Organizational Diversity: How to Improve Today

by Jul 5, 2020Talent

There is an existing playbook we can use, and it works

There has been a huge amount of conversation and energy in recent months about the Black Lives Matter movement and the lack of diversity in many organizations, especially in businesses. This lack of organizational diversity is particularly evident in leadership levels and in terms of representation on boards. It’s real.

I have come to use the analogy of a crayon box to help people see if their organization has a diversity issue or not. If you look around and see that you have a boring box of crayons, where everyone is more or less the same color, you’re missing out on enormous opportunities to tap into the kind of creativity and range of experiences a diverse workforce generates. You’re also missing the opportunity for the people inside your organization to look more like your client. Without having a diverse workforce, you won’t be able to connect and communicate with your clients and the performance of your business will suffer as a result. Beyond being the right thing to do, a diverse workforce has real economic benefits.

So what can you do as a leader of a business? I have heard many excuses for why your crayons are so dang boring. The most common reason I have heard is, “it’s too hard to find qualified people, especially at the senior levels.”

Unfortunately, it’s true that there is a dearth of highly qualified people of color that are ready to immediately step into a senior leadership or board position. As entrepreneurs, we are also competing against other organizations in our ecosystems that are looking for that same talent. It’s especially challenging to go up against larger organizations that are increasingly aggressive in paying more for these leaders, which can make them difficult to afford for a smaller business.

One solution that we know works is to move beyond hoping and praying to find diverse candidates by growing your own talent. Some critics may say that this approach is inefficient as it can take years of investing in someone before you know if those investments will pay off in terms of people growing into managerial and top leadership positions—which then translates into qualified board members. But we don’t have a choice. There’s an adage that says the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is today.

These younger candidates might not look like your traditional down-the-middle, boring candidates that are safe. I spoke with a friend recently that is a leader in talent and she described a candidate her firm was going to reject because he didn’t have a 3.0 GPA in electrical engineering, he had a 2.5 GPA. She dug deeper and found this black student had three jobs while he put himself through college in the incredibly tough electrical engineering program, including one in insurance sales – and they were hiring for sales engineers! She immediately tossed the process and got him hired. I am certain he had a great career, even though he didn’t fit the safe hiring box.

Even if you take the long view in terms of developing people, there will still be struggles to overcome. I was speaking to a client in Indianapolis who has made a point of hiring minority candidates for years. When you look at the colors of his organizational crayon box, it is extremely diverse at the lower levels—yet it remains mostly white at the top. The problem he has run into is that as he hires and develops talent, larger companies swoop in and snap them away. My client has become something of a farm team for other organizations because they get outbid for top talent. But this effort is still worthwhile precisely because it is building up the pool of talented minority leaders who go on to careers elsewhere.

There is a successful precedent we can follow. I am involved in the National Association of Corporate Directors, where one of our central missions is to bring diversity to boards. We have seen great progress over the past 30 years where we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of Fortune 500 companies run by women as well as the number serving on boards. We got here, by developing women as managers, then executives then CEOs, which lead to board membership. It takes a full career cycle for this to happen, but it works. Is not perfect and we have a way to go, but over time it will get better to a point of a representative population.

It is my belief that we can use this same proven and steady approach when it comes to developing leaders of color. Granted, there are influential voices who suggest we should put people of color into senior leadership and board roles today. But I think we need to tread carefully about putting potentially unqualified people into these roles before they are ready. In my mind, this would be like throwing a kid into the pool before teaching them how to swim.

I’m not using this as an excuse not to act now. I just think we need to be cautious about not setting people up to fail. Every time we put a minority candidate into a position they aren’t qualified for and they struggle, we risk reinforcing the negative stereotypes that some hold and are working so hard to overcome. And we don’t do the effort any good as a result. It won’t be good for the candidate, the company, or the movement.

The truth is that none of these changes are going to happen fast enough to please everyone. Let’s acknowledge that it will take time. But if we follow the model that has been proven to work with women where we actively grow talent to the most senior levels, we can make real progress. So, let’s take that first step to change the world today.