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

It’s happening. 

People are making career choices based on who’s at the top of and who they can detect within the organization. Some examples:

  • In August, as our Roadies were wrapping up their summer internships, I talked to a couple folks who, with several offers in hand, said they had made the decision about how to spend their summer vacation based on the gender and ethnic diversity they saw at our company.  
  • A woman candidate for an executive role recently probed during the interview about the female representation on the executive team and board of directors.
  • Last year, I 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 readily admit there’s a problem and that we have to change.

I believe we generally have good intent to do better – to show numbers that look less dismal. We are slowly getting past thinking we have to focus on diversity just to appease a group, or because everyone else is doing it and we’d be conspicuous for our absence.  

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 numbers are out there so we can readily recognize the significant delta between the overall representation of women and people of color and their representation in leadership teams.

It’s clear to me that this issue is impacting our ability to attract the talent we must have 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, understanding the whole and how 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 I learned from by watching how they operated. These people provided feedback on work topics and occasionally advice and counsel on career and life in general. 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 all day long 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 that’s in 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? More difficult is how we account for all that exposure and sponsorship.

This is where more sophisticated and transparent solutions can shed some light. If we’re capturing everyone’s goals and activities through the year… if we can see who across the organization is working on the priorities that directly contribute to the strategy versus who is in support roles… if we can get a glimpse of development goals and who is networked with who… then, perhaps we will start to get insight into whether or not everyone can develop and no one is excluded – particularly those in a position to develop the capabilities that are more relevant to expanded leadership.

Here are questions we could ask:

  • 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 measurement 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 a movement that, for sure, takes time, but will be notable. We will have created transparency and deeper understanding. People will feel noticed, invested in. They will have access, exposure and hopefully sponsorship. We will “develop everyone to the exclusion of no one.”  

Imagine more. We become known as the place that develops diverse leaders and appeals to the talent that didn’t previously look our way. Our work atmosphere gets a whole lot 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.