How Unconscious Bias Hurts Innovation | Women in Agile

Pioneer in Lean-Agile People Operations (formally known as “HR”) and CEO of Just Leading Solutions LLC, Fabiola Eyholzer uses science and statistics to help level the playing field for women in the business world. The data is compelling and it supports overwhelmingly the truly human characteristics that agile leaders portray: collaboration, communication, transparency and more. In other words, Agile leadership qualities could be described in words that are generally considered “feminine” or things that women excel at.

This isn’t lost to Eyholzer, who believes that diversity of thought is what drives success, and the cross-functional team concept that is deeply ingrained in Agile is evidence. But there is still a long way to go to equality and thus greater diversity of thought, and job hiring practices are an area that needs attention: While women make 53% of the new hires overall, only 3% of the new hires for leadership positions are female. Eyholzer provides concrete tips for improving your hiring process – from job description to interviewing – so that it can be the gateway toward innovation and growth via diversity of thought.

Accenture | SolutionsIQ’s Leslie Morse hosts at the 2019 Business Agility Conference in New York City.

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LESLIE MORSE: Welcome to another edition of Agile Amped. I’m your host Leslie Morse. We’re podcasting from the Business Agility Conference in New York City. Today, my guest is Fabiola Eyholzer. She is a Lean and Agile People Operations Expert and is the CEO of Just Leading Solutions, a New York-based consultancy focused on Agile HR. In two decades, as a management consultant and executive advisor, Fabiola has worked with numerous key players across various industries and countries. Together with her team, she helps enterprises accelerate their Agile transformation by focusing on their most crucial asset, their people. Fabiola, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: Thank you, Leslie, for having me.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, this is our second time to get to do a podcast together. A whole different dimension on our conversation, this time around diversity and leadership, and how that impacts business agility. Last night, you were able to keynote the Women in Agile event here as part of the Business Agility Conference. I thought it was great. We had about 60 people in the room. What was your big takeaway from that conversation and that experience last night?

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: It was just great to see how women and men just came together to talk about diversity and how much that can help us really create better companies.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, I saw a lot of light-bulb moments going off. A lot of that I think came from some of the data that you were actually shared us. I think we all make up stories about what we feel like the percentage of women leadership is, and diversity, and leadership, and all of these different sort of facts and statistics. But you put some shocking information up on the screen. Let’s just kind of just start with talking about diversity and leadership in general, that male-female dynamic. What is it that you’re seeing in terms of the penetration of leadership roles for women in Fortune 500?

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: As you say, correctly, we’re still not there. Yes, we know that we have less women in top management positions than we have men, but no one actually realize how low the numbers are. Because when you look at it, when we have new hires, it’s about 53% women. The rest is men. But then when it comes to our top positions, it’s just 3%, which is not a lot. Obviously, we have to talk about that and have to make sure that we level the playing field. Because, of course, this is not about men versus women. This is not about saying, “Hey, we just have to hire women,” just because we have a quota or we want to get that number up. It’s about embracing that diversity, and leveling the playing field for everyone.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, 3% was a much smaller number. Now granted, if we look at the middle layers of management and lower-level management positions, there was more of a balance. But still, once you got past that kind of new-joiner level, the bar chart started very much skewing towards the male side there. When you get into business agility, and Agile leadership in these different dynamics, is there a difference in the performance of these organizations when they have better leadership balance and better diversity in leadership?

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: Yes, absolutely. We see that companies who have women-led or have a majority of women or more women in leadership positions, they have higher innovation rights. They have higher profit margins so hey out succeed companies who are just male-led. The interesting part around this statistic, it’s not just that female participation is important. It’s about that deep diversity. If we have a team of just women leading a company, if they are not any more or less successful than a men-led company, but when the minute we bring in that diversity, we are creating that opportunity for different thoughts, different ideas to come together. We can work off of that, and create better companies and to create more successful companies. This is not just about diversity itself, leveling the playing field, giving same opportunities to everyone. It’s really about leveraging the ideas that we can can have when people from different backgrounds, with different experiences come together, and thrive off each other.

LESLIE MORSE: I love that you’re bringing that up, because it’s really more about diversity than it is just women. Then I start thinking about the idea of balance. Then I think about tipping point stuff. It’s not just enough to have probably one woman in the leadership team, but there’s gotta be some ratio there to have enough penetration for that diversity to actually make a difference. The reason I key in on this is some of the conversations last night is the characteristics of leaders and women feeling like we have to play a man’s game, and amp up some of those more masculine characteristics in order to fit in and get a seat at the table. I think if you hit the tipping point, you can actually bring forward more of your true feminine characteristics versus having to feel like you play that game. Is there something about the ratio of male to female or that balance that’s key in getting that diversity in leadership?

