Bonus Chapter: A Letter to the Business World
This book is for emerging women leaders and those who are knocking on the door of executive leadership but for whatever reason, they haven’t made it inside. That said, there are insights to be gleaned for male and female executives as well. While my purpose is to better prepare women of all backgrounds to confidently lead, I would be remiss if I didn’t share—at least at a high level—what business leaders can do to help ensure that their seeds of greatness are planted in fertile ground.
There are wonderful books, articles, and research studies on unconscious bias. We generally understand the concept and the effects of it, and we have identified some ways to combat it. But in the spirit of a practical approach, I’d like to share three things women leaders need from you that you can actually give. You may not be able to single-handedly dismantle a culture of unconscious bias overnight, but as an individual leader, you can commit to consciousness and raise it in others, starting right now.
One of the unfortunate employment trends for women and “women of color, in particular, shows that if they rise into leadership at all, they stagnate in middle management. They are considered solid enough performers to be promoted, but they are not seen as worthy of breaking through to the executive level. Why? Many of these women are every bit as capable as those who seemingly fly through the ranks on a magic carpet. In some cases, however, they’re not as informed. And they’re certainly not as connected. Often, they don’t see themselves reflected at the top and aren’t sure with whom they can safely connect, so they just hope management will notice how hard they work, how reliable they are, and how badly they want to lead. They keep pushing, waiting to be invited to work on that major project or the next breakthrough idea.
Champions for diversity and inclusion have the power to provide the insights, access, and intervention necessary to clear the way for those who have more to give than their current circumstances allow.
We should be hypervigilant about identifying unique perspectives and differentiated talents that can add value to our teams. Looking out for unique candidates not only serves you but your business goals. Diverse points of view result in a more comprehensive vision.
Every executive leader has been given the skinny by someone who went before. There are always cultural norms, unwritten rules, and insider knowledge about the company’s most valuable leadership traits or sacred cows. Some professionals and especially culturally diverse professionals often find themselves outside of this insight loop. That means you have to pull them into that loop, on purpose. Do you intentionally and freely share what you know about the business and its strategy? Do you connect aspiring culturally diverse women leaders to people they should know, and who should know them? When we generously share our insights, connections are made, and mutual benefits are born.
As we’ve discussed, one of the best ways to get experiential learning is through involvement in cross-divisional projects, leadership programs, or other high-visibility initiatives. This is one place where employees who
fall outside of the cultural norms tend to miss out on the action. Middle and senior managers usually have their go-to team. These folks become known as versatile, responsive, strategic players who jump into ambiguous situations and make good things happen. What we fail to appreciate is that they become high performers in part because they’re talented, but also thanks to the opportunities they’ve been given. (Insert the crazy-making phrase, “I just want the best person for the job”—the best people are the best because others invest in them.) There are many people in our companies who have never been chosen for these stretch opportunities, but who—with experience and exposure—could be just as powerful as the next person. We have to provide access consciously. Equally. And often. Goodness knows there’s enough important work to go around.
Every well-established company has processes, policies, and systems by which people advance. These systems are so ingrained and consistently applied that we develop shortcuts by which to execute them. How do we streamline? What can we assume and therefore not spend too much time discussing? If we are to ensure all employees get enough airtime, we need to interrupt our normal course of business and ask different questions. Add new people to the list. Reach down deeper into the organization than the top ten who are typically discussed. How can you intervene to alter the conversation in your company? The consideration set doesn’t change without intent. The only kind of shift that happens in these situations is a deliberate one.
Inclusive organizations are healthier, creative, and drive stronger results. I write this not as a diversity and inclusion practitioner, but as a business leader. If we hope to fully harness the performance power of an inclusive workforce, we’ve got to get better at pulling people up through the middle. There isn’t one glass ceiling, there are several. And while we may not have the power to single-handedly break them all, there are some in our very own houses that we can and should do something about. The world is changing so fast, and especially now, we need conscious leadership of all kinds.
More about “The Best Person for the Job”
Whenever I talk or write about this topic, someone will inevitably say, “I don’t believe in spending extra effort developing or seeking out any one group—we hire the best person for the job.” I understand this response on the surface, but it completely ignores the fact that employees become the best person for the job over time and because of their experiences. Depending on the business climate and diversity awareness, many women and people of color don’t get the benefit of these experiences.
