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Aug 12, 2020

I never thought that as a young leader in the startup world, I would lack adaptability. As someone who’s dealt with her fair share of challenges, I didn’t consider that my hiring and leadership practices could be unintentionally biased or inaccessible. And I definitely never thought I’d be the one getting schooled on new technologies. 

But I have learned my lesson.

Bias in Unexpected Places

Over the last seven years working within early stage startups, I have honed my leadership philosophy and practices. I’ve spent the majority of that time learning how to create fairness and equality in an industry (tech) that is often wrought with unhealthy expectations and team dynamics. It’s been a personal challenge to provide tangible career growth and work/life balance for those I manage. So far, I think I’ve done a decent job. 

But as the years go by and my confidence grows, I find myself spending less time assessing my practices and experimenting with new ideas, and more time relying on past experiences and industry standards. And that leaves the door open for bias.

I just went through the process of hiring my first design intern at a relatively new job, which should have been an exciting but uneventful task. I asked my top candidate to deliver a design exercise in Sketch, a popular software design tool. It’s easy to use, affordable, and great for both small and enterprise design teams. I’ve used it almost exclusively over the past five years, and have recommended it countless times. It’s also a Mac-only tool, with no PC-compatible version. 

After the candidate delivered the exercise, the recruiter let me know that the candidate owned a PC and couldn’t use Sketch. However, this person found a compatible solution, the exercise was great, and I hired the candidate.

But the whole process threw me for a loop. Unconsciously, I had assumed that candidates would have a Mac because most software designers prefer them.

I felt that this was a pretty clear breakdown of my leadership philosophy. Truly, there’s nothing about having a Mac that makes you a better designer. Macs became prominent in the design industry originally because they had superior graphics and ran industry software more smoothly. Today, a Mac is a status symbol more than anything else. This experience taught me that I clearly needed to find software that was more open and accessible. 

Translation: I wanted to create more inclusive hiring. I’d hate to think that my choice of software could unnecessarily repel talented candidates.

I switched to Figma, a design software that allows people to work in their browser, eliminating the Mac requirement altogether. I’m also lucky that I work at a small company and had the authority and support to do that. But it was a wake-up call to more regularly evaluate what I accept as standard and to reconnect with my industry. 

Which begs the question: Do your work processes have hidden biases?

Fostering Feedback

One of the best ways to find out is to ask your employees. But instead of (or at least in addition to) formal processes like surveys and reviews, offer mentorship or networking support in exchange for feedback. Also be sure to divorce your request from people’s performance so that employees can give feedback freely without worry of consequences. And only ask for feedback when you intend on taking action. If you constantly dismiss suggestions because of time, effort, or cost, it’s unlikely people will come to you again. Instead, if employees bring up a new technology or methodology, give them ownership. Allow them to research, put together a demo, create pros and cons list, etc. If you’re demonstrating that you’re open to new ideas, then the burden falls less on you. Your team will be more forthright with concerns and step up to support transitions. All of which can ultimately impact your expectations of candidates.

Finally, forgive yourself for making mistakes. We’re never going to be perfect or infinitely adaptable. We cannot anticipate every mistake we will make as leaders. Often, we know what’s not working, but don’t have the time to dedicate to truly fixing the issue. 

I ignored other design tools for a long time, sticking to Sketch because it was cheap and I worked fast in it. But after a few weeks using Figma, I’ve found many time-consuming tasks have become automatic, collaboration is easier, and the actual cost of the software is cheaper. Overall this will save the company so much time and money. 

The alternative would have entailed digging in my heels. Or I could have beat myself up for sticking to Sketch for so long. But instead, I’m sharing my mistake here and moving forward.  

Have you been through something similar? Are there biases in your tools and processes that you’ve uncovered? I’d love to hear more about what you learned and how you evolved your process and philosophy. 

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