Cosmic Conference 2021 - Session 5: Managing Diversity in Distributed Teams

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

The Future of Teams conference, which was held on July 6, 7, and 8, 2021, was our second annual edition of the Cosmic Conference. Hosted by Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, the conference had all-star guests share their insights, opinions, and perspectives about the future of teams.


Diversity in the workplace has been hyped up a lot in the last few years. Various studies have shown that diverse teams and companies, ethnically and cognitively, outperform those that aren’t. For example, a Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation. From such statistics we can see the importance of diversity in organizations and so, Tala Odeh, our host, was joined by Dr. Vinika Rao and Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs to discuss ways to manage diversity, compassion and leadership.


Watch the full session here:




About our guest

Dr. Vinika Rao is the Executive Director of the INSEAD Gender Initiative & Emerging Markets Institute and Director of the Hoffman Global Institute for Business & Society, Asia. Prior to INSEAD, she was an Associate Professor of Strategy at the S.P. Jain Centre of Management, Singapore. Her research interests are gender diversity in corporate leadership, male allyship, and multigenerational influences in the workplace, and is a frequent speaker on related topics and published/quoted in leading business publications.


What is Diversity?

Tala started, “ we know that 70% of companies believe they're effective at attracting and retaining diverse employees, but only 11% actually understand what that diversity actually is. This is according to Josh Bersin. I'd love to hear from you how you would define true diversity within a team organization?”


Dr. Vinika replied, “As you said in your opening remarks, there's been a lot of research on the impact of diversity on business performance. Both academic research and experience from practitioners has established the business case for diversity. We do see companies making all the right noises whether it comes to having rules for targets, for diversity when they're hiring, metrics for performance measurement et cetera. In terms of diversity, many companies have Diversity Officers. A lot of companies are doing some very great things in that regard, but as you mentioned building a culture of true diversity is difficult.

It's difficult at the best of times. In a crisis situation like the one that we've gone through now, that's actually been a great test of where true diversity really exists in an organization. I say this from experience. We were recently doing some research at the INSEAD Gender Initiative which involved conversations with various CEOs. One of the questions that we asked them was, given all the chaos that's happening in companies and the fact that this was early in the pandemic with everything that's going wrong as you're struggling for lives and livelihoods, where has that left your diversity measures? As we had expected, there were business leaders who said that, I'm just trying to focus on survival right now, this is not really on the top of my mind. This was understandable in many cases.” But, she also said that there were leaders who shared that they believe now, more than ever, they have to “stick with everything” they’ve set for diversity.


“The reason for that, according to them is because we realized that a crisis like the pandemic can actually set us back many years. We've seen the statistics that you spoke about have become much worse during the pandemic when it comes to gender balance for instance. So, that's the reason why these companies made diversity part of their DNA. It's one of those things which is non-negotiable. It is there irrespective of the situation that they're facing, it is something that they adhere to at all levels of the organization, especially in the more senior levels where decision making happens as it becomes even more important.

Another thing to mention in this regard is that we're not talking about token diversity. When we speak about diversity, it's not about having one woman on your board and that's enough because we know that doesn't work. I think I'm preaching to the choir, you guys all know it and I'm sure a lot of our audience will agree that it doesn't go very far. We have to have a certain minimum representation of every group that we're trying to represent in order to make sure that the voices are impactful and can properly be heard.”


Dr. Vinika then continued and explained that we have 2 types of diversity: inherent and cognitive. “We talk about cognitive diversity in addition to the phenotype, but some people will refer to it as inherent diversity, which we're born with; when we're talking about ethnicity, race, gender, sexual preference, age et cetera. There's also the acquired diversity which has to do with experience and background that influences the kind of thought leadership that you provide to an organization. That, obviously, can be more difficult to measure. So, it's important to take that into account when we talk about whether diversity has truly been achieved in an organization or not.”

She then gave examples, “I've had conversations with male managers who've said that it made a huge difference to them after they'd had one female boss to just understand how things can be different and better.” She said that it’s the same if the males have managed a team with lots of females. “It can also be a gentleman who has a working female spouse or partner and that has a huge impact. It also matters in the case of a woman who has had the opportunity to work in many different countries. Her cultural sensitivity and awareness are different. That kind of leadership that you bring in as a woman also changes. So, the acquired aspect is something that we must not ignore and can be something that we really want to keep track of. The final piece of the puzzle is about creating a safe space where everyone, irrespective of their inherent or required backgrounds, feels safe in bringing up a point of view which might be different from that of the other people in the group. It is where they feel that they will receive feedback that will be actionable. It will be based on performance oriented measures as opposed to anything personal and the sentiment with which they bring in something that's innovative or different. We'll also be reciprocated in the way that reaction's coming. If we can combine all of these dimensions together, then we're approaching the kind of diversity that we'd like to see in organizations.”


