Why diversity & inclusion builds high-performance, customer-centric teams

The idea of targeting specific company personas, and predicting their business needs, has become a staple in the marketing world. But is the current persona approach diverse and inclusive enough to accurately reflect the breadth of a company’s customer base, or prospective customers for that matter? And what does creating a team with diversity in mind have to do with this?

In Episode 5, we’ll hear from Adam Cockell, Founder and CEO, A-Team Technologies and podcast host of Inside the Scale. We talk about the advantages of shifting the way we envision marketing personas, and why hiring a diverse team is crucial to business success and being a truly customer-centric workplace. We also discuss how companies can diversify the talent pipeline by looking at different sources and candidate pools.

What does it take to radically transform and disrupt our workplaces? Below is an edited transcript of Episode 1 of Envoy’s new podcast, Empowered: Envisioning Workplaces That Work, which explores what thriving, diverse, and innovative workplaces look and feel like, and what makes them tick. Spoiler alert: it’s the people. 

We engage in timely discussions about the workplace experience and celebrate those who challenge the status quo in all aspects of the contemporary workplace––through the lens of the all-important human elements. Hear workplace experience leaders, creative problem solvers, and other cultural producers reveal how they create the workplaces they want to see in the world: their wins, pain points, and all the moments in between. 

You can listen to this episode and to other full episodes on our podcast series page, or stream via your preferred streaming platform. 

The road from engineer to entrepreneur 

Well, hello, Adam! It is amazing to have you in the Envoy Empowered studio today. We began our conversation together because you are also a fellow podcaster for Inside the Scale.

AC: I am! Yes.

You also run your own business called A-Team Technologies. One of the arms of that business being Native Current, which is a consultancy focused on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. What led you here?

AC: Thanks so much for having me. Where I am now is the result of exploring what matters to me and why. As an entrepreneur, I have gone off on my own to build a company. Quite frankly, when you do that, you can be torn in different directions. 

I have a very diverse background in general, but I have been formally an engineering resource, specifically with respect to quality assurance and everything related to that. In deciding to start my own company, I could build anything, right? Throughout the process of trying things out, I have arrived at this point here where I’m building products that matter to me and that I think can have an impact in this world.

Like any entrepreneur, I’ve probably failed more times than I can count. The underlying tone, the reason why that I’ve done a lot of the things that I’ve done, is to better understand people and provide products that allow people to do that.

What’s interesting is following that idea, that concept, I landed in the diversity and inclusion space. As an engineer, you can build anything. It’s a blessing and a curse. You could build everything, but the people don’t necessarily adopt it. It doesn’t work like that. 

Diversity and inclusion is, and should be, top of mind for everyone right now. That is the primary focus of my company. I don’t think that it’s a “one-size-fits-all” solution, but I hope over time to build a portfolio of products and tools that allow people to take tactical steps to become more inclusive at work.

The process of hiring and managing a diverse team––and why it’s important

Of course we all have multiple roots or generative areas where we started to think about the concepts of diversity and inclusion. Take us back to that time when you were a manager, scaling a quality engineering team. You described building “a team of misfits.” What was that like? What was the hiring methodology? 

AC: I wanted to hire the best people that I could find. Beyond that, there wasn’t any process or methodology. What I found interesting was that the best people that I found, for the discipline that I was in and that I needed them to excel in, happened to be the most unlikely people to work on an engineering team––or at that time, at an ad tech company in general. 

What I think is unique about ad tech is that it’s required for companies to survive, to build all sorts of things that integrate with people’s lives. Unlike a company where you might have one or two products, ad tech companies often have a ton of different products. They’re mobile, have complex data warehousing, and it’s a highly-technical, highly-comprehensive approach to capture data about people.

I wanted to challenge the way that we were thinking about things at our company because I knew that our products were going to be used by all sorts of people. What I ended up with was a team where not a single person looked like the other person or had the same background. 

For example, I had someone that started as an intern with me. I knew him through my personal network, but he had been working in financial services. He was very good at math and wanted to be a developer. I gave him the opportunity to be an intern and he worked his way up on my team and became one of the top performers. 

I also hired someone that did not finish college, but through pure grit, she was able to become my top performer. She’s gone on to a great company and she’s done amazing things there. That’s the kind of person I wanted on my team, especially because I was trying to push boundaries.

I like this idea of challenging the status quo of what it takes to make a successful team. Did you encounter any kind of resistance or push back? You say you didn’t have a strategy, but I think taking risks and being open to different backgrounds is a strategy! 

AC: Yes, but from different angles. I think the obvious angle is thinking this person’s not qualified for this role because they don’t have a college degree or something like that. Or because they have a certain hair color, for example. I think when you’re looking for the best people, it’s so easy to see past those things. 

