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. “Yeah, Dad, but that’s because they had to pick a girl first,” she answered, 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 a 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 convince 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 – to be 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, while different, has also driven results when it comes to hiring for diversity. 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) both professionally and personally. 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 about 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 that they called our “Women in Technology Lunch” (no formal association to WIT). Rather than formalize a 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 de facto member of the group. I picked up the tab every time we went out, just as I would have any other department or ad-hoc 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 the 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 judgment. 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 don’t drop any balls because of it. I trust 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 the 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 wholeheartedly 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 absolute 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.