Driving Organizational Success Through More Diverse IT Teams

By Julia Davis, CIO, Aflac

Julia Davis, CIO, Aflac

The high-profile diversity debate in Silicon Valley has helped spark an ongoing national conversation about the American workforce, causing many in the technology industry to reflect on their own mostly homogenous teams. Companies need IT workers with highly specific skills, but an engineer-turned-programmer or a software developer with a marketing background may bring more to the table than a professional with a lesser range of expertise. From the start of my career in the U.S. Air Force to my role today at Aflac, the importance of diversity has always been clear and evident. I have seen diversity fuel the exchange of ideas and viewpoints, enabling people to work together and form teams stronger than the sum of their parts.

“To succeed in the enterprise, IT organizations need advocates who understand technology from a business perspective and who can serve as ambassadors to other internal groups”

Promoting diversity is not only the right thing to do; it also makes good business sense. In today’s environment, consumers take note of corporate practices and opt for ethical businesses and products, while a shifting workforce brings new demands and expectations to employers. Companies need a diverse workforce to remain competitive in a global job market. Within IT organizations, multiple talents and perspectives are as important to daily operations as they are to supporting future growth, and they can spur innovation in the process.

Drivers for Diverse Teams

In many aspects of business, it is tempting to stick with what works. Businesses trust the same vendors and purchase the same products time and again, but in hiring and recruiting, going outside the norm can bring a significant payoff. Rather than sourcing candidates who attended the same schools and studied the same concepts, savvy employers will look to match the environment they operate in. The U.S. population is currently in the midst of change: Employees of Hispanic descent are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, and millennials now outnumber older generations. Building diverse teams is not limited to factors like race, gender and age. Leaders must also consider each individual’s skillset, education, experience level and function within the business as well as what other qualities they will contribute to a given project.

At Aflac, we credit our diverse teams as a key to our success. Two-thirds of our workforce is female, and minorities make up nearly 40 percent of our employees. We are devoted to hiring the best candidates for every role and recognize that having a variety of viewpoints is crucial in supporting our customers. We follow this same ethos in our IT division, and in turn, our diversity helps us to find common ground with other aspects of operations.

Within larger companies, IT teams support initiatives and people across many business functions and departments. To succeed in the enterprise, IT organizations need advocates who understand technology from a business perspective and who can serve as ambassadors to other internal groups. My team, which ranges from vice presidents to managers, includes exceptional leaders whose backgrounds span operations, business transformation and manufacturing.

The team’s diverse experiences allow them to provide insight into other lines of business, helping us align IT with Aflac’s overall goals and making us a partner of choice both within our business and for the businesses we serve.

Cultivating a Mix of Talents

Diversity can help businesses reflect the values of their customers, but maintaining a multifaceted team is a significant challenge. Retaining talented workers is a crucial, ongoing challenge for businesses, and generational shifts are adding to the complexity. Many companies focus on retaining talent only at the highest levels, but today’s interns will be tomorrow’s leaders - it’s just a question of where they’ll choose to lead.

Businesses should strive to be a workplace of choice for millennials or they will not prosper in the long term. Currently, 59 percent of millennials report they are happy with their jobs, but many admit they will likely seek a new position in the next year. Young workers may be inclined to hop jobs, but over one-third say an improved benefits package could convince them to stay. Businesses that invest in their newest employees and cultivate a generationally diverse workforce will be better prepared for future challenges, and they will likely see a more engaged team as a result.

Investing in talent is all the more important among the predominantly young employees within the technology industry. The median employee age is 28 at Facebook, and across the sector, rapidly shifting business needs require companies to pull in workers with the latest competencies. Technology is evolving faster than ever, but business management and leadership skills will continue to be key for driving growth. While recent grads may not immediately be prepared to lead, ongoing training can help maximize your team’s potential and prepare them for challenges down the road. In turn, just as employees seek out employers that invest in them through benefits, continuous employee development can help businesses hold on to top performers. Opportunities for career progression are the top draw for millennials, so devoting resources now can help you retain talent for years to come.

At Aflac, we have responded to these market demands by transforming how the company trains and develops top talent through the implementation of the Aflac Career Success Center. The Career Success Center offers employees the opportunity to engage with leaders in open discussion, participate in one-on-one mentoring and establish long-term goals, setting the stage for professional success for the employee and helping to ensure the company stays competitive and maintains its industry-leading professional advantages. Providing similar opportunities and building a diverse, multigenerational talent pool are paramount for succession planning, ensuring your team can continue as usual when leaders retire and openings arise.

Diversity Pays Off

Many IT leaders understand the benefits of diversity on the surface, but often seeing is believing. Earlier this year, Aflac launched One Day Pay, an industry-leading initiative to pay out customer claims in a single day. This required major shifts within Aflac and entailed changes to our IT infrastructure and systems on both the customer and business sides, preparing new claims processes and training our field agents, all on a six-month timeline. Developing One Day Pay required a nexus of Aflac’s IT organization, claims business, policy services, and the customer service center. My team worked with nearly every group within Aflac, leaving titles at the door and collaborating toward a common goal.

The diversity of our team enabled us to deliver on One Day Pay, a superior customer service initiative. To implement projects of this scale, businesses need to build teams with a variety of skillsets that can work together to adapt and pivot. Within any technology organization, blended IT teams and a holistic approach to challenges can drive collaboration and success. IT organizations need to build diverse teams to compete and maintain their talent pools to sustain success. They also need to leverage teams with a range of skills in order to innovate and enable initiatives like One Day Pay. Diversity is more than a range of perspectives. When fostered, it’s clearly a competitive advantage.