I encourage people to see the full picture. How many people at your company already have college degrees? Do you need the next person to absolutely have a college degree? 

Right, that’s a form of homogeneity. It’s reinforcing the same in a lot of ways.

AC: I think there’s all sorts of status associated with college degrees.

And privilege.

AC: When I was in high school, I spent summers at this program called the Temple University Physician Scientist Training Program. It was created to bring underrepresented communities into science and technology. Dr. Moses Williams founded it, and the program’s goal was to create more physician scientists. He realized that there was this huge opportunity to bring more underrepresented groups into science but also put them in positions where they would be highly effective. 

I spent summers going to this Physician Scientist Training Program and it’s funny because looking back, I took it for granted. I knew that it would help me in my career, but I didn’t understand why I would necessarily need it, if that makes sense. What was cool about it is I was matched with a scientist. With the scientist that I worked with, I would come up with my own research project.

Like an independent study?

AC: Yeah. At the end of the summer, I would present it. I did cancer research and neuro research. I remember in high school, when I got into this elite college that I went to, one of the comments that I heard was, “it’s because you’re black.”

Wow.

AC: I remember feeling that for some reason I had gotten into this elite institution and other people felt that I didn’t belong there. Or it was because it was something out of my control. You know what I mean? I felt like I didn’t deserve it necessarily, even though the reason was that I spent summers working in research labs and these other people didn’t. All of it came down to the fact that to other people, at the end of the day, I got into this great school because I was black. 

I think there’s all sorts of dynamics that are at play in how we interpret other people’s experiences. That was a point in my life that really stood out. It was transformative and opened my eyes to the fact that everyone doesn’t think the way that I do and everyone doesn’t know me personally. You think you know me, but you don’t.

What resources do diverse communities need to perform their best in the workplace?

One of the overarching themes that Empowered focuses on––and something I care a lot about personally––is being able to be yourself at work, being able to perform your best. That involves a complex matrix of variables. You need to feel supported, like you belong, and to feel safe, and you need resources and tools that are not only geared towards a majority. 

That’s going to be different for everyone. It’s absolutely relevant to an internship, going to college, or a new job: how are you being set up for success, or not, the moment you arrive?

AC: I went to Amherst College in Massachusetts. One of my former classmates, Tony [Anthony] Jack––he was a few classes ahead of me––recently came out with a book called The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students. Tony Jack is a Harvard professor that has done research that shows that for college students, access is not inclusion. 

There’s a group of students that are granted access to these elite institutions because they’ve undoubtedly done amazing things. But say you’re from a poor community. You get to college and it’s winter break. All of your friends go home. You’re stuck at college because you don’t have the financial means to travel home, but the school has shut down the power. There is no food. If you’re at a college like Amherst, you’re in the middle of nowhere. 

So where do you go? What do you do? Jack’s fantastic book goes in-depth into this topic. I couldn’t agree more. 

Access is not inclusion.

Absolutely. I love your example of Anthony Jack’s book. It’s one thing to let these students in, but you’re assuming that your structure works for them. I’m interested in your thoughts on the very real gap that exists in tech––and in all kinds of companies and industries––between getting people in the door and making sure attention is paid to their experience of being there. 

AC: I don’t think there’s any easy answers to that one, to be honest. What I will say is that if you look at the way that companies are structured in terms of the teams that exist, you have the marketing team, sales team, product team, and engineering team. All of these teams operate more or less in silos. I think there’s definitely cross-functional overlap, especially because of need. Those silos at companies are the initial structures that perpetuate difference. 

How often do sales teams get upset that engineering teams aren’t delivering X feature for their customers? Maybe they’re not upset, but they have asked for this feature from engineering for three months. Why do we still not have it? That’s one example. I know that even QA [quality assurance] and development, which are typically much more integrated teams, the amount of finger pointing that happens between those two teams is off the charts. 

When something goes wrong, it’s QA’s fault. Though the problem with that is you create an interesting dynamic where providing value to a development team is a self-fulfilling prophecy where you can never be satisfied because you’re allowed to point fingers.

Beyond that, if you have all these teams set up to point fingers at the other teams, then you’re kind of already creating these differences within people at your company. Moving beyond that is a challenge. I think the only way to really do that is to align the teams on some sort of shared motivation or vision.

Maybe the customer is that shared vision?

AC: Exactly, but I think that’s a lot harder to do than it sounds. This is one of the areas that I’m exploring with my company. 

It’s so common to make assumptions. You’re in sales and you just got off a phone call and you talk to one customer and you think you understood what they wanted, but maybe you don’t. You’re sort of the translator, but you’re the one telling the product team what customers want. And so I think there’s just so much margin for error when you have no mechanism to better understand your customers.

