3 Key Differentiators in People Strategy Development and Team Building

Mason Stevenson
Posted: 11/21/2017

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.

~Henry Ford~

The most important part of any company is the people. As HR professionals, it’s our creed; our motto; a phrase we live by. The process of governing these individuals is referred to as the people strategy.

As one might guess, people strategy is integral to the success of a company, especially when combined with the business strategy.

As any HR professional will tell you, however, defining the people strategy is growing more and more difficult. That’s because the people of the world are moving closer and closer to this concept of a global community. It’s impacting people strategies from top to bottom. According to the Boston Consulting Group, other developments are causing issues as well. They are:

  • Sharp shifts in core business processes
  • Diversity
  • Increased competition for senior managers
  • The aging of the work force
  • They advent of “people business,” which have few assets besides their employees
  • New technology that drives human resources processes

In addition to globalization, HR professionals must now consider three key differentiators that impact people strategy:

  1. Multigenerational
  2. Multi-cultural
  3. Cross-cognitive

Key Differentiator #1 – Multigenerational

The multigenerational differentiator is the one most talked about by HR professionals and is definitely the one getting more attention as they attempt to form and implement their people strategies. We’re talking about the delineation of the current workforce into separate generations:

  • Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
  • Generation X (1965-1980)
  • Millennials (1981 – 1997)
  • Generation Z (1998 – Present)

cross generational business meeting

Currently, Millennials make up the majority of the workforce, some 70%, followed by Generation Z. Generation X and Baby Boomers are starting to age out of the system. As a result, the strain on people strategy is immense. Multigenerational problems have begun to assert themselves as workers young and old get in to or age out of the workforce respectively.

This is where leveraging each generation’s strengths is important. Remember this phrase: Compliment. Supplement. Put simply, HR professionals must use a particular generation’s strengths to supplement the weaknesses of another… and they should allow differences to compliment one another. As an example, consider mentoring and succession planning.

As Baby Boomers and Gen Xers continue to leave the workforce, there is a need for those individuals to pass along their knowledge and experiences to those Millennials and Gen Zers continuing to populate the workforce. In that way, the older generation supplements the lack of knowledge and experience. Now, reverse that equation. Millennials and Gen Zers can mentor Baby Boomers and Gen Xers through the adoption of technology. Under this concept, HR professionals are able to use strengths and weaknesses to further a functioning people strategy.

Key Differentiator #2 – Multi-cultural

As noted earlier, the world is moving toward a global community. In fact, I would argue it’s already there. There is no doubt that more and more organization’s workforces are, not just multigenerational but, multi-cultural.

multicultural company representation

Fernando Sanchez-Arias, the Chief People Officer for The Home Depot, said workers can have a set of cultural dimensions that are different and can impact the people strategy.

“I might perceive time in a very different way. I might perceive the decision making process in a different way. I can perceive masculinity and femininity in a very different perspective,” Sanchez-Arias said. “So I have to perceive and be aware of those cultural differences.”

When designing a people strategy, cultural diversity is important to the strategy’s success. It’s also a significant piece of team building. In most situations, cultural considerations will not necessarily be global in nature. Most of the time, it will be within the company’s geographical location.

It’s important to note this particular differentiator must be handled with care. Easily, we can get into treacherous territory here. It’s important to not only consider cultural differences, but embrace them and respect them. These can be used to strengthen an organization’s people strategy and empower teams. Again: Compliment. Supplement.

Key Differentiator #3 – Cross-cognitive

The final differentiator, and the one least discussed, is the cross-cognitive differentiator. We’re talking about the way people think. We spend so much time discussing generational and cultural differences, we fail to mention cognitive differences.

“A lot of teams fail because that diversity is not taken into account,” Sanchez-Arias said.

Paper head with missing puzzle piece on wood background

According to the Harvard Business Review:

“Cognitive diversity has been defined as differences in perspective or information processing styles. It is not predicted by factors such as gender, ethnicity, or age. Here we are interested in a specific aspect of cognitive diversity: how individuals think about and engage with new, uncertain, and complex situations.”

In plain terms, understanding how members of your team think and process information is key to strategic and team success.

So how do you pair teams based on cognitive diversity?

First you have to understand the cognitive differences between people. In his book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, author Scott Page details the four dimensions involved:

  1. Diverse perspectives: the way people represent situations and information; how they confront situations and differences.
  2. Diverse interpretations: they way people categorize and classify information. To one person I’m a Doctor Who fan. To another, I’m an editor. To a third person, I’m a focused, organized person. All three are true, but they are different interpretations of me by someone else.
  3. Diverse heuristics: the way people create fixes to problems. Some like to talk through the issues; others write first then talk; some fight first and talk later.
  4. Diverse predictive models: the way some people analyze a given situation while others look for a story.

Those of you who read my articles are often treated to a television show or movie reference. It’s one of my favorite topics to discuss. This article is no different, but this time Sanchez-Arias gives the example: Ocean's Eleven.

“These guys want to rob a casino… they start to identify which are the core competencies of every single team [member], and despite how ugly it is to work with some particular individuals… I know that I need individual for a specific task,” Sanchez-Arias.

He further said individuals have to accept, not tolerate differences because tolerance “is just a very basic level. Acceptance is superior.”

“So I accept you’re different. I accept that it’s bothers me the way you speak,” he smiled. “But I know that nobody else is better than you at this specific task within the company. So that’s why I value you in my team.”

In other words: Compliment. Supplement.

Hermann Solutions suggests asking these questions for managing a teams collective thought power:

  • Encourage team members to learn about and share their preferred thinking styles and discuss the impact of differences and similarities among team members on the performance of the team.
  • Understand the strengths of the group and how the dominant preferences can be effectively harnessed towards reaching the team’s objectives.
  • Recognize and bring in the diversity of thought necessary to get the best results.

Bringing it all together

Knowing all of this information is one thing. Putting it into practice is something else. A successful people strategy will include all three differentiators, but it’s up to HR professionals to decide how each one impacts the strategy. That depends on the people, the organization, and the business strategy. Again, remember this phrase: Compliment. Supplement.

Fernando Sanchez-Arias is the Chief People Officer for The Home Depot and serves on the HR Exchange Network Advisory Board.

Mason Stevenson
Posted: 11/21/2017

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