Moving to Marilyn, Tala said, “I’d love to hear your reaction to what Vinika shared and also to share if you have any examples from your experience about how you see this working in the different teams that you've led, and how, if you have any examples, of how diversity enabled your team to thrive.”


Marilyn replied, “As someone with more acquired diversity than real diversity, I really appreciate that argument just by way of a quick joke. My husband and I are both Lebanese and we always joke that I am very Lebanese, but I don't look Lebanese and vice versa. He grew up in London and so he looks very Lebanese, but isn't, to the point where I got a DNA test to be able to have a conversation with data. I thought I'd be quite exotic but it turns out I'm 97% from the Levant. I'm really very local, but I am someone with a lot of acquired diversity in the sense of my experience where I've grown up.


As Tala was mentioning earlier, I've done everything from building tech products to running an opera and a lot of things in the middle. Therefore I am biased to want to celebrate diversity because I am the product of that diversity as well. I always talk about a personal experience of why I find diversity to be such an important thing. I always refer to a book that I read, which is called Range, that argues that generalists will triumph in a very specialized world. In that book David Epstein, who wrote it, separates between kind problems and wicked problems. Kind problems are problems that are dealt with in a known environment with known variables. Like playing a chess game, what the rules are, how many pieces you have and how you can move them. Wicked problems, on the other hand, are problems that are in unexpected contexts. I think the pandemic has been one of those, but businesses are constantly evolving in unexpected contexts. From the point of view of the manager practitioner in me, having a team of diverse thinkers makes a business more ready to solve these complex problems.


Whether in my first company at Keeward or here at Cosmic Centaurs, I've always been surrounded by people who don't do what they do. I'm an architect who advises people on organizational strategy and Tala is someone from PR who's a consultant here. At Keeward, I used to work with engineers and accountants who had become creative directors. I just think that there's so much creativity and excellence to be brought in from other environments. In the book that I was referencing, David Epstein shares so many anecdotes about how, for example, NASA wanted to solve a problem about the positioning of solar panels on their station. They put it out to the crowd and every single solution that was suggested by the crowd was more efficient than the solution of the NASA scientists themselves. In Cosmic Centaurs and on the topic of representation, we were a team of all girls until two days ago. I was joking with the first guy I was hiring and said how do you feel being around a team of just women? And they said to me, oh, I grew up with my mother and three sisters. I'm like great, you'll fit right in. But, now we actually have two more men joining us. There's going to be representation of the male side of our team. I'm really very curious to see and explore how this is going to change our dynamics for the better and what we're going to learn from each other.”


On Multigenerational Diversity

As some of Dr. Vinika’s work is around multigenerational diversity, Tala asked, “Can you please share your thoughts on this and how it's managed within teams and organizations?”


Dr. Vinika responded, “It's the first time in human history that we have so many generations working together. If I think back to a few years back, we used to talk about millennials and all the issues that came with having them in the workplace, et cetera. My clients and people that I work with in HR will say just as soon as we've gotten used to the millennials, now we have Gen Z. The age of incoming entrance into the workplace is becoming younger and younger because they don't have to come in formal contracts. Many of them are working even as they're studying. It's becoming quite young on the one hand because they're experts at things that I know nothing about. When it comes to the tech space, for instance, my 12 year old or 20 year old can tell us more than I can and so, they become very valuable. On the other hand of the spectrum, of course, the older workers are getting older just because lifespan has improved, people are retiring later and they're very productive and useful. The good news is that all of that diversity in terms of age and experience is wonderful and very useful in the workplace and companies. I've seen the benefit of that.”


She then moved to discuss the challenges that come with multigenerational diversity. “Some of the experiences that those of us who were born before digitalization had are experiences that are completely different from what a lot of people in the workplace today experience. To a digital native, the idea of some of these things is impossible. And so, I do think it's important to manage that. We've done some research at the Emerging Markets Institute at INSEAD where we looked at people from across the world in different generations.”


To give us some concrete examples in dealing with older workers, Dr. Vinika shared, “I remember in a previous conversation with Marilyn, we discussed the idea that it's difficult for older workers because perhaps they are not used to technology. In the remote environment that we're working in right now with flexibility increasing, does it become more difficult? I've found that if everyone treats everybody else with mutual respect and an awareness that just because someone doesn't know how to put a background on this call, as has happened with me just before, that doesn't negate all the other experiences which that person might have had. On the other hand, when a younger person is correcting us in some respect, then again, that feedback has to be taken with a lot of respect. I find that simple rule works really well; the idea of reverse mentoring which a lot of organizations are following now. I think the CEO of Unilever in one of the countries that we work with, talked about the fact that he has sought a mentor who's 21 years old and this person is teaching him something new every day. Of course the mentor is delighted to have the opportunity to be talking to this extremely experienced and wonderful person from whom he is going to learn many things that are important for his career.