Definitely. That’s this idea of a shared purpose or a shared mission, whatever kind of language you want to use there.

AC: Mission is a fantastic word.

What does it mean to be a customer-centric company, and what do personas have to do with it?

It gets tossed around a lot in tech, but I think it bears repeating. In marketing, customer centricity seems like a given. We’re a business. Aren’t we all customer-centric? But like you said, I don’t think that’s a given. I think the path to truly being customer-centric is very nonlinear. A core ingredient in being a customer centric-company, I think, is making sure that your employee base is representative of your customer base.

AC: Let me ask you a question. Who is the customer?

That’s certainly a marketer’s core question. We do a lot of guesswork, and we make a lot of data-driven decisions, too––but I think there’s an emotional side of this where I’m thinking about people like me. I’m thinking about what I want and need. And I’m trying to put that out there in the content that I create. But I also need to create content for people that aren’t like me. That’s where the cross-functional part can come in, writing about a new security feature, for example, in a way that’s accessible. To me, that’s as proximate as I can get to not assuming what I think people want. There should be multiple voices involved, too.

AC: You kind of said it without necessarily saying it, but I think that when you are being more inclusive in what you put out to the world, I think you can actually access more business opportunities, reach new audiences, find new connections as far as the business case goes for diversity. I think that’s the goal. 

I think a lot of companies need to answer the “why” first. Are you a global company serving the world? Because if you are, you can’t sit in a room in Silicon Valley and say that you know what someone in Japan wants.

Until you’ve interacted with that customer, you don’t know who your customers are. I say that in the plural sense, but the ways that we can hurt ourselves in our customer-centricity efforts is in the use of personas. 

There’s a place for personas. In terms of validating your business, I think they’re great. In terms of looking for new opportunities or thinking in a creative way, looking outside the box, I think they’re limiting. You often end up with something like, “this is Bob. Bob likes to eat cheese and on the weekend he goes to Disney World.” So, the persona we’re serving is specific to Bob. But, how many people that like cheese and go to Disney World have differences?

Right. I’m thinking about the marketing funnel and how to map diversity inclusion onto that, and the persona question. One example is workplace restrooms and the Head of Workplace persona.  Gender-inclusive restrooms would be a priority because I think about space in that way. I’m informing that decision with my background, my community, and the language and the experience that I’m familiar with.

AC: Absolutely.

But that’s not necessarily top of mind for every head of workplace, right? That’s one aspect of one head of workplace persona.

AC: If you think about all of the diversity changes that companies can make, removing bias from the hiring process, making sure that compensation is fair, making sure that there is maternity leave policies.

And paternity leave. Or just parental leave, to be inclusive. 

AC: Right, making sure that the parental leave policy is accessible to everyone that needs it. I think what’s interesting when you look at these things is that they’re all valuable to the equation. Bathrooms, and other elements of the workplace experience––these decisions are typically top-down. While the top-down leadership has to be there, there also has to be consideration from the bottom-up at your company. You have to somehow convince your employees of the reasons why you are doing all these things, and why they matter.

You can’t just say, “We need to have unbiased hiring processes,” and leave it there. I think a lot of companies do that. I know that a lot of companies go through their unconscious bias training and the “why” is probably more important than anything else. First solve the “why” so that you can help people value the “why.” By not just telling them why, but making sure they internalize and can understand why it’s relevant to them, you’ll be able to get a lot further with your diversity and inclusion strategies. 

Internally and externally, inclusivity should be the goal. You want your products and your company to be inclusive. The goal is to create a place where everyone––employees and customers––feels included, heard, and understood. I think if you can do this, you have a great business. 

Assessing the real impact of workplace diversity and inclusion trainings: how do we translate ideas into action?

I’m reflecting on what you said about helping people value the “why”––that this is just as important as telling them the “why.” Trainings are important because we all don’t know what we don’t know. I’ve been in workplaces where, for example, there’s been a training on preferred pronouns. There were people who afterwards said, “Wow, I didn’t even know that existed. That was not in my framework of knowledge.” They were happy to have that and that worked for them. 

You noted that $8 billion is spent on diversity and inclusion trainings in the U.S. The next component is putting the training into practice. We know that teams that are more diverse are more profitable. Companies that have a more diverse workforce are high-performing work cultures. They outperform their competitors because they have a diversity of thought and perspective. I’m curious where you think we’ll see more work in quantifying that?