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: We know from the data that it’s about 30%. That’s where the tipping point is. As you said, it’s about embracing that when we are different, that that can actually be a good thing. It’s not a threat. It’s an opportunity for us to embrace different thoughts, different ideas. As you were saying, this is not just about gender, or race, or age, or a belief system, or what have you. This is about embracing that diversity of thought. That’s what we have to tap into. That’s what we can leverage in our organizations. Then, as you said, it’s bringing in those different characteristics. When we look at Agile organizations, it’s all about the teams and how can we leverage the power of the team because I don’t care how brilliant you are. A team that collaborates is always gonna outsmart you. You cannot be as brilliant as 10 people, 20 people, 50 people come together and work on one thing.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, gestalt. The whole is greater than sum of the parts.

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: Yes, exactly. When we look at what we would stereotypically say as female leadership traits, it’s more about building that relationship, helping others be better reaching their potential or even go beyond that. Nurturing a culture of collaboration, that’s what women are really good at. That’s what we look for in today’s world because today, with the complexity of our businesses and what we are trying to achieve, we cannot do that on our own. We need each other. We need the power of the team to make things happen. That’s what women are typically better at. To create those relationships and to nurture that power of the team and help the team grow. So it’s not about an individual person growing.

It’s about the team growing. That’s what women are really good at. That’s why we say we have to focus on that. It has to be okay. That it’s okay to be nurturing even in a business sense because, again, the data backs it up. That you can be more successful and financially more successful. Then you tap into both sides.

LESLIE MORSE: When you talk about those qualities, and women being more naturally compassionate and building of teams and things, it’s really easy to bleed into some stereotypes. How do you see stereotypical masculine versus feminine leadership traits playing into this conversation when you’re talking to executives?

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: It’s more about we say men are more decisive. They are greater risk takers. They are better at making deals, whereas women are better by the soft stuff as well and helping the team nurture. Women tend to be better in communicating to the team, to show why is it important that we go down that route. How are we gonna approach that? They are better at communicating. Those stereotypes may be true, may not be true. Usually, it’s quite fluid for most people. The question is, how do we make sure that we are not being shackled by those stereotypes? How can we move beyond that and not see it as a threat, but see it as something positive to move forward? Of course, we have to look at how we have institutional biases. What language do we use to be more inclusive and things like that, so that we can move beyond that?

LESLIE MORSE: Even on that idea of the language and in the stereotypes, what might be described as a positive masculine quality of being driven or decisive? Sometimes those same qualities are labeled for women as more bossy or demanding for some reason. There can, not always but stereotypically, it can be almost a negative connotation of a similar trait that, for men, might have a more positive thing. I think that language is really important especially from our most senior leaders and really thinking about the way they talk about leadership characteristics and qualities and being, I guess, gender neutral, and how they use those terms is really key. As well as probably taking time to explicitly acknowledge more feminine style traits in our male leaders to make that okay as well, because it’s not just about acknowledging all characteristics of women. It’s about making sure that men know it’s okay to have those qualities as well.

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: Absolutely agree. At the same time, we have to make sure that we embrace that. That we are not falling into that trap. It starts out with the way we phrase our job descriptions. It’s not that we are intentionally trying to be biased, or intentionally trying to more gear it towards our male audience. It’s naturally happening because we’re very much conditioned in that way. Even if you look at the way we talk to our girls and young leaders, we use that terminology as well. We have to be aware of that bias and make sure that we reduce that as much as possible.

LESLIE MORSE: What are the other places that you see bias showing up in people operations as it pertains to diversity?

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: It has a lot to do on how do we phrase what characteristics are we looking for in our leaders, in our high potentials, and new hires. We use a lot of that male-dominated language. As you were saying, being decisive, things like, “Oh, we need to crush it.” It’s all a lot geared towards the male audience, and we have to be aware of that. For instance, in the tech space, if you see we had such a surge of the term ninjas, tech ninjas being used. It’s more male dominated than female dominated. Or if you look at all the job requirements that we put out there, we usually have the must-haves and the nice-to-haves. It’s still okay to have those two categories, but you have to ditch the nice-to-haves because most women will only apply if they can tick all the boxes.

They wanna be able to say, “Yes, I can do what you’re asking of me. I fulfill those requirements.” Whereas men would apply if they cover about 60%. If you just say, “Okay, this is the must-have. We can’t go below that.” Then that’s gonna help you engage with more of the female audience. The other part is that when we talk about job descriptions, we’ll usually write down, “We are an equal opportunity employer.” How do we phrase that within the job ad? How do we make sure that comes through, not just a statement at the bottom? But yes, we do care about that. We engage in volunteer work. We help girls who code, stuff like that, to just show, “Okay, this is not just about your technical skills. This is also about your skills and reaching out to people and helping others.”

