Unorthodox approaches to building diverse teams

Notes from working with teams across Asia, North America, and Europe

Hayashi-san talking about his business model at an Impact Hub Tokyo workshop

When I returned to Hong Kong in 2012 to work on the event I’d co-founded, TEDxYouth@HongKong, I had to build the marketing team without a budget.

TEDxYouth@HongKong’s bilingual events reached over 10,000 students in our peak year due to many pioneering efforts, such as live-streamed remote events that have become normalized in the era of Covid-19. Because the NGO that produced the event, Junior Achievement Hong Kong, had direct reach into the city’s 500+ schools, the social media marketing that I wanted to build felt extra at the time. However, our event had always been for youth, by youth, with youth and this new department was an opportunity to engage and trained a pipeline of young talents. Over the course of a decade, the TEDxYouth@HongKong community of high school and university volunteers we engaged developed professional skills doing interviews, copywriting, editorial planning, and social media community engagement.

My TEDx volunteers and I have since moved on from the event, but we have remained in touch as they applied the skills they learned with us into their professional careers years later for event planning, marketing, journalism, project management, and various other roles. I have also gone on to build and manage remote teams for content, translation, marketing, and SEO, fundraising in Japan, Canada, the US, and Germany.

Leaders and managers need to play an active role in recruiting and retaining talent. Below, I will outline the approaches I have used in the past decade to source talented individuals from unlikely places.

Instead of what I want, what do I appreciate?

When looking for talent, we have a checklist of wants. We want someone with these skills, want these characteristics, want this industry experience. With this mindset, we put our needs at the forefront.

Usually, I meet people I want to work with before I have the need to fill a role. This could happen anywhere — attending industry events, social gatherings, volunteering. In these settings, when someone has no need to prove anything to me, I have more space to discover who they are. Do they follow through with commitments? Are they timely and complete with deliverables? How do they engage or facilitate conversations? How do they listen to others or process ideas?

If you are constantly scouting for these types of people, by the time you have a project or role, you have someone to reach out to. Even if they are not available, they will likely have good people and networks to pass you on to.

If the JD is an invitation, what style do I want?

I think of job descriptions as invitations. I write them specifically for the people who assume they are not invited. The people who feel entitled to apply will anyway. Writing a JD can be another item in the recruitment checklist. For me, it is not a checklist item, but my key to attracting interesting applicants. The more thoughtfully I put my JD together, the more enjoyable my conversations, and collaborations, will be.

Some JDs put in as many items in the wish list as possible. They put in the desired years of experience, preferably in the same industry already, working on similar products. On the flip side, some JDs end up vague and describe characteristics in an attempt to not be as exclusionary.

I prefer my JDs to get people reflecting on their skills and what they want, even if they don’t end up applying. To do that, I have these sections:

  • What you will do: so people can decide if the job role is a fit for them
  • Background that people should have: the prioritised experience and skillsets that enable the team’s success
  • Background nice-to-haves: what shortens the onboarding and could make our lives easier
  • You can grow into: outlining the directions a junior role can take so that people can begin thinking about what skills they want to develop

How can I screen for useful intangibles?

When I screen for writers, I am not interested in native-level English. I am interested in whether they have learned another language. Being a native to a language does not guarantee grammatical competency, logic, nor eloquence. In contrast, speaking more than one language increases the chances that a person is aware of different modes of expression, the limits of English, and the variance in perspectives. Grammar can either be taught or fixed with Grammarly. Perspective — on the global variance of English or different markets — is something I need a person to bring to the table from day one. A similar principle applies to other roles. Certain types of mastery can be achieved with a certain work ethic and tools; perspective comes with experience.

What intrigues me?

I want to talk to people who can demonstrate skill to me, not show me proxies. I do this by turning the pyramid of desirable CVs upside down. I can look at the Ivy League schools and the white, cis-men last, after I have finished finding out the journeys of people who have gone through immigration, navigated their LGBTQ and other identities, or are returning to work after raising young children.

I look at CVs for the factors I was taught were undesirable twenty years ago. I want to know the thought process behind a year gap. I am more interested in the part-time jobs people have taken on to pay for their tuition fees than the volunteering opportunities wealthier individuals can afford. I am more interested in what someone learned setting up their own portfolio website and having it rank on Google than the specific steps that another intern might have been taught.

Any gap, deviation, and turn in a CV is usually a conversation starter for me. Asking a candidate why is a good way to learn how they think and what matters to them.

Which deal breakers are imaginary?

A university degree should not be a deal-breaker. Internship or work experience should also not be a deal-breaker. While formal education and training increase the chances that someone has certain skills, but which skills exactly are the ones necessary for the current role? I have often heard “critical thinking”, but what exactly does that entail from position to position and does a degree in engineering entail the same critical thinking as an arts degree in post-colonial studies?

Pointing a person’s university degree might make the search easier, looking for people who have informally educated themselves can mean that in addition to having the necessary skills, there is intentionality and resourcefulness.

Currently, the way we solicit applications do not give people a chance to tell a whole story. However, anyone in a hiring position has influence over the way they choose to look for new team members. By framing the search differently, we can deliver better on the commitment to diversifying our workplaces.

I am looking for either freelance writers or a junior part-time writer to join my content team at Passbase. Good writing and communication skills can come from anyone with any background. I am looking for people who are not intuitive fits and who bring experiences beyond the Global North, cis-heteronormative, ableist, norms.

Thinking about the intersection of social justice and tech, with a LGBTQ and POC lense.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store