The leadership (and hiring) dilemma regarding diversity

This blog post was written after I stumbled on a Twitter post announcing available career positions in an academic set up. It set me thinking about what I have written earlier around “innovators dilemma” and research stagnation. More on that later. However, I kept reflecting on the idea of a leadership principle – what if I had to hire someone from a potential pool of applicants – what would I do?

Effective Lab Leadership | Lab Manager
We are all cogs in the system anyway

I had never reflected on leadership principles earlier, but over the past few years, I have been lucky to work without leadership oversight. It got me a fresh template to work around, explore thoughts and interlink them – while building a personal moat of ideas and the ability to deep dive into recesses which I never imagined existed.

Hiring from a potential pool of applicants is a classical management “problem”; it becomes onerous to choose while keeping the institutional framework and objectives in mind. As such, the credentials’ system helps reduce cognitive overload. A “board certified” ivy league candidate has a better chance than a board certified candidate without the calling card of a “prestigious university”. Regulations become too expensive to hire anyone outside the state, or even the country where no one would risk the bureaucratic red-tape. These effects are more pronounced in highly regulated sectors like healthcare.

Why Is Culture Important? Impact on People & Society | LoveToKnow
Break the silos of “sameness”

Harvard Business Review has excellent case series (and extensive studies) on how hiring diverse candidates benefits organisations (and institutions) in the long run. Here’s an interesting insight:

Over the years, we have seen that learning from cultural differences is more likely to occur once the previous three actions are under way: Leaders have created trust, begun to dismantle systems of discrimination and subordination, and embraced a broad range of styles. Without such efforts, talking about differences happens (if it happens at all) only in reaction to diversity-related crises—when discussions tend to be fraught and people’s capacity to learn is diminished.

(emphasis mine)

Shifting from an academic centre (briefly) to a private organisation was a result of extraneous circumstances beyond my control. However, if I reflect, it gave me the opportunity to work without mentors, build external relationships, start this blog to explore ideas (and create applications involving AI/ML) along with unconventional approaches to work with a multitude of professionals from VC firms, editors, journalists, and host of others to capitalise on my personal branding. I understood the power of communication and pitching ideas to business leaders and negotiate terms related to creating patents. I failed on all these counts, but I derived insights in non-existent frameworks. In short, it made me better than most of my peers.

My prior work in Singapore went on similar lines – it was my first foray searching for the research opportunities – I wasn’t afraid of taking a risk of falling in the “conventional trappings”.

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Think and think more!

From the HBR study quoted above, the blurb resonated with me:

In those cases, the benefit from diversity seemed to stem mainly from the process of learning—a process that involves taking risks and being unafraid to say “I don’t know,” “I made a mistake,” or “I need help.” Showing such vulnerability across divisive lines of difference, such as race, and being met with acceptance rather than judgment or rejection, strengthens relationships. Stronger relationships in turn increase resilience in the face of conflict and other stressors. In short, for culturally diverse teams, the experience of learning across racial differences can, in and of itself, improve performance.

(emphasis mine)

It is hard to place a premium on diverse hiring practices, especially around changing individual behaviours, soliciting feedback, having difficult conversations and creating “mutual respect”. I have found immense value in working with people from different states locally – we speak eight different languages under the same roof, and our strength lies in unity from diversity. The language of patient centric care and my efforts to ensure a common dialogue have helped me appreciate diversity.

Research stagnation is better appreciated in economic terms. Here’s a pivotal paper from NBER:

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I’d highlight the executive summary:

New ideas no longer fuel economic growth the way they once did. A popular explanation for stagnation is that good ideas are harder to find, rendering slowdown inevitable. We present a simple model of the life cycle of scientific ideas that points to changes in scientist incentives as the cause of scientific stagnation. Over the last five decades, citations have become the dominant way to evaluate scientific contributions and scientists. This emphasis on citations in the measurement of scientific productivity shifted scientist rewards and behavior on the margin toward incremental science and away from exploratory projects that are more likely to fail, but which are the fuel for future breakthroughs. As attention given to new ideas decreased, science stagnated.

If you correlate with the idea of diversity, it starts connecting the dots. My attempts to get into a PhD with many universities ran into problems when I realised it had become a whole business of awarding credentials, while charging almost five times the fees from domestic students. Student debt is another can of worms and out of scope here. The science stagnation also has its own issues in cancer research too – we are at crossroads for better treatment options.

Improved insights can come from breaking institutional silos, engaging deeply with diverse groups and adapting the VC model of risk funding, though with some quantifiable outcomes.

From HBR

As I work to develop my personal knowledge database (expect more write-ups exploring this fascinating journey) and articulate leadership principles, it has been a thrilling ride to go on the quest of life-long learning. It is now beyond the “need” for personal recognition, but serve the colleagues and subordinates with the richness of thoughts and actions.

(Images are taken from Google searches and are subject to copyright of their owners. They are taken to add more value here without any commercial interest here).