Linda Hill, Founding Partner and Tony Mayo, Senior Consultant, Paradox StrategiesLinda Hill, Founding Partner and Tony Mayo, Senior Consultant
Paradox Strategies is an advisory and consulting firm that works at the intersection of innovation, leadership, and diversity and inclusion. Founded by a team of Harvard Business School professors and industry leaders, the Boston-based firm leverages cutting-edge research and applied learning to help leaders around the world harness the power of diversity to grow their businesses and positively impact the lives of their employees, customers, and communities. Below, Linda Hill, Founding Partner and a professor at HBS, and Tony Mayo, a lecturer at the school and a Senior Consultant at Paradox, share their insights on how organizations can take a strategic approach to nurturing individual differences to unleash an organization’s full potential.

Can you give us an overview of Paradox Strategies?

Research indicates that organizations with greater workplace diversity perform better and achieve higher profits than ones with homogeneous workforces. Diverse teams tend to be smarter, more inclined toward innovation, and more adept at solving problems. But their superior performance does not happen on its own—nor does it happen overnight. To unlock the power and promise of diversity, organizations must put in place both rigorous policies and practices as well as a culture that foster inclusion and engagement.

That’s where we come in. As both academics and industry business leaders, we bring to the table a rare blend of world-class research and practical experience of what actually works in large organizations. We recently conducted an extensive research project centered around the 50th anniversary of HBS’s African American Student Union. We have seen firsthand the ways in which organizations and leaders struggle with issues of diversity and inclusion; we understand the complexities of motivating a diverse workforce; and we have deep expertise concerning the obstacles that underrepresented minorities face in navigating their careers.

We know the problems—and we also know what works. We have dedicated our careers to studying these issues and we have developed proven tools, techniques, and approaches to address the challenges. We work in close collaboration with our clients to help them build more innovative and inclusive work environments.

What are the challenges that organizations face, and how do you help them mitigate those?

Most organizations have positive intent: they want to embrace diversity; they want to bring in different people and perspectives; and they want to build supportive and inclusive cultures. The trouble is, even with good intentions, their efforts often disappoint.

One of the key issues is that even as organizations acknowledge their implicit biases, they fail to adequately address them. Training sessions on unconscious bias are useful for raising awareness, but they do not change behaviors. Along with that, most corporate environments do not create safe spaces for employees to have difficult or uncomfortable conversations. Moreover, the pressure is often on the underrepresented individuals in the organization to lead these conversations and take on this mantle of racial justice work, in addition to their jobs.

Perhaps most worryingly, we have found in our research that employees in marginalized, underrepresented groups tend to be less engaged with their work and express lower levels of job satisfaction. This hinders both their individual creativity and career prospects, but also the organization’s ability to innovate and grow.

What are the strategies that you follow while helping your clients build an inclusive environment?

We use a systematic approach. We begin by gaining a deeper understanding of the company’s work environment. Using our research-based assessment tools, we help clients evaluate their culture and capabilities and identify gaps concerning creative abrasion—meaning the process by which people generate ideas through vigorous discourse and debate. We conduct employee interviews, as well as surveys about engagement, authenticity, and people’s ability to contribute in meaningful ways to the organization. Is this an atmosphere where diversity of thought is respected? How is conflict managed? Are new perspectives and viewpoints actively encouraged? These questions are foremost in our minds during this discovery phase.

We combine this deep and data-driven understanding of the company’s overall culture with a rigorous analysis of the organization’s talent pipeline, practices, and outcomes. This combination of qualitative and quantitative data, analyzed through the lens of world-class research, allows us to identity the root causes that are inhibiting diversity and inclusion. Our approach is customized and bespoke because those root causes are going to be different in every organization.

Innovation usually emerges when diverse people collaborate to generate a wide range of ideas, which they refine into a robust portfolio of ideas through give-and-take and often heated but healthy debate

Once we understand the organization’s innerworkings and dynamics and the root causes of the issues, we work with the executive team to map out an action plan to which they can individually and collectively be held accountable. Leaders are the most crucial element of the plan because they are the ones who can commit to changes which will produce different outcomes regarding the talent management pipeline.

Leaders also drive culture change. If the organization wants to make bold changes, executives must incarnate and exemplify them. Others won’t do new things until they see the most senior people do it first. Simply put, senior leaders are in the position to amplify other voices and change the culture. We conduct coaching sessions designed to boost managers’ interpersonal skills. We also work with them one-on-one to increase their capacity for leading difficult conversations. Our aim is help leaders learn how to build psychologically safe environments where their employees can thrive.

Working down from the top of the organization, we then implement similar strategies with the rest of the employee base. We run a series of workshops to help workers engage in these hard conversations and actively participate in resolving disagreements. We train teams on how to integrate different ideas to solve problems and create innovative solutions. We also work directly with minority employees encouraging them to speak up and take charge of their professional development.

The end result is a culture of inclusion in which diverse employees work together effectively. This helps companies not only attract the best talent but also retain it.

Could you share a customer success story?

We recently worked with a company that was taking too long to promote Black employees to senior positions. These employees would reach a certain level and then plateau. The organization’s human resources team knew that its talent development system was falling short, but it was struggling to pinpoint precisely where in the process things were going wrong.

We started with in-depth discussions with the company’s employees of color, senior management, and HR. Those conversations gave us a clearer picture of the current status of diversity and inclusion at the organization, as well as a deeper understanding of the organization’s overall culture and climate.

We then took a co-creative, research-oriented approach to the challenge. We are not in the business of telling people what to do. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with our client, we collected demographic data related to the organization’s hiring and promotion practices. Together, we developed hypotheses about where potential hurdles could be and devised mechanisms to test those hypotheses.

We were able to identify where people’s careers were stalling and devise customized interventions to address the problems. Because it was our client’s own diagnosis and plan, leadership was more committed to take strong, long-lasting, and concrete actions. This CEO and executive leadership team are extremely pleased to have moved passed awareness to specific actions with tangible results, “I followed the plan that we jointly created and now I have a very diverse team.”

How does the future roadmap look like for Paradox Strategies?

We are always looking for new ways to help organizations create more diverse and inclusive workplaces. Currently we are focused on translating our research and approaches into microlearning apps—short burst, interactive learning experiences—which will allow us to scale our impact and influence and reach a wider audience.

For example, we are designing a mobile-enabled tool to help leaders put into practice diversity and inclusion strategies within their organizations. With the tool, they can learn to engage in difficult conversations, encourage debate in a way that that ensures a diversity of opinions—including minority voices—are heard, and implement new habits and behaviors that build supportive, collaborative teams. Our hope is that the tool empowers leaders around the world to think constructively about how to make real progress advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace.