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Centaur Stage Season 2 Ep.6 - Building Diverse Teams with Jonathan Yeo

Centaur Stage is a weekly video series produced by Cosmic Centaurs, and this second season is all about the magic of teams. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 3:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, is joined by incredible guests who share insights, opinions, and perspectives about what makes teams cohesive, high-performing, and happy.

This second season of Centaur Stage is divided into four chapters, and this episode is the first out of the second chapter: building teams. To kick off the chapter, Marilyn hosted Jonathan Yeo, the Founder of The Potential Space. They discussed how teams can truly be diverse and inclusive on different levels, and how leaders can approach these topics on organizational and smaller team levels.

Watch the full episode here.

About Jonathan Yeo

Jonathan is an inclusive culture strategist, a talent development expert, a leadership coach, and an inspiring speaker and facilitator. He worked for ten years at Apple, designing and delivering inclusion and diversity solutions, as well as leadership curricula and development programs for interpersonal skills. He has experience across a wide range of industries including technology, education, marketing, arts and entertainment. Jonathan has created and facilitated learning experiences that explore bias, identity and allyship, and regularly facilitates workshops focused on team building, communication and collaboration skills.

He holds a B.A. in Communication from the University of Technology, Sydney and is currently undertaking the Executive Master in Change program at INSEAD in Paris.

About the Topic

Getting the early days of a team right plays a big factor in determining its long-term success. Building a team requires having clear goals, setting expectations, being mission-focused, establishing ground rules, aligning on methods of communication and decision-making, defining roles, and importantly, being respectful and embracing the diversity within a team.

This episode is all about the component of diversity: how team members’ differences can make them stronger, and how to create teams that leverage and nurture diversity. As a matter of fact, many studies found that inclusive and diverse teams are much more innovative and creative than others. One such study by BCG found that diverse teams are 19% more productive than others. From leadership to culture, those components of a team require fostering on levels, such as implementing the right norms and values, having defined rules and policies, and a culture of learning.

What is a diverse and inclusive team?

Marilyn started off the episode with the basics. She first asked Jonathan about how he would define diversity and inclusion in his own words.

“Diversity is the ways in which we are different, and can explore all those differences. It’s a wide panorama of all the ways in which we can be different”, he answered. After noting that there is a lot of evidence now on why that is important for a team, and many of us implicitly understand that we need those differences, he explained what inclusion means to him.

“Inclusion, although it is often thought of as a state, is actually an act. We have to work consistently to create it, as it happens through our actions”, Jonathan said.

Inherent vs Acquired Diversity

Those definitions resonated with Marilyn, who then asked further about diversity. She mentioned that lots of people focus on the phenotype, or inherent diversity (which includes gender, race, language). Marilyn then quoted Dr. Vinika Rao, the Executive Director of the INSEAD Gender Initiative & Emerging Markets Institute, from one of our Future of Teams conference sessions: “There is the inherent diversity of ethnicity, race, gender, age, and then there's acquired diversity - experience and background, which influences what you bring to an organization. This is more difficult to measure, but important to take into account to see if true diversity has been achieved.” She asked Jonathan to comment on the quote, and advise how we can pay attention to both inherent and acquired diversity.

Jonathan said that visible diversity overlaps with inherent diversity, and invisible diversity overlaps with acquired diversity. What is inherent may not be what is key to your identity, and vice versa: what you acquire might become a more significant part of your identity, or equally, what is invisible might be a more important part than what's visible or inherent to you. There can be a lot of variation in that aspect, and we need to consider the parts of diversity that we don’t immediately think about.

Marilyn observed: “This allows more space for individuality. My obvious diversity will not tell my whole story, what I chose to be a part of can contribute more to who I am.”

Jonathan used the concept of disability as an example, as it can be either visible or invisible, and can be acquired or inherent. When we think about disability, our minds tend to go to the disabilities that we can see, but those disabilities may or may not always be significant to the person who may have them. They may or may not be the things they would want to identify with. Likewise, what is unseen, can be really important.