AC: Right, there’s a McKinsey study that gives numbers around what’s spent on diversity and inclusion training and efficacy. I don’t think it’s enough to educate people, though. I don’t think that employees are going to go back to their cubicles or desks and think again about the way that they feel about someone that they don’t like at work, for example. Or think about how they can better understand the customer. I don’t think that trainings go far enough.

Trainings are not translating into action?

AC: I feel like it’s too high-level, quite frankly. I think it’s interesting and compelling for the business, but when you get to the individual level, I don’t know. 

Is it then the responsibility of the manager or the director of a team to distill the actionable lessons or the ways that training topics could show up in their jobs?

Leadership matters. I think there is definitely a burden on managers, but I think it’s also on employees. It’s that human interaction that needs to happen for people to internalize how the assumptions that they’re making are preventing them from moving forward. I think once you make it to that point and pass there, you’re in a much better position to be someone that can embrace inclusion and be an inclusive person at your company.

Evaluating the function of employee resource groups 

One way the lessons or topics that come up in a training can be mobilized is through employee resource groups. What do you think about the ERG (employee resource group) as being a function of diversity and inclusion efforts at a company?

AC: Let’s say you’re a company and you’re desperately trying to increase your diversity numbers. You set up an ERG for black people at your company. You then take the four black people at your company and you expect them to go to events, network, and find great people that your company can hire. I think that approach is problematic. 

I think ERGs are kind of stuck. There is a tension, absolutely, between competing narratives for an ERG. I think that there’s opportunities to challenge your company in the way that it thinks and operates. I think ERGs are a great way to use the power of community to do that. And if the ERG is satisfying goals that are counter to what your own personal goals are or community goals are, don’t participate.

But then I hear about stories like your [[email protected] Envoy] ERG and I’m really inspired. I see that the ERG can be used for not only business or personal growth, but for fun and community. There is definitely a happy medium and it’s good to hear that you’ve found it.

The myth of the pipeline problem: how tech can diversify workplaces by hiring from different sources

Speaking of inspiration, are there any touch points, movements, or people that have inspired you that you want to name and celebrate here?

AC: I recently got involved with this organization called Defy Ventures. One in every 20 US citizens serve in prison. The National Institute of Justice found that one year after release up to 60% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed. Without opportunities and support systems, 70% of parolees are arrested within the first three years of release.

Recidivism [a tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior]. They go right back.

AC: Defy Ventures trains incarcerated people and provides a mentorship apparatus for those people once they are released. The goal of the program is to take the hustle that these people already have and apply it to legal business.They teach people entrepreneurship, and help match people with jobs.

In terms of diversity, I think this is a massively overlooked population of people that are in need of assistance from companies that are hiring today. I think the system is set up so that they’re right back there in three years. A lot of these people are incredibly smart and driven. They have that grit that I think makes great employees. But there is a stigma associated with having a background, a criminal background. 

As soon as they apply to a job and the background check runs, it comes back positive and the hiring manager passes. I think that this is one of the biggest problems that we need to at least acknowledge and then find a way to resolve because we’re losing a lot of potentially great candidates for jobs. 

Defy Ventures wants to not only help these people get jobs, but help them start businesses that allow them to go a lot further than they would be if they were constantly sort of kept within this framework of having a criminal background, which is limiting. You might be able to get one job, but what about after that? What if you want to be promoted to a director or VP one day? You’re just stuck.

Entrepreneurship is one of the best opportunities that is available to formerly incarcerated people to change their lives and break the pattern. I think this is one of the biggest opportunities still left in terms of incorporating diversity in the workplace. Because it’s a group we don’t think about very much. We need to think about ways that we allow them to reconnect with life.

Where can people find more information about you, A-Team Technologies, and the work you’re doing?

AC: I’m currently working on Native Current and User Sheet. Both are in the very early stages, but I hope that they will allow companies to become more inclusive. I mean that’s definitely my goal. 

The premise for my podcast, Inside the Scale, is that there’s so much buzz and attention in the world on the founders and CEOs of startups. There are great stories that we don’t hear from the people behind the scenes that help those founders scale their companies. 

I’ve been fortunate to talk to people from Intercom, Envoy, Optimizely, and LaunchDarkly. I would appreciate any listens and stars on iTunes! I hope it gives some people some guidance or some validation of the things that they’re doing in their roles.

You’re diversifying the people behind success, and the storytelling around that.

AC: Exactly.

Thank you so much, Adam, for being on Empowered!

AC: Yeah, thanks for having me. It’s been fun.

We all have a story to tell about our working lives: how we got there, what we experience, and what we can do to make it better. Find more information on this episode of Empowered in the episode show notes. For more details on how to get involved, listen to full episodes and discover more about how to challenge the status quo in your workplace, check out the Empowered series page. You can also read episode recaps right here on the Envoy blog