by Becky Heidesch

Where have we been, and where are we headed?

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back . . Is unconscious bias still holding us back?

Why has the needle barely moved in the past 20 years? Why are we still not seeing strong diverse representation at the table? What’s happening in the current culture? Is the 65-year-old white man still in charge? Will millennials redefine the definition of work ethic and styles? How long will it be before women and people of color occupy 50% of the seats at the table? When are we going to get there and how are we going to navigate a mind boggling, ever changing culture?

So, what’s going on today? In the past couple of years, I have had numerous conversations with large scale public companies who have indicated that they are in the beginning stages of trying to figure out how to address the lack of a diverse talent pipeline and the lack of senir women and diverse talent at the top. In 2018, many companies we talk too said they are still trying to get a handle on it. Clients continue to tell us, “we just haven’t been successful in attracting and or finding diverse talent.” Additionally, clients share that after finding and hiring a strong diverse leader, they end up losing them. Why?

The answer to this question is multi-faceted and has several key components besides unconscious bias. For example, lack of experience, lack of opportunity, family and lifestyle choices, education, and lack of role models are all factors associated with the challenges women and diverse candidates have experienced in moving up in their careers.

Regardless of the multitude of factors at play, one thing that’s clear is that white men are still mostly in charge. If there is no diversity of people, there will be no diversity of thought. With no accountability to address the problem and commit to diversifying the leadership, the people and culture will never change. I firmly believe that you cannot change culture without changing the leadership.

Shirley Engelmeir, author of becoming an Inclusive Leader and founder of IncusionInc, says there are 3 main behaviors to being an inclusive leader, 1) Ask me what I think, 2) Inform me, and 3) Allow me to participate in decision making, according to the SM Executive Education Department study called Global Inclusion Index.

As a search consultant who has been specializing in placing women and diverse executives for over a decade, my team and I quickly learned over the years how important it was to provide research to decision makers in order to present the business case for why they needed to increase the number of diverse leaders.

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s when we entered this space and pitched to new clients, we would often tell companies that retaining us to fill your search assignment was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much data back then on the business case for diversity, so our only approach was to appeal to a moral fiber. While we did win some business, we quickly learned that we were ahead of the research and needed the business cases to catch up.

In 1999, I published the women’s employment publication focusing on job opportunities for women in the sports industry. WSS also launched two online sports diversity career centers. The support and interest we received in this area, from both men and women, was the catalyst for the evolution of our business, specializing in women and diverse executive placement. At the time, we heavily questioned branding our business solely in this area. In fact, a potential investor was not in support of us branding our business solely on women and diverse placement. She suggested we take a more generalist approach. With a passion and a commitment to the work and recognizing a need that was not being addressed in corporate America, we moved forward. Like most entrepreneurs, I was headstrong.

What we didn’t know back then was just because we recognized there was a need did not mean that corporate America saw a problem or a need. At this time, most companies were not at all interested in investing in diversity hiring initiatives or changing their culture.

A decade later, in the mid 2000’s more research started to come out to support the business case for diversity, this should have been the monetary incentive to aggressively move this needle forward. Companies were, by in large, starting to pay closer attention to the metrics. Outside organizations were tracking the numbers and public companies were being asked what their representation numbers are for women and diverse leaders at the table. Finally we started to see accountability. It was at this time that many of the progressive companies were starting to hire diversity leaders, often referred today as CDO’s or Chief Diversity Officers.

Many of these companies early out of the gate made an obvious mistake. They hired women and people of color and slapped a title on them related to Diversity. These early engagements put good people in roles they were not qualified for or even understood. The process was merely what we call window dressing, an internal pick, usually a female or person of color, who lacked any formal training but who could fill the slot and look like a diverse hire. This philosophy was a temporary solution that looked good but yielded meager results. Today, CDO’s are much more experienced and knowledgeable in this work and are shaping culture and building sophisticated programs for retention.

Being one of the first to the table in this work, we faced several challenges. One of which was the disconnect between diversity and (now) inclusion departments and talent acquisition departments. When these two critical business units were not in sync it was nearly impossible to achieve results. Nevertheless, awareness of the problem was growing.

As time went on, it seemed like real progress was around the corner… then the recession hit. According to Engelmeir, the recession was a key factor in many diversity related hiring programs being dumped. Budgets and initiatives fell to the wayside at this time. Leadership and Cultural bias training although introduced, also quickly fell to the wayside. This ultimately may be a key factor in why we lost another decade in seeing and experiencing real change.

Fast forward to 2010 and we now had the business ROI documentation to support the “why we need to diversify the leadership”, but what about the case for changing culture? If you bring in diverse leaders and the culture is not one of diversity and inclusion, then typically the diverse talent will not stay and the cycle repeats itself.

Global organizations today understand that a diverse workforce is the only way to compete. Successful companies have learned how to leverage diversity to create a unified and inclusive culture and are training their leaders to be inclusive. This is not just about having women and diverse leaders on your team. What value are they on the team if they are not involved at the highest level of the organization? If they are not involved in making key business decisions, then how will an organization truly achieve diversity of thought? That is where you can really see the culture of an organization change and take hold, just look at the breadth, depth and diversity of successful boards and leadership teams. If you have white males (sorry guys) making all the back-door decisions, there is no diversity.

If you are on organization promoting diversity, and there are no women or diverse leaders in the highest levels of management and a part of the decision-making team, then the fabric of the organization is not diverse. You can add all the diverse talent you can find at the mid and lower levels, but if the executive leadership team lacks diversity, these efforts are just another example of window dressing.

You cannot have an inclusive company or organization
if you do not have diverse and culturally inclusive LEADERSHIP . . .
Diversity without an Inclusive culture will not work!

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