How to access innumerable new ideas, solutions, and innovations… by dumping your shortlist.
Occam’s Razor is going to cut you
I recently attended a local event that was part of a global networking night for alumni of a certain well-known university, hosted at a well-established executive search firm. An optional activity to prepare for the evening was to fill in a leadership profile a couple of days in advance. Taking about 30 minutes to fill in, the profile is basically a tool to assess our characteristics, drive and ultimately leadership style. An explanation of how to interpret the results and the methodology behind it were to be discussed as part of the hour-long presentation. Somewhere between 25–50 alumni filled in the profile ahead of time. Small in terms of sample size but still we provided an interesting view into the minds of unique group by virtue of being alumni of a particular American university who are living and working in The Netherlands.
The surprise of the evening came in the results.
Out of the 8 leadership styles we could have displayed (purpose, safety, caring, enjoyment, order, learning, authority and results): nearly all of us possessed the same exact 3 characteristics at the top of our individual profiles: learning, authority and results-oriented.
It did not matter what schools or departments of the university we were from, we exhibited similar characteristics and the same top 3 although the order varied a bit. Government, law, business, divinity, arts & sciences, design, extension school or wherever: the results were the nearly identical and we were the same kind of leader. I should also add that we were an even mix of men and women, an assortment of ethnicities from Black, Dutch, Latino to Middle Eastern, South Asian and East Asian and varying professions from teachers to bankers to government. The only commonality we shared was the trait of having attended a certain well-known university who’s alumni VC’s tend to hire from, invest in and seek out. So enjoyment? Nope. Safety or order? Who cares! We were all about learning, authority and results.
The executive search firm had been in business for 60 years and were surprised to see such consistency across a such a broad number of people from the same school.
Now I will tell you the name of this school and why this particular evening mattered: Harvard.
Why does it matter? Because 40% of VCs in Silicon Valley come from either Harvard or Stanford and they tend to work with only warm referrals from other friends, who oftentimes also only attended Harvard or Stanford. Let me go a step further: there are companies looking to stack the management teams with graduates from particular schools.
Can you see the problem here?
What it looks like is that you can go ahead and embrace the clichés: particular schools produce particular ways of seeing and interacting with the world. These results, albeit from a small and insignificant sample, poked at the possibility of a larger underlying truth: if you seek to hire or invest in people from only one particular educational background, you are going to get only one particular way of problem-solving and doing things, no matter what they study. Either we are pre-sorted and admitted for these traits or we learn them there.
As a remedy to this,I would also argue that investors and startups seriously need to consider the benefit of accruing a new type of capital: diversity capital.
You have financial capital, which in the classic sense is the money you make, the money you’re born into — and now in the startup sense — it is the money you raise. Diversity capital, on the other hand, is the capital you’re raised with by virtue of possessing some sort of otherness in an otherwise heterogeneous setting.
But first, let’s define our terms. Everyone is talking about one kind of capital or another. This is from Pierre Bordieu who redefined capital in his seminal studies on French table manners in the 70’s and gave rise to the book Distinction. Playing off of the capital Karl Marx introduce in Das Kapital, Bordieu posed that there were other more valuable forms of capital than the financial capital Marx discussed.
In essence, we recognize who’s foreign or familiar around us via each one of our most mundane habits. What art is on the walls, can you play the piano, mouth-breathing, knowing which fork to use, and so on.
More specifically, we signal and recognize who has a background most like ours and who does not… based on something as simple as table manners.
Believe me, it mattered, because Bordieu exposed the flags and dog whistles we all see and recognize; hear and display ourselves; and which ultimately influences the way we both sort, self-select and get sorted.
Financial capital you can accumulate or lose at any time, these other forms of capital — the capital you’re raised with — tend to stick.
Now compare this with diversity capital. It’s roots are in the huge population shifts due to wars, climate change, and also free movement agreements the ongoing quest for economic opportunity elsewhere. The results: lots of people moving into cities and workplaces quite far from where they grew up. With this era of post-immigration, displacement and migration of new people into new areas, they bring with them their otherness — their expanded and unique world view. This plurality of ideas and perspective is valuable and any organization should look to tap into this resource. This is diversity capital.