LESLIE MORSE: It’s not just a, “We legally need to say we’re an equal opportunity employer. Let’s check it in the box.” Let’s actually advertise how we go about giving back to the organization and having diversity inclusion, in more than just a corporate-propaganda way.


LESLIE MORSE: That’s really key. You mentioned something interesting about the women in applying for jobs, and the percentage like, “Oh, I need to check every box.” That makes me think about just you mentoring and growing women as they want to obtain leadership roles and continue to progress in their careers. That seems a pretty important part of the conversation is just to make that really relevant. It’s like, “Actually, it’s okay. You don’t need to check every box.” And making people more comfortable with that. Is that a conversation you’re having as you’re a mentor and guide for women that are growing?

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: Yes, of course. We have to help each other out. We are a network. Again, it doesn’t matter male or female, but we have to help each other out because we can only be successful if we can leverage ideas off each other and support one another. Yes, finding people who are gonna help you grow is certainly very important.

LESLIE MORSE: With that, are there different strategies that leaders need to use as they’re growing leadership within a diverse leadership team? Do you need to have different male versus female strategies? Or is there other considerations there?

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: It shouldn’t necessarily be about male versus female strategies. Because, again, we wanna have the best people in place. Again, this is not just about gender or race. It’s also about introverts versus extrovert.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, all sorts of different aspects.

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: How can we partner up with someone who’s gonna show us a different side to things and can help us flex our muscles? If we talk about agility, it’s all about continuous improvement. How do we build that into our own career? Of course, when we talk about leadership, or all the people operations, or HR stuff, in the Agile space, it’s not just about what can the company do for me, what can the leaders do for me. But also, what can I do for myself, how do I continuously grow and help. How do I reach out to people that I admire, people that I wanna learn from and make that happen? We have to bring ourselves into play as well.

LESLIE MORSE: Last night, you talked about this idea of a career or workplace workout. It had a couple different dimensions. Can we explore that here for just a minute ’cause I think that’d be great for people to understand?

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: Sure. It’s all about what used to be labeled job enrichment. How can I grow within my existing job because growing isn’t just about having that promotion and climbing up the ladder. It’s about how do I continuously learn, how do I continuously flex my muscle? There is this workout that say, “Okay, four things. First thing is how can I reach up? What is stuff that my manager is doing that I would really enjoy doing too, or that I would like to learn about? How can I take some of that stuff off his or her plate and help them, and by doing that, growing? The other part is, how do I grow si- How do I flex my muscle sideways? How do I help others within my team or my organization to grow? What are things that I’m really good at that I can teach others to do?

Then the other one is how do I lift my weight? How do I get better at the stuff that I’m doing? One is reaching down. How can I delegate some of the stuff that I’m currently doing and giving the opportunity to learn to someone else. It’s really about maximizing what you can do within your existing job. Again, it’s not waiting for HR to come in and say, “Hey, here is a learning opportunity for you.” No. I can take charge of that. I can help, can reach out, and do my workout in my existing job.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, I love that. I think especially that idea of reached down is so key because sometimes, or often, it’s not sometimes, I’ll say almost every time, you take that opportunity to mentor somebody else on topic or teach someone else something. You actually learn more about it yourself. You have those aha moments as you’re going through it. That is a way to really build your own muscles on something even more.

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: It definitely is. You’re getting better at it as well, when you have to teach it to someone else. Of course, it’s rewarding as well. It’s a good feeling, to say, “Hey, I taught someone something new, someone got better because I shared my experience and my knowledge.” I mean when we look at Agile ways of working. Agile does not differentiate between working and learning. Working is learning and learning is working. We have to make the maximum out of that, and really try to help each other and leverage those ideas off each other.

LESLIE MORSE: If we’re thinking about all of this, and I’m sitting in an organization, one of our listeners is going, “Wow, man. We’re really not there from a diversity perspective. What are some of the most key points that you find resonating with leaders and resonating with organizations for really changing their strategy around this?

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: The key is look at your processes and tools because we have so much bias in there. If we don’t change that, it doesn’t matter how many trainings you send your people to, how much you talk about being different, if we still operate within the same system, nothing is gonna change. We have to start being more mindful about all these biases that are in there. How do we change that? How do we approach that? Of course, the key role there is with HR. The topic diversity and inclusion is already with HR, but HR has to take it three steps ahead and say, “Okay, so let’s dissect all our processes and tools. Let’s see where do we build in a systemic bias? Where do we build in an institutionalized bias? How do we get rid of that?”