Measuring diversity

Agreeing with his last point, Marilyn then asked Jonathan about how he measures team diversity and how he can tell whether it’s promoted or not.

Jonathan answered that the right measurement requires people to be able to balance both qualitative and quantitative approaches, and there’s a certain point where you measuring is impossible since there would be a thousand things to count and observe. In smaller organizations, you could ask yourself the question, “If there are 50 of us, what could that mean?” , but Jonathan has also worked in big tech companies where measurement was reliant on what the U.S. government looks for in terms of understanding underrepresented groups. “They [the U.S. government] make those categorizations, but of course the reality of people's lived experiences is much more nuanced than those categorizations”, he noted.

Jonathan then went on to talk about the aspect of privacy when designing these measurement exercises, which ended up turning out well for the studies on diversity in smaller organizations because they have to ask questions anonymously, none of the smaller numbers can identify anyone. “The power of that, is that the results are presented back to the organization with a picture eliciting a lot of the invisible or acquired aspects of diversity, that do give a broader picture,” he said.

Jonathan noted, “I think the challenge is not taking away from the key focuses. In the U.S, the key focus has been particularly about the experiences of Black employees, which is really fantastic. You don’t want to lose that focus, you want to add to it.”

Smaller teams, bigger teams

Raising a question from the audience, Marilyn asked Jonathan if it’s easier to have a diverse and inclusive environment in smaller teams or bigger teams.

Jonathan answered that when he has those conversations, he shifts the focus on the question of, “how can we be more diverse rather than, what is the right level of diversity?”Because although it is a good question to think about, people work in small teams, even in big organizations. When you are in a small team, you’re likely to be the only one of a certain category. It does not mean you should think you need to go and hire more people of this category, because we are all actually going to probably be the only person in the room at some point. So, he encourages people to think about what community they are operating in or serving.

The benefits of diversity

Marilyn then asked Jonathan to talk about the advantages of having a diverse environment. “One of the things I always talk about is resilience. I actually think that when you have diverse teams, with team members usually dealing with crises or stress or difficult situations in very different ways as individuals - that creates an opportunity when there is a difficult moment to deal with. Perhaps diversity can support developing organizational resilience. What can you say are the real positive impacts of true diversity on the performance and value creation companies?”

Jonathan said that there is an increasing number of studies on innovation, creativity, and business improvements from people coming with different perspectives, and shared his own personal perspective. “When I entered the workforce, I was thinking about wanting to find people who think like me. I’d be annoyed by people who were not aligned. Then I realized, their ideas can be better, and mine can be challenged by other perspectives and other ideas. I say this because I think lots of other people's journeys echo mine.

We look for commonality, we look for similarity, we're wired for that because we need to feel like we belong, but then the next level journey is to look then for difference, and to be comfortable with that”.

Inclusion as a process

This idea resonated with Marilyn, who then moved the conversation to Jonathan’s earlier point about inclusion being a process instead of a state. She asked Jonathan if he has any examples or stories of how to develop those processes of inclusion.

Jonathan started his answer by saying that he’s done activities about getting people to talk about how they are not like their stereotype - whether it's an ethnic stereotype, or a job role stereotype. Because one of the challenges of talking about diversity is that you talk about categories, and those categories immediately bring stereotypes with them. In this activity, people tell each other how they challenge the stereotypes that they have, because we all deviate from what our identities are. Anything that gets people to talk about who they are, should be an ongoing thing.

“We are such complicated individuals, there is so much to unwrap. Inclusivity is not just limited to an activity that you do once a year at your team, it should be a regular discovery, both as a team, and as individuals connecting”, Jonathan clarified.

Marilyn added that creating the space for those conversations and storytelling is very important, not just to learn more about each one another, but also for those moments you realize what you have in common.