As a form of capital, it can be accumulated, lost, exchanged and restored. However diversity has yet to be properly valued and leveraged, in spite of its inherent value pluralism adds to any organization. However, it’s strongest representatives: intersectional and multiply individuals, remain overlooked, discriminated against and passed over.
We discriminate on the superficial but think about it. What might that thick accent indicate? Most likely it means someone is a speaker of a 2nd, 3rd or even 7th language.
Diversity should be reframed as capital with an emphasis on pluralism as the new metric of whether your organization has achieved in accumulating enough of it to be effective. You need socio-economic, gender, ethnicity, educational, religious, sexual orientation, disability, neurodiversity in your network and your organization with intersectionality having the highest face value. Why? Because diversity offers unique access to a plurality of thought, skill, education, knowledge, network, perspectives, approach to solutions, and creativity all in one person.
Getting it right: +1, Active Listening & Dumping your shortlist
Here are a few tips to immediately access and grow your access to diversity capital:
- Make an impact and use your social capital “+1 power” to invite someone who’s not within your network to a network event. Make sure she has the chance to introduce herself, make sure she really tells her story and what it is that makes her someone they should know. Encourage her to bring cards and follow up with good stories. Then do it again. Every time an opportunity presents itself, +1 it with someone from outside of your network and encourage friends to do the same. This is one of the easiest efforts you can make at big change and to grow your diversity capital.
- If you want to know what the rest of the world is thinking: then ask somebody who comes from the rest of the world and knows. Ask them to tell their stories — the long ones — because you will learn something from listening to a person completely unlike yourself. Value their voice & their story. If they don’t tell it — or you don’t listen, we’ll never hear it. Let your diversity capital reveal truths to you, no matter how uncomfortable some may be.
- Just as emersion is the best way towards fluency in a new language, cultural emersion is the best way to achieve fluency in a new language of ideas. Deep dive and spend time within the vault of your new diversity capital, figuring out the multiple ways to leverage and promote the talent you have discovered under your very nose. Give their voices priority in boardrooms, let their votes carry twice the weight. Remember, the knowledge within diversity capital is a vast untapped resource, why would you want to stifle it?
- Break free of your mental shortlist and never draw from it again. A victim of diminishing returns, your go-to shortlist for job vacancies and business opportunities is empty, exhausted and obsolete. Just as you would never go back to obsolete technologies (like using your Palm Pilot again), you shouldn’t be returning to the same old list to provide any new sparks. Wipe it clean and start again.
Think about it, disruptors are people who dare to change our comfy lifestyles and familiar ways of doing things, knocking down assumptions, conventions and norms along the way. Who is most likely to benefit from a destruction of the status quo? Someone who was on the downside of the status quo! In this case immigrants and overlooked out-groups. Why? When it’s difficult enough to compete in the regular workforce because of an unusual name, accent, education or job history, then they must create their own economic opportunities. If they really want to get ahead and achieve “the dream” then and immigrant or economic migrant has absolutely nothing to lose by bucking the status quo and introducing disruptive new ideas to the ways we do things.
Look who files for patents at a faster rate than any other group: immigrants. They filed for 40% of patents in the US. Further 50% of the unicorns in the US were founded by immigrants. (McKinsey, 2018) Makes all this noise about getting rid of immigrants sound short-sighted, wouldn’t you say?
We glorify financial capital and laud its most apt accumulators. We also brag about our symbolic capital: displaying the same pedigrees, degrees, awards, workplaces. This is a bankrupt ideology, what we’re really missing is opportunities to amass a new and more valuable forms of capital. If you want to gain the edge, you need diversity capital.
This post also appears in Medium and was the basis for a speech for the 11th European Innovation Summit at the EU Parliament “Diversity is the New Capital and Pluralism is the New Metric. #poweryourplus1