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January 26, 2021

Your Search for Diverse Leadership Isn’t a Pipeline Problem

by Johanna Lyman in Blog Roll, Leadership

Developing diverse leadership: it’s not a pipeline problem. The default way talent pipelines operate is via the path of least resistance.

People tap the shoulders of people who are top of mind. Who is that? Thanks to unconscious bias, it’s usually white, cis-gendered, tall, reasonably attractive men. That’s because the vast majority of people picture someone like that when asked to “picture a leader.”

There are a number of other factors that go into this path of least resistance, beyond unconscious bias. Men tend to brag about themselves more than women do, generally speaking. People of color often have tremendous skills that aren’t traditionally considered to be leadership skills, but that are greatly in demand in these VUCA times. Skills like adaptability, collaboration, resilience, and grit. Companies that prefer candidates who’ve graduated from Ivy League schools will almost always end up with a significant majority (if not exclusively) white pipeline.

Diverse Leadership in Top Government

President Joe Biden has shown us that it doesn’t have to be like that. His campaign staff was 53 percent women and at least 35 percent people of color. In his transition staff, 46 percent are people of color, 41 percent of the senior staff are people of color and 52 percent are women.

Biden has promised to appoint a Cabinet that looks like America. And so far, he seems to be moving in that direction with 50 percent of his Cabinet nominees being people of color. In fact, as of this writing, 15 percent are Hispanic, 19 percent are Black, 8 percent are Asian, 4 percent are Native American and 4 percent are two or more races.

It is entirely possible to have diverse leadership in the highest ranks of organizations. It requires a commitment and a strategy. Or more specifically, a number of strategies. Companies that want to have long term success in developing and retaining a diverse pipeline need to have strategies for recruitment, retention, mentorship, and talent development, to name a few.

Organizational Strategies + Leader Action

But it’s not just about strategies for attracting and retaining diverse talent. Leaders also need to take personal and sustained action in order to make their company’s culture more inclusive.

It shouldn’t be up to the diverse team members to figure out how to get along. That burden lies squarely on the shoulders of every employee. All employees can (and we think should) learn how to be allies for each other. Whether it’s a man who credits a woman’s idea in a meeting, or someone who speaks up to call another in on a micro-aggression, there are a myriad of ways employees and managers can all help each other know that everyone belongs on their team.

As a country, we will get to a place of truly diverse workplaces a lot faster if we learn and grow together. Initiatives like Talent 2025 in West Michigan are collectively solving the problem of diversity in the workplace with initiatives that include:

  1. Commitments from CEOs to include D&I in their talent attraction, retention, and development strategies
  2. A benchmarking survey that offers comparisons by industry and company size, in order to spark some healthy competition to do better
  3. An online employer toolkit that helps employers to improve existing strategies or implement new practices to ultimately create inclusive and equitable workplaces
  4. Inclusive Leadership Development (ILD) events for CEOs and their leadership teams offer practical methods to advance D&I efforts in hiring, retention, development, and culture

There are also initiatives like nFormation and its activation of women of color for a better future. Women of color in organizations are often the first, and the only, people like them at the leadership table. That can feel deeply isolating. nFormation is working on two fronts:

  1. It is building a “brave, safe space to address the deep sense of isolation high achieving WOC feel, and creating new ways to show up so we don’t just join the table but actually change the way the table is formed.” ~nFormation’s website
  2. It will give companies access to senior level (C suite and Board ready) women of color, and help prepare the companies to make their spaces welcoming to these women.

As Jennifer Brown said on a recent podcast with Rha Goddess and Deepa Purushothaman, the co-founders of nFoundation, we need to “set the table so it’s prepared” for more diverse leadership. This involves individual learning, challenging the system as it currently exists, and changing the system itself so it’s “hospitable and welcoming for everyone to thrive”. It is essential for senior leaders to commit to a deep level of personal investment on developing a more diverse pipeline.

We can get there. We will, because we must. If we don’t, American capitalism will be obsolete within the next 20 years. Our country, and indeed the world, grows more diverse every day. Between 2040 and 2050, the United States will be a majority minority country. Many parts of the country are already there. Representation matters. Employees are demanding it and consumers are demanding it.

At this moment, we face a crisis of belonging. We’ve been too fractured for far too long. It’s time to come together to heal. It’s time to make room for everyone at the table.