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The Secret to My Company's Fast-Growth: Cognitive Diversity

A brain researcher explains the team-building approach that has helped land her firm on the Inc. 5000 list three years in a row.
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This marks the third straight year that my organizational development company, Emergenetics International, has landed on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing companies in America. And it's the fifth year in a row I've added a new office location. How did my company go from a desk in my basement and one phone line to this?

I can tell you about evolving products or smart investments or strategic risks that paid off. But really I believe it comes down to people. I have incredibly-smart, driven people who work at Emergenetics. But it's more than that. After all, many defunct companies were filled with plenty of brilliant people. The real distinction is that my people think differently.

When I say differently I don't mean creatively. I literally mean that I have different kinds of thinkers on my staff. I often tell people that cognitive diversity fuels an organization and I can point to my own company as proof. I see it just by taking a look at the diverse thinking and behavioral profiles that make up the people in my offices.

But it's the employment of that diversity of thought that takes Emergenetics to new levels of growth. You need to value that cognitive diversity, empower people to use it, and create an atmosphere that stokes collaboration. 

Here's how I've learned to do just that:

Communicate Openly About Cognitive Diversity

At Emergenetics, my employees proudly display their (multicolored, naturally) profiles on the walls. This helps create an atmosphere of openness. Each person can understand how conversations are likely to go with other staffers--and who to tap for a different way of thinking or action. Even without this visual anchor, you can create an open, hyper-aware atmosphere at your own company by pushing your people to be open and communicative about their unique perspectives and approaches.

Deliberately Hire All Thinking and Behavior Types

It's no accident that my management team exhibits all of the Emergenetics Profile types. In fact, the aggregate profile of all the people in all our offices, both domestically and internationally, is almost perfectly balanced between analytical, conceptual, social, and structural thinking preferences. This is in spite of the fact that many people on the team possess dominant preferences in one or two areas and mere slivers in the others.

The overall company profile also pegs the team smack in the middle of the behavior spectrums of expressiveness, assertiveness, and flexibility. This is all by design. I know that the more diverse the employees are as individuals, the more cohesive we are as a team. Fill your own team with diverse thinkers and behavior types, and let them live according to their natural preferences. If you've got a lot of one type of thinking or behavior, seek out dissenting voices.

Put Your Diversity to Work

This is what is truly fueling Emergenetics' growth. I could have an impressively diverse management team, but if I weren't taking advantage of it, it wouldn't make a difference.

If you think about the typical CFO, you might envision an analytical and conceptual, driving person, but I try to think about the bigger picture, too. My CFO is an analytical thinker, but she also exhibits a large structural preference, and behaves in a quiet, deliberate, and focused manner. She knows what projects she's best-suited for and who she can work with to get other things done best. I know how she might fit with a cross-functional team, and whether or not she prefers to host a business lunch, or be crunching data at her desk.

And that approach is pervasive. Here's what I mean:

  • The gregarious members of the management team are cultivating relationships and leading workshops
  • The "structural" office manager is also the social client services manager
  • The vice president of education has a personal profile that is nearly the same as the overall team profile, meaning she can relate to almost anyone and adapt to any situation in order to convey important messages
  • I don't have people working on strategic visioning who would be more productive and happy putting a project plan together
  • My international satellite offices employ the same approach, which means that the "conceptual" and "social" vice president of marketing in the U.S. knows he'll get different kinds of insights from his "analytical," "structural," and "conceptual" counterpart in Singapore.

Make Cognitive Diversity a Core Part of Your Culture

My team is comprised of visionaries, task-oriented folks, and individuals who possess multiple thinking preferences. Their behaviors span the gamut, too. As a group, we bring a wealth of perspectives, and each one is valuable. Everyone is empowered and, in fact, expected to contribute their uniquely valuable perspectives. Make your culture one of both valuing diversity and expecting that it will make a difference.

The truth is I strive to always have the right people doing the right work, which has allowed us to grow seamlessly as an organization and better serve clients.




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