Strategic Alignment

Diversity in Leadership – Going From Good Intent to Results

By Kristen Robinson
December 11, 2020
5 minute read

The importance of diverse representation in leadership cannot be understated. A diverse leadership team means depth of perspective and stronger, more innovative ideas. It reflects the world we live in and, increasingly, is a major decision criteria for attracting and retaining talent.

How can we move from good intent to actual results in achieving more diverse representation—specifically through development?

People are making career choices based on the perceived commitment a company has to diversity. Who are the people in leadership positions? Are there employee-led resource groups dedicated to DEI? What are the values, goals, and objectives of an organization as it relates to diversity and inclusion? Over the years, I’ve seen some notable evidence:

  • I’ve met summer interns who had multiple offers in hand. They told me they made the decision to spend their summer vacation at our company based on the gender and ethnic diversity they saw.  
  • More and more women candidates for leadership roles are probing during the interview process about the female representation on the executive team and board of directors.
  • I’ve turned down an interview for a public company board seat because there was not a single woman on the board or on the executive team. No ethnic diversity, either.

We in the tech industry annually publish our diversity stats and are being more transparent about our strategies and actions in more comprehensive annual ESG and Diversity reports. Most will readily admit that the progress is slow and there are mindsets and practices that we still have to change.

Slowly, we’re getting past the empty diversity and inclusion promises that don’t include concrete plans to change fundamentally unfair structures and systems within companies.

Today, the research and the evidence is compelling. Intel and Dahlberg published their “Decoding Diversity” report that showed the financial and economic returns of diversity in tech – notably, massive expansion of overall markets. For individual companies with representative boards, leadership teams, and employee populations, they saw increased market value, revenue, and profitability.

But good intent isn’t getting us anywhere close to full representation. This is especially true with gender and ethnic representation in leadership. The data shows the significant delta between the overall representation of women and people of color and their representation in leadership teams.

It’s clear that this issue is impacting our ability to attract the talent necessary to accomplish our business objectives and fulfill our missions.

We’ve got to move from good intent to results. But how?

I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity in leadership. There’s no silver bullet, of course. We can focus on hiring and we can develop from within. No doubt, we have to do both, but let’s concentrate on development.

Developing leadership capability is about breadth, not depth. It’s not about gaining more acumen – presumably, a person has already demonstrated expertise within a relevant domain. It’s about vision, people, managing an operation, and understanding how the whole and the parts are connected across the entire business. Leadership theories abound and can be studied from a book. But mostly, we learn leadership on the job from experience.

As I think back on my own winding career path, exposure was key. Exposure to accomplished leaders who taught me a lot as I watched them operate. These people provided feedback on my performance and offered advice and counsel on my career. Exposure to the strategic work of the organization. Being tapped to lead special projects and to work on things that mattered more than everyday run-state. There was a lot of nurturing going on.

Then there was sponsorship. More than a few times, I was asked by executives – mostly nudged… ok, sometimes even pushed! – to move into another role. More than a few times, that meant moving my family to another state. More than a few times, it was a pretty big risk for everyone because I had no idea how to do what they were telling me to go off and do. But, they believed in me. They saw value I had to offer and potential in me that I didn’t believe I had.

Recently, a professional contact who I don’t know very well invited me to a Board of Directors conference. I’m not yet on a public company board, but he saw an opportunity to sponsor a woman who is at a point in her career where being on a board is a viable pursuit.

Who controls exposure? Who offers sponsorship? Who’s doing the nurturing and the nudging?

The current leadership, of course.

“Develop everyone to the exclusion of no one.”

That was the mantra repeated in a diversity course I took way back in the 1990’s. I didn’t realize its power then, but it has stuck with me. When we “develop everyone to the exclusion of no one,” then we will start to address diversity in leadership. 

Are we fully aware of the amazing talent we have in our organizations? Are we aware of the people who are different than us – who don’t run in the circles we normally run in – who we don’t naturally gravitate to because their proximity is not as comfortable?

So, it’s simple. Broaden our view of the talent within our organizations.

Great advice, but without something else, it’ll turn into just another good intention.

Accountability – it’s what we can’t run a business without. Why don’t we apply it to this topic? It requires data and measurement. Insights. Action.

It’s pretty easy to measure the obvious. Who gets promoted? Who’s identified as HiPo talent? If you grade people, who is rated at the top? How do we account for all that exposure and sponsorship?

This is where more sophisticated and transparent solutions must be introduced. In order to gain insight into whether or not everyone can develop and ensure no one is excluded, we must do the following:

  • Capture individual’s goals and activities throughout the year
  • Gain transparency into who is working on priorities that directly contribute to strategy
  • Understand the quality of developmental goals and actions to ensure they are relevant to meaningful leadership development

Here are questions we could ask of our organizations:

  • Who is and isn’t working on the most important strategic initiatives? Who’s working on run-state or in support roles?
  • Who’s got meaty development goals? Are the related activities solo-type or assisted by leaders? Are development goals related to performance in the current role or getting ready for a future role?
  • What are others saying about the leaders? What’s the quantity and quality of feedback folks are giving and getting?
  • What do the data and measurements show us?

We may observe differences between our majority population and others – typically people of color and women. These powerful insights (from real data, not speculation) can spur action. Ideally, it’s not programmatic, it’s personalized. Then, we can measure again. Then take action. Then more measurement – accounting for progress and results.

We start making movements that take time, but will be notable. We will have created transparency and deeper understanding. People will feel noticed and invested in. They will have access, exposure and hopefully sponsorship. We will “develop everyone to the exclusion of no one.”  

Imagine more. The tech industry is known as the place that develops diverse leaders and appeals to the talent that didn’t previously look our way. Our work atmosphere gets more interesting and innovative. We may see a surprising uptick in the business. And… the journey may just emerge to be as rewarding as the end result.

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