I write about insight, access, and intervention to counteract this trend. We must get out of autopilot on this one. Many executives believe that their good intentions are enough to change the women in leadership trends that have been stagnant for years. Your good intentions are wonderful. But they’re insufficient. You have to understand that there are, in fact, gender and cultural differences at play that make it more challenging for women and people of color to traverse work cultures that were built by and for white men. This is not a complaint or an excuse. It’s a fact. For women and people of color, some corporate cultures are the equivalent of an American competing with Brazilians in an Amazonian scavenger hunt. At the risk of oversimplifying, that American is going to have some disadvantages.
I know some still perceive diversity/inclusion as no more than politically correct discourse. Others see it as the right thing to do. In my opinion, this is not the most important reason you should care about it. I still hear many business leaders grasping for proof that diversity drives business results. Honestly, I don’t blame them for grasping. Sure, some people ask because they don’t really believe it impacts the bottom line.
But others ask because they do believe, and they’re looking for more data points to help others believe along with them.
Inclusion is undoubtedly a business issue, and while I could cite examples of how diverse teams drove improved business performance, I’m not going to. The Internet offers countless examples, and I won’t spend time on that here. Instead, I’d like to share five commonsense but underappreciated consequences of a homogeneous workforce. If nothing else, I hope you can appreciate the power of perception, insight, and trends at play in these examples, and the fact that their impact will increase in presence and influence over time.
1. Scary Blind Spots
Anyone remember the 2011 Nivea ad for shaving cream that suggested Blacks needed to re-civilize themselves? The print ad showed a well- dressed, clean-shaven Black man tossing the head of a not-so clean- shaven Afro-wearing male like a bowling ball. The print ad stated “Look like you give a damn.” I’m betting neither the advertising team nor the brand team had a Black person on it, or this would have never made it past concept stage. We all make mistakes, but with a diverse team, some mistakes are avoidable.
2. Limp Leadership Commitment
Employees pay attention to the people who receive promotions. Essentially, they’re looking for reflections of themselves as a way to gauge their own advancement potential. If a young working mother sees no working moms at high levels of the company, she doesn’t believe she can be a mom and an executive. If you have no gay execs or no one is “out” at work, a gay man doesn’t believe he can succeed and bring his whole self to work. It seems obvious, but a lack of diversity at the top can compromise engagement in the middle. People believe they will only go so far, which makes them subconsciously temper their contributions. The risk is similar to giving your heart to a partner you don’t believe will ever marry you. It’s not a great investment.
3. Confidence Issues
You want to serve the needs of a multicultural America? So does every company with one eye on population growth and the other on the rich well of insight from consumers whose values are aspirational for the total market. A homogenous workforce has to rely heavily on research and a handful of diverse employees for understanding and translation. Without sufficient diversity in decision-making roles, leaders will naturally—and smartly—check and double-check their assumptions. Intuitive or in-culture knowledge at all levels of the company is faster and cheaper, and it builds on itself. When your leaders have inherent understanding of diverse markets, they make calls more confidently.
4. Ugly Prom Date
Millennials don’t see diversity as an initiative. For them, it’s a way of life. They all—white and nonwhite—grew up in a world rich with ideas and diverse perspectives, and they prefer the same in a workplace. Price Waterhouse Cooper released a study in 2013 called “Next Generation Diversity: Developing Tomorrow’s Female Leaders.” In this report, they cite that the millennial generation tends to seek employers with a strong record on equality and diversity. In particular, this is important to the female millennial. A total of 82% identify an employer’s policy on diversity, equality, and workforce inclusion as important when deciding whether to work for an organization.
5. You Can’t Play
Perhaps the most significant, albeit emerging, risk of a lack of workforce diversity is the growing expectation that a company’s workforce should reflect its consumers. From legal to marketing to retailing, the question is being asked of vendors and suppliers more often, and those who
don’t make the cut can be excluded from the consideration set. An astute businesswoman I know likened it to the conversation about environmentalism. At first, reducing your business’s carbon footprint was a nice-to-have characteristic. It differentiated leading businesses from those that weren’t engaged. Over time, it became a requirement. The companies who didn’t “get straight in line” were eventually kicked out of the line altogether.
Data that proves inclusion drives business results is important, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The benefits of a diverse workforce go well beyond what we can quantify through a register or on a P&L report. We can’t forget the opportunity cost associated with not having a diverse workforce, which is always harder to pin down. Trust that it matters. It does. And work with your leaders to chart a path to tangible progress, sooner rather than later. Fortunately and unfortunately, the “nice-to-have” clock is running out.