Manageable Guides

Expert views on topics relevant to all leaders and teams.

Suhair Khan works within the international creative industries to drive meaningful impact. In over a decade at Google, her work has spanned arts and culture, early stage product design, sustainability, strategy and innovation. She has led global projects with artists, cultural institutions, fashion brands and the creative sector for Google Arts & Culture. In 2020, she founded the non-profit platform to support artists, designers, and creative technologists.

Hello, I'm Suhair Khan. I'm a technologist and a design thinker and I've lived and worked in various countries across Asia, the US, Europe and the UK. I've been at Google for over 10 years and most of my career has been focused on arts, culture, design, social impact. I'm a lecturer at Central Saint Martins and the architectural Association in London, where I teach about technology, design and the arts. I am also a founder of a design platform called Open Ended, which focuses on platforming voices and design from around the world. Today, I'm going to be speaking about diversity in organisations and my own experience in this space. I think it's really important for managers to think about this topic and to engage with it in a way that isn't scary or intimidating because it impacts their work, it impacts the performance of their teams and equally, it leads to better outcomes in the long run, not just for work and team output, but also for the long term happiness and success of the team dynamic and an organisation success. I'm Suhair Khan and this is my Manageable Guide to diversity in organisations.

Diversity really matters. There's many studies that show that a team's output and performance improves when you have different sorts of people at the same table, whether it's gender, socio-economic background, educational attainment. All of these factors lead to more interesting and surprising conversations in any organisation. This applies to management teams, to boards and also to more broadly the entire organisation that you're working with. So, it can't really be argued that diversity isn't helpful. But what I'm personally really interested in is not just having different kinds of people in a meeting in a room or in a team, but also making sure that they're all equally valued, that each of them brings the same weight to a conversation, to a decision, and to the dynamic of a team. And that, for me, is where true diversity can actually be nurtured and it's something that we're probably not talking about enough.

I've done quite a lot of research on diversity just because I'm interested in it and I'm interested in how it impacts my own teams. There was actually a really interesting study done on diversity in boards, which showed that really diverse boards are not always highly functioning and that's primarily because of the culture of the board. If you have a culture that actually promotes collegiality that promotes a more casual, open atmosphere where people can actually speak up, argue, be valued, then you have a much higher performing board than one where you've checked a lot of boxes, you've got lots of different people at the table, but they're not actually allowed to speak and it's sort of irrelevant that they're even sitting at the table at all.

So I've thought about this a lot also in my own personal experience because it's not always obvious. You might have teams where they really talk about participation, and allowing everyone to engage equally, but where you know that your voice isn't actually heard at the end of the day, where what you say isn't implemented, or your opinion doesn't really count, but you are encouraged to speak. I've had other teams that have been pretty bad at talking about this stuff, where it's been more difficult to speak up, where you felt like it's been a struggle to have your voice heard but at the end of the day, my opinion has been always taken into account and I felt ownership and leadership in my own work. So I say this, because it's not always obvious. Just talking about diversity, talking about openness isn't the same as actually taking action, and the best leaders I have had have been the ones that have always listened and where I've trusted them, to listen to me and to respect my opinion whether or not they've been talking about it in the way that they probably should have been on paper.

I'm coming at this from my own experience in technology and design, and as a woman working in these sectors. There's a lot of information that you should be continuing to educate yourself on. But equally, what I would say to managers is to really tap into your own intuition and empathy because I think you need to trust yourself. Each of us, especially as we have layers of hierarchy above us and around us, are surrounded by a lot of noise, and sometimes it's really hard to tap into what's really important. So creating space for yourself will help you probably create space for thinking about the people that you work with and on your teams, and probably help to guide more thoughtful decisions around that.

For me, diversity is really about how people think, how they react, how they experience conversations, and equally how they feel around other people's company and in a meeting or conversation. I think it's a lot more about that then, where they come from, what they look like, where they grew up and so on. I think often in organisations, we forget that because it's more convenient to block people up into the more obvious boxes. It's harder to think about where people are when they experience a conversation, and over the last few years, I've really tried to tap into my own experience.

My first job was in investment banking on Wall Street in New York, a very different time and experience. With Google, I've worked with people from very, very different professions and walks of life, everyone from computer coders and engineers in California, to policy teams in Asia, to marketing and PR leaders in London and Paris. Each of them sees the world in a very different way. Each of them works in a different way, and thinks often in different ways. I try to tap into my experiences, working with them, the things that have been easy and challenging, and really trying to put myself in the shoes of how different people approach a situation or conversation. I think as you manage teams, as you lead people, it's probably useful to think about yourself, like all of you will have had very different jobs and bosses and work environments. If you can tap into that, as you manage your teams, I think it'll probably help because often organisational culture can be quite heavy. Sometimes it's stifling for people. And if you come down to the level of the individual and how they're experiencing it, you probably will get a little bit more out of them anyway.

So we all know that diversity can't be forced. Everybody knows that just putting people in a room doesn't lead to an automatic sense of diversity, it needs to be fostered, and people need to feel safe and like they belong. I think one of the things that comes up quite a lot in really amazing organisations that have really strong cultures is that people often get lost within this umbrella of an amazing and often very positive culture. Those who are a little bit on the sidelines, might feel a little bit less comfortable buying into the same narrative since are not heard as often because the culture of the organisation sort of begins just from their own perspectives. I think we all know that creativity doesn't thrive in conformism, and that's something to keep your eye on as managers, I would say, to think about the various members of your team, those that might feel like they're a little bit different, that use language that might be a little bit different come at things from a unique perspective and make sure that you're listening to them, and that they don't feel like they can't speak up.

Another thing that comes up as a problem, or challenge is when you end up having groupthink or the same words used in emails or meetings and people just agreeing for the sake of it. They don't want to sound like they're wrong, or like they're coming at something from the wrong perspective and I think it's really important to consider that. I've been on so many email threads throughout my various jobs where people just start repeating what the person before them has said. Before you know it, you spiralled into doing the same thing that you would have done three years ago, as opposed to people actually taking a step back and being thoughtful. I think with all of these things, it's really important to take time - everything doesn't need to be rushed. I think, of course, there's deadlines, there's leadership issues. But if anything, creating space within your own team as you can for really trying to listen to where people are coming from, to try and parse out opinions that are different, and maybe even for calling out people for using the same language like I do that quite often, might lead to surprising outcomes.

I've been thinking quite a lot about how I would personally measure diversity and I think that there's obviously no way of doing it. But I think going deeper than just demographics is really important. I think we don't talk enough about age specifically. But equally things like lived experience, professional background, vocational background, hobbies, family histories, many people have histories of trauma, many people have grown up in many different countries or spoken many different languages equally, I think educational attainment is really important. I think when we hire people for jobs, we have baseline check marks as to how much they should have studied, and we actually don't think about what that means and how that affects our thinking. And, you know, it makes us often think in very similar ways. I think also you always have someone in your team, if you're lucky, or in the workplace who is a little bit different, who disagrees sometimes, who you don't always quite understand. Sometimes we think people like that are disrupting a conversation. I've seen that happen quite a lot in my own work, and then you eventually see that individual being marginalised and maybe succeeding a lot less in terms of promotion or career growth.

This isn't to say you should always be rewarding those who disagree. But equally, I would say that if you spend a bit more time trying to get to know where people are coming from, you might tap into things that you might not have expected. Such as, learning how people see the world when their brains are wired a little bit differently from one another, and what that means for a conversation or the outcome of a work conversation. So if you're working with somebody who happens to be dyslexic or autistic, they're seeing the world in a completely different way than you might for different issues, areas, projects, initiatives. All you have to do is to tap into that since we don't have any set answers right now as to how creative thinking in the future is going to evolve. Right now we know that linear thinking is not the answer. Working across disciplines, working outside of your own background, and really pushing outside of your own comfort zone is going to be necessary. Also, being able to comfortably engage with technology, as a tool, as a resource and as a given, is going to be more important than ever, no matter where you're from.

How can you as managers actually have teams that feel diverse, that feel like they're flowing and growing, and whether it's freedom of expressing opinions and thoughts, without constantly being stuck in meetings about diversity, well being and so on? I'm sure a lot of you think about this since it's really important, it's front and centre for all of our organisations. But equally, you don't want that to be the focus of every single conversation you have with your teams. If anything, you want it to feel like it's a given. You want it to feel like it's flowing in terms of how your teams are working together, how they're expressing themselves, and that you are fully aware and comfortable with the fact that diverse opinions and perspectives are not only going to be value, but are actually going to be part of how you build products, services, and actually create outcomes. I think Google had an amazing formula for this in the early days, the people that the company would hire would just have to be really brilliant at something or really passionate about some area of the world and not necessarily always directly qualified for the job for which they were hired. So I've worked with everybody from former ballet dancers, to philosophers to doctors, each of them has brought obviously a completely different skill set and expertise, a way of working to the room, and also has felt the freedom to succeed in an environment where they wouldn't necessarily be stacked up against others.

If everyone comes from the exact same background, and you have a very different team dynamic, people are often a little bit more competitive, a little bit more worried about how they're performing based on their own experience versus others. But if you have people who have completely unexpected work experiences walking into a room, and it doesn't matter, they can be free to be themselves and free to be completely brilliant in the way they think and they work and they collaborate with other people. That's something that we call Googliness in the organisation which is really this amazing measure of people who are creative, who are brilliant, who are thoughtful, and who very importantly, bring empathy and compassion to team dynamics. I think it's often because they see the world a little bit differently, and maybe they feel a little bit different, maybe a bit more vulnerable, a bit more exposed themselves. That makes them amazing teammates.

So finally, I think it's really important to lead by example, and to create space for everyone on your team. I think the biggest part of everything that I've said so far is making sure that everybody is heard. If you're leading by example, in calling out people who haven't spoken, who haven't had a voice, who haven't been part of a conversation, you're actually encouraging others to do so themselves. For me, that is probably the biggest part of being a successful manager. Fostering diversity is making sure that everybody is asked to speak and you're pulling people towards you, and you're pulling people up. Equally, I think fostering respect, creating a culture where everybody feels like it's a safe space to share comes again from the top.

So just to conclude, diversity really matters. Having diverse perspectives and points of views at the same table is incredibly important, and there's going to be even more so as we go into a future where careers are more fluid than ever. I think, first of all, defining for yourself why diversity is important is necessary. Secondly, figuring out for yourselves, how you measure diversity, and just remembering it's not just about numbers is super important. Finally, deciding for yourself how you want to embed diversity in your teams. Whether you run a large organisation or a smaller team, each of us is really empowered to do so for ourselves and to build a culture of understanding and inclusion for people from all walks of life. I'm Suhair Khan and this is my Manageable Guide to diversity in organisations.