Of course the pandemic has helped in many ways because it's forced us to adopt a lot of things, even in terms of technology. It’s also forced companies to look at how they can better equip their employees across ages, whether it's in terms of providing younger employees with physical hardware at home which they may not be able to afford and perhaps all the employees with some training so that they're able to circumvent some of these issues which they may not have had to face under normal circumstances. That has been one of the positives that has come out of this and it might've actually helped increase the productivity and the positives that come from age-based diversity in the workplace.”

Challenges that come with Diversity

With many challenges accompanying diverse hiring, Tala asked Marilyn, “We know that with flexible work, organizations are no longer bound to hiring talent from a specific geographic region. Right now we can hire and build teams with people from countries we've never visited and with cultural contexts that are very different to ours. Can you tell us about the challenges that come with this?”


“I have a three dimensional answer to this, '' said Marilyn. “I perceive diversity as something to celebrate and cherish. So, my first reaction to diversity is that it's not a challenge, but an amplification of our collective capability as a team. It can sometimes be a challenge. I might actually not treat someone as different, but in fact, they are. Meaning they have different needs and they want feedback in different ways. Diversity can also come from whether they're a morning person or an evening person. We've had this conversation as a team and half of us are one way and the others are another way. Diversity doesn't always have to be just about big ones like gender or race. The interesting thing is to find both points of commonalities and points of difference and to treat both of them with curiosity.


Maybe I can add to the baseline that Dr. Vinika gave us about trust which is another one about curiosity and openness to learn. Instead of saying what our parents would have said, you should wake up early, the good, smart, hard working people get up in the morning, it's more about what do you do at night? How do you spend your time? Whatever the point of difference or the point of commonality is, explore it as if you've heard this really cool fact for the first time and as an opportunity to discover the richness of humanity. Sometimes, as a leader, I forget that there is a point of difference. I assume that everybody's sitting in my head and they know exactly how I think about everyone and it's not true. I also think that accepting that diversity can be a challenge for some, that it's not obvious for everybody and that towards me or towards each other, within our team, we have to have spaces for those conversations. This’d be the way that I address that.”

To comment on what Marilyn shared, Dr. Vinika said she agreed that we can now easily hire people in a multicultural space as employees are not forced to move et cetera. “There are huge positives to that for all the reasons that we've discussed so far. We also have to be careful that we don't oversimplify the issue, sometimes at least anecdotally in conversations. Just having people from various different countries doesn't necessarily mean that the idea of true diversity has been created. That point still needs to be borne in mind. Having said that, overall it's very positive. You will have more experiences and different points of view which is wonderful. One positive also to mention is when someone needs to take on a promotion or take on a larger role, we now no longer have to force them to uproot the entire family and move across the world just because that's what's required when you have a promotion. In the context of some minority groups in many countries, women do bear a larger role in terms of looking after the family. That can be something that impacts women when it comes to taking on senior leadership roles. That is another positive that's come out of the ability to now be able to hire even more flexibility than we've had in the past.”


Distributed work and minorities

Marilyn jumped and asked Dr. Vinika, “There's something very interesting about the question of whether distributed work is favorable for minorities, particularly women. If we want to deep dive into this, interestingly enough, before the pandemic flexible and remote work were given as solutions to help promote female employment and their ability to contribute to the workforce. But when it became the norm for everybody to work remotely, we are now seeing that if anything, it's had the opposite effect. Two years ago, if you wanted more women to contribute you had to give them flexible time. Now, if you give them a little too much, then they can't separate and compartmentalize their personal lives and their work lives. The number is staggering and 20% of women have dropped out of the workforce. I wonder if you could talk about this duality of that flexibility.”


“No measures work unless they apply to everyone,” said Dr. Vinika. “One of the positives has been, as you were saying, the fact that now it's not just women who have been working flexibly, everybody has to do it. There have been no hidden consequences because everyone’s being forced to do it. What that has done is it made everybody realize men and women. We know that a lot of men don't want to go back to ever working full time or ever working from the office again. This is not something that only women are saying. Also a lot of fathers, for instance, who've been able to more actively participate in learning from home for their children have realized what they were missing out on if they were not already actively engaged with that process.

