Leadership teams should reflect the diversity of employees and customers

Claire Vo, Senior Vice President at Optimizely, the world’s leading experimentation platform, discusses how having more diverse leadership teams are better for business.

Technology companies need to engage more with communities outside their normal sphere for hiring and make their workplaces more inclusive and appealing.

That’s the recommendation from Claire Vo who is a passionate advocate for encouraging more diverse talent into the industry.

“It’s not just a matter of saying I’d like you to apply to work at my company,” she says. “It’s what can my company do from a culture perspective, from a work-life balance perspective and an employee investment perspective to make this a worthwhile and engaging place for someone of your background to work. And, that’s not the same for every company, but I think it’s really important.”

Diverse leadership

Claire is an expert in experimentation programmes, product strategy and user experience and, as Senior Vice President in charge of Product Management at Optimizely in the US, is proud of the way she engages her team and believes that having more women in leadership positions helps to bring in more diverse talent.

In answer to a colleague who asked what steps she was taking to attract more diverse candidates, she replied:

“I’m a leader, I’m a woman, I’m a mother. I just show up at events and say I’m hiring. I get a line of people wanting to apply because they finally see somebody that they can relate to. So, I think that visibility at a leadership level is so important because it makes people feel comfortable that, not only will they fit in with their peers, but there’s a growth opportunity in that organisation.”

Changing the perception cycle

Claire is keen to point out that more women in leadership roles should not just apply to the professional world but also academic institutions, otherwise inequality is a “self-perpetuating cycle”. She explains: “Academic institutions have been run by predominantly male leaders who bring in predominantly male students and then you’ve created an environment that’s not particularly welcoming to people that don’t match that profile.

“Then people like me, who have the skills and the aptitude and can change the perception or the perceived demographic of that group, don’t join. And then it’s really hard to get out of that cycle.”

She should know, having experienced it herself. Despite an interest in and aptitude for technology at an early age – she had to persuade her all-girl’s school in Dallas to put computer science on the curriculum – she was put off studying the subject at university level.

Instead, she opted for a liberal arts degree in American studies but still kept her hand in with technology by advising small businesses on their online presence. On graduating, Claire joined the tech start-up, uShip, a market place for shipping. With her educational background, she was focused on marketing and copywriting.

Then came the eureka moment. “What I really found out – and what’s driven my career towards product management – was that a lot of customer software and online experiences are simply determined by how you communicate with your users,” she reveals.

“I found this natural fit with my background in really figuring out how to make applications more usable, user-friendly and ultimately more successful through words and good communication techniques to get people to do the activities that you’re interested in having them do on your website.”

Finding what customers want

Her interest in finding out what customers really want showed that many companies were carrying out insufficient experimentation tests that would provide them with the best information. So, Claire founded Experiment Engine to help product teams to scale up their experimentation programmes, building the first version of the software herself. After two years, the company was acquired by technology partner Optimizely which has expanded the experimentation platform to a wider customer base and meant Claire moving from Austin to San Francisco.

So, how does experimentation work? In a nutshell, it involves incorporating the scientific method of hypothesis testing into business decision making. An example is the returns policy on an online shop. Claire’s hypothesis is that, if the returns policy is more prominent, customers are more likely to trust in the purchase and buy from the site again. To test it, half the traffic would see the returns message displayed prominently and half not. That’s just a simple example and Claire and her team handle far more complex issues.

Diversity should reflect the company and its customers

Going back to diversity, Claire feels it’s important to have a leadership team that not only reflects the diversity of a company’s employees but also that of its customers. As Optimizely serves businesses, it has to reflect the diversity of their customers too.

“Basically, the entire online world,” she says. “That’s so we can empathise with how certain demographics shop and how people of different physical abilities experience the web. I think it’s really important to actively cultivate a diversity that reflects the natural diversity of their customer base and then hopefully your employee team as well.”

Optimizely has a diversity and inclusion employee group, with an executive sponsor, that meets with the executive team to develop ways of educating the workforce on diversity and inclusion issues. Secondly, the company incorporates diversity and inclusion into the way it evaluates employees and leaders. This means including inclusive leadership as one of the competencies.

Claire explains: “I, as a senior leader, am assessed on whether or not I am able to bring in and integrate multiple voices into decision-making, if I’m able to cultivate a safe and inclusive culture on my team and across the company, and if I’m able to engage both internally and externally with a variety of stakeholders.”

Be authentic

Being your authentic self at work, at every level, is very important. As a leader and a mother, Claire strives to be as transparent as possible about her parental responsibilities, for example having to leave early to take her child to the doctors or pick them up from daycare. It lets other people know that being a mother doesn’t have to be a barrier to having a successful career.

Being authentic in your personal style is also important. Claire gives the amusing example of being at an executive presentation when the CEO and CTO were wearing practically the same jeans, shoes and shirt. When it was her turn to speak, she said: “You didn’t tell me the uniform for today’s presentation. Can we make a deal that next time you’ll have to wear a pretty polka-dot dress?”

She adds: “That got a laugh and I think it shows people hey, you don’t have to dress just like them to be successful and to be taken seriously.”Finally, Claire stresses that hiring a diverse workforce is the best move a company can make and which, in turn, leads to better products. “Leaders are the face of your company, they reflect your customer base and they reflect to your employees what is possible and what your values are.”