Hiring & Retention

Why ‘Perfect’ Is the Enemy of Diversity

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Jason Lemkin

How to achieve diversity in the SaaS workplace, and why it’s important, is a super important topic I haven’t hit head on, for a variety of reasons.  Mostly because it’s an important to get really right.  Bro-cultures in sales teams.  All-male VC firms.  Young managers hiring people just like them.  There are a lot of issues here to tackle, and the “action items” aren’t always as simple as other challenges.

Fortunately, I caught a break.  My better half, Mallun Yen, is #2 at a public “XaaS” company, RPX Corporation, that sells patent protection-as-a-service.

She has a great story here that The Recorder published, and I asked if she could edit it a bit for our audience.

I think it is a great reminder that even those of us who not only care about these issues, but think we are doing something about them — are coming up short.  And some ideas about how to do better.

…….

Why ‘Perfect’ Is the Enemy of Diversity
(or How My Bias Almost Cost Me a Great Hire)

Mallun Yen, Executive Vice President, RPX Corporation

As a woman of color in a still predominantly male field (tech and patents), you might expect that I would be more aware than others of the pitfalls of stereotyping.  And I am. But that didn’t keep me from almost losing a great hire because of my own biases.

Many years ago, I was looking to expand my team. I was thrilled when a recruiter sent me the resume of a woman with stellar credentials: BSEE, MSEE, graduated first in her class, top five school, several years of experience with a top-tier firm.  Perfect, I thought. Hired!

Until the interview.

Mallun Yen, RPX corp. photo by Jason Doiy-All rights reserved.
Mallun Yen, RPX corp.
photo by Jason Doiy-All rights reserved.

It started with a weak handshake and went steadily downhill from there. She made little eye contact and was very soft spoken. I couldn’t imagine her advocating for her views amidst conflict or advising senior executives on challenging issues. Disappointed after the interview, I let the recruiter know I wouldn’t be calling her back.

I had largely moved on when the recruiter called back a short while later and said the candidate wanted to know if I would give her the feedback directly. I replied, of course.

When she called, I asked her whether she really wanted candid, unfiltered feedback. She said yes, so I let it rip. (And those of you who know me know how direct I can be.) At the end of the call, I asked her whether she still wanted to join my team. She said yes. I told her I was willing to have her meet my boss, but it had to be that evening since he was leaving on a business trip, and that she needed to do a number of very specific things including:  start with a firm handshake; make eye contact, hold it, and don’t look away first; speak assertively; project out of your diaphragm; and so forth.

tempI had harangued her for a good five minutes, so when I hung up the phone, my assistant was looking at me with a raised brow.  I said, after what I just put her through, she’ll either be a complete wreck when she meets him, or she’s going to knock it out of the park, in which case we are going to hire her.

Well, she ended up joining us shortly thereafter, and became a high performer with the company for many years as well as an effective public speaker.

I learned two valuable lessons that day.  First, my idea of “perfect” was flawed and deeply biased.  My instinct was to hire for those who looked like others who had been successfully hired into similar positions in the past — those who satisfied that “single story.”  It was based on my experience with those individuals who had that confident swagger and assertive body language and whose recounting of their experience, successes and abilities rolled easily off the tongue.  My implicit bias made me believe that those attributes made a great employee, when in fact, at best, it might make for a great interviewee.  

It turns out that the typical unstructured interview tells very little about how effective an employee she may be, as Lazlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People discusses in Work Rules!.  Studies highlight a number of these points, including:  (1)  how someone behaves in one setting says very little about how she may behave in a different setting; and (2)  judgments made during the first 15 seconds of an interview can dictate outcome because after those initial seconds, confirmation bias kicks in and the interviewer spends the remainder of the interview trying to confirm what we think of the person rather than truly assessing them.  Malcom Gladwell writes, “if we let personability—some indefinable, prerational intuition, magnified by the Fundamental Attribution Error—bias the hiring process today, then all we will have done is replace the old-boy network, where you hired your nephew, with the new-boy network, where you hire whoever impressed you most when you shook his [or her] hand.”

Luckily, this candidate actually had the smarts, intrinsic confidence, adaptability, attitude and willingness to take chances that are the more important attributes of a great employee.  I mean, to start with, after being told she had been turned down, she had the wherewithal to ask immediately for direct feedback about why.

The second lesson I learned was that if you go for just the obvious candidates, you’ll miss out on the diamonds in the rough who just need a little polish to shine (not to mention end up with a homogeneous workforce and recruiting the same candidates every other company is trying to recruit). I realized during our conversation that she hadn’t received any constructive coaching about how to translate her strengths into corporate success. She was willing to absorb my 15 minutes of unvarnished feedback, and translate it immediately in a way that worked for her in the interview with my boss. It was clear she could and would do what it takes to realize her untapped potential.

It turns out her experience isn’t atypical.  The Clayman Institute at Stanford University is about to release a study that shows that men are significantly more likely than women to receive feedback in their performance reviews on how to develop and succeed in their careers, while women are more likely to receive feedback about their communication style and personality.  “The magnitude of some of the differences and how consistent they were across the different samples was shocking,” says Dr. Caroline Simard.

This experience taught me to open my eyes and take another closer look, even if my initial reaction to that person was not what I pictured of who had been successful in the past or who might be successful in the future.  It taught me that the idea of “perfect” is the enemy of diversity — sometimes “perfect” is so skewed to that single story that we forget that those who speak softly often can and do carry the biggest stick.  When that happens, we lose the ability to bring talented candidates into an organization who bring with them diversity of thought and diversity of background – a key part of innovating and building successful, enduring companies.

And sometimes even those who believe they are completely sensitized to—and on guard against—the dangers of biased thinking need to remember to constantly consider and reconsider how they are making decisions. Bias is always lurking. That’s something I discovered the hard way and it almost cost me one of the best employees—male or female—that I’ve ever had.  I’m grateful that this experience happened early in my hiring career – it caused me not only to change my hiring practices in a number of simple, straightforward ways, but also my review and feedback process.  (More on this in a future post.)
While we are making progress toward increasing diversity in our workforce, we all know that we still have a ways to go. The recent Women in the Workplace 2015 study by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey shows that at the current pace of progress, we are over 100 years away from gender equality in the C-suite.  I do believe we can accelerate the pace, but it will take many concrete steps, including those that help us fight against some of our natural instincts and stay attuned to the biases that can get in our way.

….

Mallun Yen is a founder, innovator, adviser, board director,  and public company officer.  As executive vice president of RPX Corporation responsible for corporate development, products, business, and regulatory affairs, she worked with the founding team to take the company public in 2011.  She was formerly vice president of global intellectual property of Cisco where she grew the team from the ground up.  Ten years ago, she co-founded ChIPs, a 501(c)(3) organization with over 1,000 members focused on the advancement of women in tech and intellectual property.  

Published on October 5, 2015
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