Of course, if you look at all the advances in neuroscience, there’s so much we can learn from that and build that into our systems. We know that we make a hiring decision within 90 seconds and the rest of the interview, it doesn’t matter if it’s half an hour or two and a half hours, it’s all that just to confirm our initial decision. How do we get rid of that? How do we apply techniques and little tricks to help us overcome that? We need help with that in the organization and HR has to wear that hat.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, I think, on this, you gave two really good things in your talk last night. One of them was in that very first impression, hitting a handful of the four things that you said like, “Do I like this person? Who do they remind me of?” What were the other two you said?

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: Can I trust that person? The other part is, do I feel safe?

LESLIE MORSE: Do I feel safe.

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: That’s something that your brain can decide within four seconds.

LESLIE MORSE: Which really comes from our survival mode. It’s not I’m being manipulative and trying to decide all these things. It’s just a very visceral first-impression response sort of thing, right?

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: Yes, it is. There is nothing wrong with that. As you said, it helped us survive. But the question is, how do we deal with that? What do we do next? Do we keep ourselves tied to that box? Or do we say, “No. Okay, that’s a decision that my conscious or unconscious brain made.” But, how do I take it to the next level? How do I look beyond? Because, obviously, we feel more comfortable with people who are like us. Of course, it makes us uncomfortable when people come in with completely different ideas, but that’s what we have to leverage off. We have to be able to deal with that little bit of feeling uncomfortable just to make things better.

LESLIE MORSE: Actually listening to you, it reminds me of a story my mom’s often told me. She was a school teacher, and she said, “Naming you was really, really difficult because every name we thought, I’d go, oh, I had a bad student with that name.” I imagine that happens. We make preconceived notions just based on the person’s name on the page because of other people we’ve known with the name.


LESLIE MORSE: Which I’ve never thought about that being another bias that I may have. Your technique around this five-minute increment and the little scoring thing, I thought it was great. I’d love for you to share that with our listeners.

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: It’s really about saying, “Okay, yes. Within 90 seconds, I’ve already made my decision.” Let’s take it a step further and let’s look at the whole picture. What you do is about every five minutes, five minute intervals, you do a little rating of how well did that person do within that segment of the interview. Then you look at the overall score at the end of the interview. Of course, you also dissect other bits. If you see someone was really excelling at one part, you dig in deeper and you find out why did that person excel. Were they talking about collaboration? Did they show passion for what they do? Did they tell you how they course-corrected when their career was coming to a stall? What did they do to convince you that it was such a good grade?

On the other hand, where did they fall short? Where did I think they didn’t do as well? You dissect that as well. It doesn’t have to be that they were bad at that segment, but it gives you some additional insights in, “Okay, how do I perceive that person? Then, of course, we put the final hiring decision front of the team. Because the team is gonna be better at making a collective decision and look beyond how great, are they at self-promoting? Because if you look at it, an interview is a marketing and sales event. They are self-promoting. Some people are much better, more vocal about telling you how great they are. Whereas, for instance, introverts, they don’t really like to talk about themselves that much. We don’t wanna make hiring decisions just based on how well can someone communicate.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, verbal privilege. To some extent, it’s easy to favor that in interviewing processes just because of the nature of it.


LESLIE MORSE: Let’s bring it back to this idea of business agility. It almost leaves us with this question of, do Agile businesses create more diverse leadership teams? Or do diverse leadership teams create more Agile businesses? It’s like a chicken and egg.

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: But the question is very simple. The answer is very simple. Yes and yes. Agile organizations have built that groundwork or a breeding ground for diverse leadership because we thrive on that diversity. We thrive on collaboration. We need people who are great at nurturing. We need people who are great at communicating. We need people are great doing this stuff and building it up. At the same time, of course, the more diverse our leadership is, the more successful we can be as an organization. When you look at it, so many people talk about we need to be more innovative. We need to be more creative. But you can only be innovative and creative if you allow for different ideas to emerge, for all that diversity to come together and thrive.

LESLIE MORSE: Yes, I couldn’t have said it better, and that’s why you’re here today. Any final thoughts you wanna share with everybody?

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: It’s a pleasure to be part of that Agile community because we really live and breathe what we teach. We love building on the power of people. I know that Agile seems to be that common sense stuff, and it is, because it resonates with people. At the same time, just because it’s easy and it’s obvious and it’s common sense, doesn’t mean that it’s easy to actually embrace that and walk the talk, so to speak. It’s a privilege and a pleasure of being part of the Agile community.

LESLIE MORSE: I love that. My heart literally feels warmer now hearing you say that. Thank you so much, Fabiola, for spending time with us today. I really appreciate it.

FABIOLA EYHOLZER: Thank you, Leslie. It was my pleasure.

LESLIE MORSE: You’re welcome. Thanks again for listening to this edition of Agile Amped. If you learn something new, please tell a friend, co-worker, or a client about the podcast. You can subscribe online to hear more inspiring conversations.