Diversity in recruitment

Marilyn then switched the topic to the aspect of diversity in recruitment. Raising questions from the audience, she asked Jonathan about how explicit he is about diversity during the hiring process, if he has any specific criteria, since it is a bad idea to hire someone only to make the organization look more diverse.

Jonathan stated that it is all about balance, as good intentions can often go wrong. “I think that people need to keep in mind that even for a big organization, you’re often hiring for a smaller team. If a person hires someone who isn’t well suited for the role for a diversity quote, even if it’s well-meaning, it can work, but it can be wrong, especially if the person comes in with the idea of being recruited as a diversity hire. It’s really delicate”, he said.

One of the best approaches for Jonathan, is to focus on diversifying the funnel when looking at candidates, and sourcing with more diversity, as the conclusive decision to hire would still be to the best candidate - all while taking diversity into consideration. It’s about making sure that the process that is narrowing down to the best candidate is fair and unbiased, which is a lot of the work he’s done.

He then mentioned how organizations often rely heavily on employee referrals when hiring, because they want people who would already have an idea on how to fit into their culture. It's dangerous because then you will tend to keep drawing the same people from the same pools, which can be mono-cultural in a way or another. “An idea I lean into a lot is that of culture adds, instead of culture fits”, Jonathan noted.

Diverse values: personal, organizational, political

Interested by the idea of culture add as a better alternative to culture fit, Marilyn took a question from the audience about how to deal with team members who have different cultural values than the group, or organization. She asked Jonathan, “How do you strike the balance between creating space for people's personal values, and the kind of richness they bring to the conversation, while also aligning them to the organizational values or the team values?”

Jonathan said that if the company values are clear, then it should hire using those values to a certain point, because hiring people against what the company stands for creates chaos, even if values should be approached in a nuanced way.

Moving to personal values, he added, “We’ve come a long way in most places in the last decade or two, and we now have much more acceptance of religious values. Of course there is still conflict and disagreement, but there is a much healthier tone of talking about these differences. A big pain point in diversity across much of the globe, is that of political affiliation and values. We need to understand that it is a form of belief. I hope we will get to move towards civil discourse towards political difference, which would be that it plays out then in the public arena as well. We have to try to get there.”

In agreement with Jonathan, Marilyn pointed out that we’ve lost the ability for grasping complexity, and accepting that the world is a very complex place, as we seem to find comfort in polarizing opinions nowadays. “There's much work needed to be done around re-enabling dialogue”, she said.

Learning about diversity & inclusion in organizations

Mentioning Jonathan’s work which is focused on creating learning culture, and his publication about how unconscious bias training should not be a one time activity, Marilyn asked him about how to create an ongoing conversation - whether it's about unconscious biases, cultural differences, or privilege tickle perspective.

Jonathan said that the way he sees it is in a two-speed approach. It does not make sense to him that diversity, inclusion, biases are separated, they all need to be integrated in culture and other learning - especially in leadership. However, there is this catch-up that needs to happen, which would require some stand-alone. He encourages organizations to host workshops to get everyone at a foundational level of learning, and as long as there is a further integration in other processes, it works. Another aspect is that of valuing curiosity - as curiosity is the biggest gate to diversity and inclusion, especially inclusive behaviors.

Jonathan stated, “If you have a culture that says, ‘Hey, we are constantly curious, we are constantly learning and growing at all levels, particularly leadership levels’, then you have a foundation for people to lean into the concepts that are more often put in the diversity and inclusion bucket.”

Trainings & workshops

Marilyn then asked Jonathan, if he thinks whether organizations get those training because they have issues on diversity and inclusion which somehow led up to a crisis, or if they do from day one because of their own values.

Jonathan answered that it’s both. Some companies know it’s the right thing to do, but don’t know how to go about these things, and want to lean into it. That is a great example of openness and curiosity, as people don’t know what they don’t know but want to be on a path of learning. There are also organizations that have had problems, in most cases with Jonathan’s clients, there have been challenges. There is also a tendency for them to think one workshop could just settle everything.

