Diversity: How we built a 50% female leadership team

Several months ago my daughter, Catherine, decided to play dodgeball during lunch with several students from her seventh grade class. Knowing she was a stellar athlete, one of the boys in her class chose her to be on his team with his second selection. She beamed with confidence and dominated the game. How do I know? Because she ran home to tell me all about it that evening.

In the midst of stories about her conquests – how she walloped Tommy in the square of the back and caught a 94 mph fastball to save the game – I decided to inquire more about why this day in particular was such a big deal. I knew she had played before, and, I was pretty confident that she’d been picked in the first round before, too. “Ya dad, but that’s because they had to pick a girl first” she answered, while rolling her eyes. That was the difference. Today’s game was an unsanctioned pick up game. She had been chosen on her own merits. Recognized for her talent. She knew without a shadow of doubt that it was not for any other reason.

I’m not one to actively insert my voice into many social or political conversations. I’d personally rather spend my energy trying to put my beliefs into personal action than convincing others that I am right. In my humble opinion, it’s more efficient and less stressful to live my beliefs than to argue them. I find our world to be far too polarizing these days and too many opinions are interpreted to have meaning that doesn’t exist.

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, this is the exact path I’ve taken. As the father of four daughters (and 3 sons), ensuring that my girls have every opportunity to thrive – regardless of what path they choose in life – is intensely personal to me. I want all of them to have the gift that Catherine was given on the dodgeball court – chosen for their merits and given the opportunity to excel based upon their talents. And, I recognize that while our world may have come a long way in supporting that reality, it still has a long way to go.

True to form, until now, I’ve chosen to put my head down, live my beliefs, and let my actions and the results they create speak for themselves. And, frankly, I’m proud of the results. 50% of 3Pillar’s Senior Leadership Team is female. Together, we lead a workforce – in the technology sector, no less – that is over 30% female globally. We are stronger than our competitors because of it. But, in honor of Catherine and International Women’s Day, I’ve decided to add my voice to the conversation and share the revolutionary strategy I’ve used to hire a diverse team.

I simply hire the best talent I can find, attempt to create a culture that respects every human person, and let statistics take care of themselves.

If you ask me, that’s true diversity and inclusion.

Listen, there are undoubtedly situations where bias is so thick that formal programs are required in order to break the logjam of discrimination and build momentum towards a more fair world. What is even more dignifying is when we choose what is right. As Catherine so insightfully pointed out, at some point formal programs can even seem to undermine their very purpose and slow momentum. Perhaps it’s time to empower organizations to do the right thing rather than mandating a one-size-fits-all approach to diversity.

Research shows that diversity of thought and perspective drives creativity, innovation and performance excellence. Equity is not only right, it is flat out good for business. (Side note: equality is treating everyone the exact same; equity is embracing unique differences and giving everyone the same opportunity to succeed).

I want women to have an equitable opportunity to excel in leadership, on boards and in technology, as do so many others. I believe it’s both the right thing and that it’s good for business. Some organizations choose to pursue this equity by developing policies and programs that mandate diversity. My approach is wildly different. It has also driven results. I don’t have any special programs and I don’t impose any sort of quota. I set an expectation that we search for and hire the best and most qualified candidates that we can find and I insist that we treat every single person with dignity and respect.

Our culture honors the unique needs of each individual. We support people where they are at (equity, not equality). In some situations this means providing mentoring, but women don’t need any more mentoring than men. They simply need the same chance to have it as their counterparts.  In other situations this means providing flexibility. They shouldn’t get any more or less flexibility than their male colleagues in a similar situation. Regardless of gender, I want a culture that genuinely cares and helps all of our employees to thrive.

Here are a couple of examples of how this plays out.

  • In the early days of 3Pillar, a group of women in the office began a tradition which they called our “Women in Technology Lunch” (no formal association to WIT). Rather than formalize some sort of program around this (we had no formal programs about anything back then), I unconsciously supported the effort as I would have any other group that assembled. I joined them one day and bought the team lunch. Over time I became a staple at the lunch and a defacto member of the group. I ended up buying their lunch every time we went out, just as I would have any other department or adhoc assembly of employees. In hindsight, I’m convinced that this simple, unconscious, action of treating our WIT Lunch group as I would have a group of architects, the finance department, or any other group was the fertilizing action that helped propel our diversity.
  • I’m the father of 7. My family commitments, especially during spring sports season, are likely a little more logistically challenging than the average person. I make it clear that the fact that I will leave the office at 2:30 to watch a 3:00 baseball game isn’t CEO privilege. It’s an opportunity available to everyone to use at their discretion and good judgement. Every person has the freedom to do what they need to do and the responsibility to make sure their job gets done. I hold them to the same standard — yes, leave early, but, also, don’t drop any balls because of it. As you can likely imagine, I’m pretty sure that this example, not only in words, but in action, makes 3Pillar a better place for women and men alike who have family responsibilities.
  • A year and a half ago I was taken aback by how a very simple, personal, note I had sent to a mom returning from maternity leave set the tone for how we now welcome new moms back to the office at 3Pillar. The words of encouragement I sent, recognizing both the talent of the individual and uniqueness of her situation, while simple, became the basis for how our Talent team welcomes moms back today (it helped that the original message happened to be our Global Head of Talent).

“We’re so glad you’re back. We missed you greatly and have been counting the days to your return. We also celebrate your son’s life and support you in your dreams of the mom and professional you want to be. Welcome home – David”.

It’s amazing to me how small, considerate and genuine actions made without bias can create an atmosphere of inclusion and attract a more diverse workforce. I’m whole heartily convinced that if we treat every person with dignity and respect, we genuinely care about others and we focus on the talents that unique individuals bring to bear that we will make this world a much better place.

Frank Slootman, the former CEO of ServiceNow, also took this approach. In his estimation having this policy of simply hiring the best for the job “delivered more social justice” than alternative approaches could have. As he says in his LinkedIn post, “Amp It Up!”

Similarly, we ran the companies for attracting and retaining talent, regardless of gender, race or ethnic origin. We valued people for their contribution to our goal, not because they had a preferred skin color, gender or ethnic background….Data Domain and ServiceNow hired you on merit, not because you checked a box. Good people don’t want to be hired because they fit a demographic. We made a lot of money for our people, and we delivered more social justice this way than we ever could have, pursuing other people’s ideas of that.

Frank Slootman, Amp It Up!
Principle at Invisible Hand Ventures
Former CEO ServiceNow and Data Domain

In celebration of this International Women’s Day, I’m stepping out of my comfort zone and sharing the strategy that’s helped 3Pillar reach true diversity amongst its leadership ranks. If we would all commit to hiring the absolutely best talent, creating a culture of dignity and respect for every human being, I’m pretty confident that the statistics would begin to take care of themselves. They did for me.