her as she learned the software industry and the intricacies of leading a sales team.

I wanted to share what I’d learned in my more than two decades in technology and sales, while learning from her expertise in the media and consulting fields. This ability and willingness to both be self-aware and honest about what we didn’t know enabled us to build a perfect partnership.

It’s incumbent upon us to foster the next generation of leaders so you can well imagine how gratified I was to hear Nicole say that strong leadership and mentorship are essential to building a more equitable world.

Sharing our knowledge, experiences, and strengths allows us to equip and empower more individuals to succeed — and go on to accomplish even greater things.

This is more important than ever amidst the COVID-19 crisis, as countless women are considering down-shifting or sacrificing their careers due to the pandemic’s effects. I recently had an open leadership position that I was sure several qualified women at the company would apply for. However, only a few of them did.

I reached out to ask why they didn’t “put their hat in the ring” and was told that they were juggling young children at home or assisting elderly parents and could not take on the demands of a larger role at this time.

The downstream impact of women losing this year for promotions, or even some that have chosen to leave the workforce or go to part-time, will set back so much of the progress women have fought so hard for over the last decade, particularly in the software industry.

This is a brief point, but it’s essential.

A lot of talk these days centers on being a good “ally.” But it’s important to remember that we don’t become allies by default.

We all need to step up in this moment and work to habitually recognize and hire talent, wherever it comes from. And we must be willing to ask those around us where our blind spots are — and listen to their responses.

It’s easy to support people whose opinions match your own. You must dig deeper to sponsor people whose opinions and lifestyles are divergent from your own.

I recall a conversation with Nicole during which she pointed out how, for a long time, women were coached to be like their male counterparts – who by the way received similar coaching from their peers – in order to succeed in the fast-paced business world.

But this kind of simplistic thinking just puts people in boxes and serves to limit us from embracing our most powerful tools, tools that we can use to create meaningful and lasting change.

All of these lessons were absolutely integral to building the team we needed for our work as we pursued a deeper relationship with the media and entertainment company I mentioned earlier.

We knew we could never have built a relationship with a highly valued strategic client like that without building our team on the strength of its diversity. Our success with them was possible because of our focus on empathy and authenticity. It reflected our care, our awareness, and our understanding of where they were, what they needed, and how we could make a difference.

In other words, we learned that a team built to embrace challenges and opportunities internally was one built to do so externally. We learned that being able to listen to and understand each other made it easier to listen to and understand our clients. And we learned that diversity — in all its forms — doesn’t just drive success for our business; it drives success for our customers, too.

I invite you to explore more about how SAP can help you make your commitment to diversity a reality.

SAP is the world’s leading provider of business software – enterprise resource planning, business intelligence, and related applications and services that help companies…

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