Leaders & diversity

“I’ve had some tough experiences where I've learned that the executive behind the problem was going to quell the conversation, and I’ve had to say that none of this is going to bring up the conversation, and you need to be ready for that. I would ideally just say, ‘look, if you're not ready for the conversations and you don't really want to lean into this, then let's not do it because it would be more honest’. That leads me then to the challenge in those organizations”, Jonathan said.

Jonathan went on to elaborate that some organizations want to lean into the grassroots and the groundswell, which is important, but that effort also has to come from the top, as it can become a retention issue. The base of the organization tends to have younger employees, who are more aware and passionate about these topics. If they don't see the change happening at the top, then will start to look elsewhere to find an organization that takes diversity and inclusion seriously.

Jonathan added, “Most leaders I think are ultimately just really nervous, and they feel like they can't say what they don't know, and they are really just trying to manage their exposure. What I do in those instances, is to get to those options for them on what to say, starting from leadership, with the CEO and their team. You just see so much relief on their faces when they can get into a room and actually admit what they don't know, and start to explore. Of course, the advantage is when the drive and the messaging are consistent. That's when culture changes, matched with what's happening at the grassroots.”

Inclusive language

Marilyn took a question from the audience, and asked Jonathan what language nuances he advises teams to adopt to create a more inclusive culture. How picky should we be about words from the perspective of a global audience?

Jonathan pointed out that although lots of people have lots of fear and insecurity about saying the wrong things, there is no way we are going to get it right all the time. There is so much debate about language. Real progress can be recognized when we agree to talk about language. He then used the example of the phrase “hey guys”which although is used regardless of gender in most English language cultures, is still a gendered term. A colleague challenged him on it, which made him think about it. The challenge made him much aware of language, as it is deeply programmed at a certain level. In teams, he now says “hey everyone” or “hey team” instead.

“I don’t have hard rules [about language]. It’s about getting people thinking about these choices, and being transparent about when you mess up”, he said.

Making amends

Marilyn asked Jonathan, how can we help people knowing when they offended someone or made someone feel excluded, and what are some of the practices he would advise teams to use.

Jonathan answered that this can be approached in different ways, but for most cases it’s all about apologizing. The first thing is to admit it as quickly as possible. That is, if feedback is given on it. Someone’s experience is theirs, so we shouldn’t try and defend it, as someone's experience of what was said is their experience of what we've said, regardless of intent. That is the empathetic approach, apologizing, trying to do better and telling the person to keep an eye on them.

Jonathan then mentioned the little voice that happens in our heads, when we say something and wonder if it sounded offensive. Instead of brushing it off, it’s a good thing to address. We should admit and try to address that in the moment, and say ”hey I just realized I said that, didn’t want to come off the wrong way, what i meant was this”, or at least we can say these in the follow-up conversation. “I think that's about respect and empathy rather than thought police”, he said.

His hope is that if there is a sense that people are trying and want to learn, it will soon remove the need for an accusatory approach to inclusion. Nonetheless, that accusatory approach can be beneficial for some instances.

Marilyn agreed and said, “By creating a better community, you remove the need for policing. It creates a space for people to learn, share feedback, without fearing you might become a victimized minority. Bringing these subjects up, acknowledging them, apologizing, and moving forward together, is a complex human interaction. I think the more compassion on both sides, the better. Your hope is a really beautiful one”.

🔥Rapid Fire

The one thing every team needs is…Growth mindset.

The one thing a team needs to avoid…Group think

A good team leader is…Transparent

The best book on teams is…Winnie The Pooh by A. A. Milne! Because the book series has very drastically different characters who all bring something to the table. For Jonathan, the journey is leaning into all of those characters.

What’s your favorite team ritual? “ Going around the room. What I mean by that, is whatever function you need input from, take the opposite of the loudest voice. If you give everyone an equal chance at the table, there's always amazing stuff.”


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