Discovering The Benefits of Diverse Teams

Ian Colle is a General Manager, AWS Batch and HPC at Amazon and a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve. He also is a member of the MIT EMBA Class of 2017 and the MIT Sloan Student Senate.

I came to MIT Sloan for its data-driven, analytic approach to management. However, the softer skills I’m learning are also adding tremendous value. A particularly compelling lesson was about working on diverse teams – how to work with people from different backgrounds, industries, geographies, and communication styles, and how those teams greatly enrich the learning experience.

Coming from a software engineering and military background in the U.S., most of the people I’ve worked with throughout my career have looked and sounded a lot like me. There isn’t a lot of diversity. Even when leading in a global context, the associates I engage with share our strong corporate culture and corresponding values. When employees or team members at work share ideas, we’re usually on the same page about our communication styles, decision-making processes, and how we’re going to achieve the end goal. Working on a diverse team during our Leadership and Integrative Management module completely changed my notion of teamwork. Our team included a serial entrepreneur from Chile, a surgeon from South Africa, a financial analyst from Poland, an oil industry executive from Kazakhstan, and an entrepreneur from Algeria.

Working with this group of amazing professionals, I realized how much my classmates’ different views and perspectives are helping me learn and grow by challenging my worldviews. As a result, I’m becoming a better leader. That said, it’s not always smooth sailing to work with people who are so different from you. Here are some of the insights I gained about working on diverse teams through that experience:

Know Your Limits
The course focused on a case about Walmart’s attempts to globally expand its sustainability program. In analyzing why the company’s efforts were successful in countries like Chile, but not successful in countries like Germany, understanding cultural differences was critical. I’ve travelled the world quite a bit and thought I had a global viewpoint. However, listening to my teammates’ perspectives made me realize that I have many American business culture filters. That was a real learning moment. You need to understand the limits or biases of your own perspective and be open to learning from those with other viewpoints.

Don’t Fear Conflict
When everyone on a team has comparable experiences, conflict tends to be minimal. Chances are that they each bring similar perspectives to the table. However, when you are on a team with people from different industries and backgrounds, there will inevitably be conflict. When you’re in business school, everyone is a peer – there is no boss to make the final decision. Every member of the team probably has strong opinions, and they may express those opinions differently based on their culture. If English is not their first language, there may even be communication challenges. It’s not a matter of IF conflict will happen, but WHEN, so be prepared and don’t be afraid of it.

Talk About the Dynamic
When our team initially encountered some conflict, my first instinct was to turn inward. However, after some self-reflection, I realized that in order to move forward, we needed to have a dialogue about the group dynamic. We were able to openly discuss our concerns and frustrations, and move forward. Conflict is inevitable, but what you learn from it is up to you and the team. If you deny it is happening, you won’t get as much out of the learning experience. It’s in the midst of that conflict where key learning happens.

Expand Your View of Leadership
When you’re on a team of peers, you exercise leadership in a different capacity. It’s more about peer to peer influencing. It resembles a negotiation in that the other members should feel that their arguments are being heard, and they are achieving their goals. Everyone needs to be included in the overall discussion and part of the ultimate solution.

What Is Your Style?
I thought I was a certain type of leader, but this experience made me realize that my leadership style was based on being in homogenous groups. When I was put into a new environment, I was extremely uncomfortable and found myself scrambling to figure out where everyone was coming from. I had to re-evaluate myself as a leader and find ways to improve my skills. I also recognized that learning is a 360-degree experience at MIT. While we learn a lot from the professors, we also learn a great deal from each other.

If I hadn’t been on such a diverse team, I wouldn’t have learned as much because people similar to me would have reinforced my existing worldview. Instead, my team helped me to grow as a leader and gave me new perspectives.

How do you lead diverse teams? How do you manage conflict on those teams?