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How to build diverse and dynamic engineering teams

As part of our Beequal community event series we sat down with Sarah Wells, Techincal Director at the Financial Times. During a decade spent in her previous role at the FT, Sarah went from being one of the only women on the team, to being part of the 35% of women and non-binary people that constitute it today.

How to build diverse and dynamic engineering teams

Research indicates that diverse teams achieve better overall performance. According to the Harvard Business Review, citing McKinsey research on the subject, teams with ethnic diversity achieve up to 35% greater financial performance than the national industry median. Engineering teams are also more dynamic and innovative when they are diverse due to a rich variety of experience, and organisations must now take the right action and prioritise inclusion.

esynergy believe in the importance of cross sharing real life examples where organisations have raised their diversity and inclusion efforts, implemented key initiatives and demonstrated successful results to turn the dial. As part of our Beequal community event series we sat down with Sarah Wells, Techincal Director at the Financial Times. During a decade spent in her previous role at the FT, Sarah went from being one of the only women on the team, to being part of the 35% of women and non-binary people that constitute it today. Having been at the heart of this evolution, Sarah is an authority on what is required to build and maintain a diverse engineering team, and she believes the right approach to hiring and retention is critical.

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Sending the right signals

Bringing new talent onboard is the natural starting point when it comes to enhancing your engineering team through diversity, but Sarah explains that the process must be conducted correctly. She asks two key questions as a starting point, ‘do you manage to attract a diverse range of candidates? And do you run an interview process that treats them fairly?’ The purpose of these questions, Sarah explained, is to determine whether your existing culture is inclusive and stands out because of it.

Organisational culture can be made more diverse in several meaningful ways, and Sarah pinpoints the need for leadership roles to be filled by individuals from underrepresented groups. If your organisation’s leadership is already diverse, ‘do they talk about the company?’ Sarah asks, and ‘do other leaders talk about diversity and inclusion?’ Above all, companies need to be demonstrating concrete examples of the action they are taking to promote diversity if they intend to make it a core pillar of their culture.

Job specs themselves can also make or break an organisation’s ambitions to hire diverse talent, with bad examples often filtering out excellent potential candidates. Sarah’s advice is ‘to run your specs past people and ask whether they include anything that would spook them.’ This approach allows you to review technical engineering job specs on a human level, and to see whether they appear to only target limited groups of people. Once you are successfully attracting a range of diverse talent, it is important that a welcoming and inclusive interview environment is created, particularly in terms of having a diverse panel of interviewers.

Authenticity and opportunity

It is common to hear more about hiring diverse talent than about retaining it, which is an equally important component in building an outstanding team. To create an environment your diverse talent feel they can thrive in, Sarah returned to the theme of communication and its importance. However, Sarah emphasised that ‘you have to make it specific, because if you just send out a tweet on International Women’s Day, people will see through that.’ It is crucial that your internal and external messaging is authentic, relevant, and backed by real demonstrable action.

In addition to authentic communication, you also need to be creating great opportunities for underrepresented people. This may mean breaking away from outdated sets of criteria that were once required to unlock promotion opportunities, opening new paths for diverse and dynamic teams to be formed. Sarah reflected again on her own experience, stating that ‘not everyone shows that they are ready for promotion by making a noise.’

As is the case throughout today’s world, data is also crucial for the retention of diverse talent. Sarah said that ‘data is really important, you need to be looking at it and you need to collect it,’ as she looked back on a time when the only diversity and inclusion data the FT held related to gender. After you sensitively collect diversity data, it should be used to make things fairer. For instance, Sarah stated that ‘during every promotion round we would look at the list of people and see if we were disproportionately favouring any groups.’ This demonstrates a meaningful application of data that promotes diversity and inclusion.

Driving progress with metrics and training

To reiterate the importance of data, Sarah made it clear that ‘metrics show what matters.’ She went onto say that ‘if you don’t have any metrics around diversity and inclusion, you are saying that it doesn’t matter to us.’ Carefully collecting and interrogating this kind of data positions you strategically to both attract and retain talented diverse teams.

Training is another important factor that should be implemented to improve your diversity inclusion culture, which in turn will enhance the effectiveness of hiring and retention. Sarah stressed the importance of expecting those in leadership roles to attend, stating that ‘not attending sends the wrong message, and it does get noticed.’

Perhaps most importantly of all, understanding the difference between mentorship and sponsorship is of paramount importance. While mentorship and providing guidance can be hugely beneficial, sponsorship that facilitates opportunities for underrepresented people can be career changing. Sarah emphasised this as a key driver of retention and cultural enrichment.

Show don’t tell

A powerful theme that was present throughout Sarah’s presentation was the need for concrete, meaningful action to be taken. She emphasised that it is no longer enough to simply post and speak emptily about diversity and inclusion ambitions, but that measurable, visible action must now be taken. By creating an inclusive culture, offering opportunities to underrepresented people, and gathering actionable insights to enhance the whole process, organisations can organically attract and retain diverse engineering talent.

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