I was a young African-American woman in 1996, determined to do my best at Lockheed Martin, one of the world's foremost technology companies, when I was named to lead an integrated-product team for a mission-critical U.S. Navy program.
I was confident in my abilities as a software engineer, and I had been intimately involved in writing the program requirements. But the scope of the program was much broader than software development. We were tasked with creating an advanced launch control unit peripheral for a navy vertical-launch system.
Our challenge was to take a legacy system, based on a 16-bit computer with a rudimentary keypad input and tape cartridge device, and design a new unit that incorporated off-the-shelf technology—a 166-megahertz PowerPC VME processor and a touch-screen graphical user interface. This was before the iPad, when touch screens were a big deal. It was one of the navy's first ventures into forward-compatible, off-the-shelf technology. The system also had to be ruggedized to withstand a near-miss explosion. And we had to deliver it quickly and affordably.
Given the complexity, deadline and the amount of innovation required for the program, we needed every ounce of original thinking from people of many different backgrounds, both professional and personal. Our team of about 30 individuals had several people of color and several women, which was significant for my industry at the time, and a healthy mix of experience and youth. I had to establish an atmosphere of inclusion across race, gender and age diversity.
It was the diversity of professional expertise on the team that proved to me that an inclusive, sharing environment is imperative to success. We had systems, software, and electrical and human factors engineers. We had experts in shock attenuation, electromagnetic pulses and testing simulation systems. And we needed to engage all of them in a give-and-take dialogue in which ideas were stood up, picked apart and modified to become stronger with each iteration.
It was the kind of environment that not only benefits from diversity, it demands it. And because we were successful in establishing and managing it, we were also successful in delivering the capability that the customer required.
As a leader, I had to set the tone for people to express their ideas, even if they differed from those of their colleagues. I would not allow someone's ideas to be dismissed without consideration. I also established an environment where people felt safe in asking questions that often go unasked because everybody is afraid of being the only one who doesn't already know the answer. Asking those questions early in a discussion gets us past them (because, in truth, many other people have them, too) and allows us to use our time more efficiently.
Among my biggest concerns as a leader is that I will allow the best idea in the room to go unexpressed because someone did not feel comfortable enough to express it.
Once I found myself sitting next to a young engineer in a roomful of more experienced colleagues. I noticed he had something he wanted to say, but he was always a split second late in gaining the floor. After this had gone on for a while, I stopped the discussion, turned to him and asked for his opinion. He proceeded to make a suggestion that nobody else had considered. It was risky, and the group was skeptical. Eventually we adopted his idea, and it resulted in completely winning over a customer.
Perhaps the most important outcome of my experience as team leader was that it helped me evolve my understanding of diversity into a broader concept of inclusion. Diversity of age, gender, skin color, ethnicity, and more—the attributes of a diverse workplace that are the first to come to mind—is often visible and easy to identify and requires focus to engage and develop. The presence of diversity that you can see is often an indicator of an inclusive environment that embraces diversity of thought. A team dynamic that opens the door to inclusion will elicit ideas that spring from varied professional, educational and social experiences.
It's a truism that the best teams are greater than the sum of their parts. I believe that is only true when those parts are diverse. When everyone looks the same, acts the same and thinks the same, is it any wonder that they often fail to embrace—or even produce—innovative and unconventional ideas?
I am fortunate to work for an organization that not only understands that concept but makes a conscious choice to live by it. To choose otherwise would be to resign ourselves to comfortable mediocrity—and that will never be a viable option in the pursuit of excellence.