I've always said, even in the past, that we can have a whole lot of measures and say that we have flexibility so that we can have more women come in. But because there were always hidden issues associated with that, whether it was warranted or not, it never really worked. I remember many years back where we had some of our colleagues at INSEAD who had a careers talk. We had a consulting firm that had come in to do it. I remember the partner who was making the presentation saying that, okay, so guys, I need to rush this up because I need to leave at this time because I'm only working until whatever time it was and I need to go home and pick up my kids. I heard a collective gasp from the audience, he’s going to go back and pick up his kids and that's it. So, he must have sensed it and said, yeah, I only work half a day. That was wonderful because immediately, he had convinced the entire audience that anything that firms talk about when it comes to flexibility is true because you have a senior and gentleman partner saying and doing this. The reverse was also true when people didn’t often believe it.


Coming to the point of Marilyn about 20% of women exiting the workforce. We’ve all seen these very disturbing statistics and Tala was speaking earlier about some other reports all of which we read. I think in 2019, the one that stuck out in my mind from at least American statistics is that there were 865,000 women who had left the workforce. That was four times more than men and it was not all involuntary. Many of them made that decision voluntarily. The McKinsey report on women at work, which I think a lot of us have read, spoke about the fact that one in four women are actively considering either leaving the workforce or they're staying on and they don't want to take on bigger roles anymore. These are equally disturbing facts because we know how difficult it is to get women in senior leadership positions in some companies. It's because not only do women have to guard their own careers and work extra hard because the company is going through a crisis, but there's also children at home who need to be homeschooled. Elder care, for example, in a lot of societies automatically falls to the woman. That becomes sort of a double whammy. We have seen that and it's continuing.


Early indications were that it's likely that women will be disproportionately affected by the pandemic and now, many reports have come out. I always look at the World Economic Forum Gender Gap report that comes out and there, the figures are mind-blowing in terms of how long now it's going to take for the gender gap to resolve itself. So, from all of those points of view, I agree that the situation is quite dire. And we do have to take into consideration the fact that this pandemic has disproportionately affected women. We need to do something about it. But there are possibilities and various opportunities that we can leverage.”


How to close the Gender Gap?

After what Dr. Vinika and Marilyn shared regarding the disturbing statistics of gender gap, Tala asked, “Marilyn, as a leader of a business and as somebody who's held many leadership roles, is it the role of policy and business leaders to ensure that they are deliberately closing the gender gap in distributed settings in specific and what are some of these policies that can be implemented? And maybe after that, Dr. Vinika I'd love to ask you about the general solutions that we can put forward to offset what's happened to the staggering number of women who have been leaving the workforce.”


Marilyn explained, “It has to be somebody’s job so it better be ours! That's the short answer. The long answer is honestly, we can go back to the reason why organizations exist and maybe it's not the fundamental and theoretical reason that they have to create value for society. But, hopefully we're past the original reasons why organizations exist and we're able to see that in addition to economic value added we have a role on a societal value added KPI which was my first question to my finance professor at INSEAD. When I learned the concept of EVA, I walked up to him and I said, how do you calculate value added to society? He's like, I always have one of you. There's always one person who asks me that question.

Marlyn explained that it’s the leader’s role to facilitate the context in which employees operate in. “Very proudly, in every organization I've been in, including this one, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what are the measures and the policies and the changes that need to be brought in to enable these things. It's why we built Aion, our software that enables that mutual knowledge piece. It's why we have these conversations with leaders so we can go into the specifics.


Of course there are different kinds of policy changes that can apply to different personal contexts. I don't know that I would single it out for minorities, but maybe for life events. As Dr. Vinika said, it's not just about males and females, it's about you've become a parent. It's about you've lost someone you care for. It's about you've had a miscarriage. It's about all of those moments where organizations have to create context for a better space no matter whether your diversity is inherent or it's acquired or it's related to an event. Something happened in your life that has changed how you're feeling today and it is our job to make that environment work for you.


Sorry, this is a bit of a passionate answer, but I really think whose job is it then? Is it something we delegate to the government and worry about once every four years when we vote? No, that's not good enough.”


Moving to Dr. Vinika, she replied, “We have colleagues at INSEAD, professor Zoe Kinias in particular, and they talk about this idea of a systemic web of challenges when it comes to the experiences that women have in the workplace. The fact is that it’s not anyone's problem, it's a combination of various different problems which have influenced how things are going and whether it's organizational policies and practices or wage gap, or various other things. Of course, the pandemic has made certain things worse as we were discussing this whole idea of societal pressures to do more when things go wrong, when women in many countries or many families have to bear that extra burden. So, when we start talking about the solutions it's not going to be a silver bullet, it's going to be a systemic set of solutions. We’ll have to combine different options and take a nuanced look at what really is required and take it from there. One of the general pointers that we always talk about is building a culture of learning which is important under all circumstances, but especially in the extreme case of crisis. Which means just looking at what other people are saying and becoming really good listeners.


We had some research that we had done early in the onset of the crisis at the Gender Initiative, where we spoke with a lot of leaders, a lot of alumni and that included a large percentage of senior leaders and asked them, what are you doing? And this is what they were talking about, listening better. We're taking a careful and sensitive look at everyone's situation because, whether we like it or not, we're all becoming very aware of the home environment of our team members. Just before the call started, I was telling you guys that I was trying to change my background because I'm sitting in my daughter's flat in London. It's student accommodation and it's not the kind of background I typically want. But the fact is, that's how it is right now. We're all working from home, having to make all these sorts of changes and we're becoming a barrier that not everyone has access to a single room. Someone is a single parent and has little children or pets who might come and use all of those things. Awareness and sensitivity has become particularly crucial. It's good to see leaders paying attention to that in a way that they've never done in the past, or at least more than they've done in the past. Even in a session like this, where we're talking to each other, we're trying to see what's working in other organizations and it's all part of building that culture of learning.”


Dr. Vinika also made sure to refer to collecting data with a purpose. “One of the silver linings of this crisis is that we're collecting more data than we've ever done before. There’s an opportunity where we can learn who are the people who suffered the most at set stages and what are some of the measures that worked or did not work. "

"Another thing that I can mention in this regard is actually from research that we did before the crisis at the Emerging Markets Institute, sponsored by a large bank, where we were looking at the fact that many organizations talk about having introduced various measures for diversity and still, the needle's not moving as much as we'd like it to. Why is that happening? As a result of the project that followed, three things came out. And because we're a business school and we like our jargon and went to put it in a SAD state of affairs. The S is for lack of specificity, the A is the lack of accountability and D is for lack of disclosure. Lack of specificity is in what is the specific problem that you're trying to address with this particular bullet that you're sending out and how specifically is it measured in terms of its impact. This is very important and often gets missed. In terms of lack of accountability, if heads don't roll when a measure doesn't work, unfortunately it doesn't really make it. We need firm targets like when Marylin started with someone has to be responsible. The third one is in terms of lack of disclosure on diversity statistics. Many companies still don't publish those or are uncomfortable with some aspects. So, if you have board nominations, it's not just about who you end up with. Who was the head of the nomination committee? How many people only women did you consider? All of those things require more disclosures. Again, we need to be correcting and we need to be doing a little more. That becomes quite important in terms of understanding things we can do just to make things go well. One other thing that I would like to mention, which is new and it's come up in the context of the pandemic and conversations that we've had with leaders, is the idea that the boundaries between work and home have become blurred. The difference between the first shift and the second shift doesn't exist for most of us now. What that has also done, as we spoke, is it made leaders more aware. We also understand that often the productivity of people at work now is more than it has been before in the home environment. This is true for all genders, but you might be fortunate enough to have a family or a spouse or a partner who understands the importance of your job, given that they might lose theirs. Then you're starting your work with a gender balance that has its foundation in the house. That extends to productivity in the workplace more than perhaps it would have done if these two aspects were so separated. Again, this is not something that I'm saying. It's come out of conversations with many executives and some of them have very interesting ideas in terms of how it's become more and more important for leaders to understand these home dynamics, to be aware of them, and to work accordingly. It is important to have in the workplace supportive colleagues and bosses and a combination of at home supportive partners and families.


Together, this might lead to a situation where we don't have to worry too much about so many years of hard work towards gender balance being chanted back because of this pandemic.”


🔥Rapid fire questions

At the end of every session, a series of rapid fire questions was asked to all our conference speakers:


Q: What's the skill that every leader needs to have today that maybe wasn't as important before?

A: Dr. Vinika: Body language and how it comes through over the camera and a more

sensitive and nuanced look at people’s personal situations

Marilyn: Facilitation, online in particular

Q: What is the one book that every leader needs to read?

A: Dr. Vinika: No Rules Rules and The Phoenix Encounter

Marilyn: High Output Management and Range

Q: What is your perfect song to work on?

A: Dr. Vinika: Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Marilyn: The Homecoming Album by Beyonce

Q: What is the perfect team size?

A: Dr. Vinika: The number that allows everybody’s voice to be heard and bringing

together the synergy as well

Marilyn: More than 1 and less than however many names I can remember

Q: The future of teams is?

A: Dr. Vinika: Agility, innovation and mutual respect and trust

Marilyn: Teams