A New Look at Diversity: Resistance to Diverse Hiring, Particularly at Senior Levels, is Probably Not What You Think

Those companies with the best talent and the most innovative thinking will pave the road into the future that others will travel. Truly diverse teams are the key to becoming one of these trailblazers. The quote from Thoreau (19th century author, poet and philosopher) above is an apt commentary on the value and challenge of diversity.

Traditionally, Diversity is considered to be a function of how different people look. When we see a team made up of Asian, African American and Caucasian men and women, we think of it as a diverse team. Not so if we see a team of Caucasian men. This perspective defines diversity by what you are looking at rather than by how the people you are looking at, see and experience the world.

It is hard for us to accept that a team of male Caucasians could be very diverse in terms of their worldviews, life-experiences, and how they see, interpret and experience the world. In the same way it is hard for us to accept that a team of people who look very different, may, due to their upbringing and education all see and experience the world very similarly.

When using the term diversity in a business or organizational context, and certainly when designing diversity initiatives, it is important to predetermine which meaning of diversity you wish to address. Do you want your teams to look diverse, or to bring diverse thoughts, insights and experiences to the table? Are you trying to check the diversity box, or is diversity a strategy that you genuinely believe will up your performance game?

In the first approach you simply want your teams to look more diverse. In this case, since people's natural default is to hire individuals they know, are familiar with or feel comfortable with, you will need to manage the process by regulation. You will mandate a percentage of hires from the specific minorities you're seeking to increase in your workforce, manage the numbers and check the boxes. Diversity by compliance has never attracted or retained exceptional talent and hasn't proven to be sustainable in the US or anywhere else in the world. After a while, your original demographic returns like an elastic that has been stretched for a period and is then released.

The second approach, using diversity as a strategy to up your performance game, does attract excellence and is sustainable. This approach entails the following steps:

Educate the organization

Conduct a study to determine the root cause of your current mono-cultural hiring tendencies. This study can be quick, non-invasive and efficient. Our experience is that resistance to diverse hiring, particularly at senior levels, is probably not about racial bias, conscious or sub-conscious.

Ensure that your leaders speak of diversity in terms of diverse viewpoints and not diverse cultures and ethnicities. It is true that often the two are linked, but not always.

Through correctly languaging communication from the top, align managers' thinking to the fact that diversity is a strategy for excellence not an exercise in political correctness. Your diversity initiative does not imply a willingness to lower standards of competence for the sake of checking diversity boxes. Your initiative is built on the belief that you cannot be accessing the best talent available if you limit your pool to a single demographic segment.

Accelerate and leapfrog

Focus your talent strategy on (truly) high potential rather than just on currently high performers.

Comb the organization for high potential diverse talent. Identify this talent, accelerate its training and development, and leapfrog the people you identify into more senior positions even if a little beyond their present levels of proven competence.

Take talent risks in the same way you take strategic and investment risks, and manage your risk in the same way. You won't win them all, but the upside will more than compensate for the downside.

High Potentials, Young People and Women

HiPos: Your high potential employees, especially those from different backgrounds, are valuable assets who will impact your organization's future more than any other asset you have. Invest in them, measure their progress and manage them.

NewGen: Among your most different and valuable high potential employees are young people born in the Internet generation -- that is under twenty-seven year-olds. They have a different way of seeing the world irrespective of their culture and should be treated as culturally diverse rather than as simply inexperienced. They are technologically experienced, and bring new dimensions of thought to as high a level as you are willing to admit them despite their age and their linear experience.

Women: If you are serious about developing women into senior positions, make sure you are willing to make it attractive and practical for many of them who may be mothers of young children. To elicit the fullness of their talent and contribution, prepare your culture to embrace that diversity of their specific needs. Their needs might be different from those of men of similar ability and competence or of women without young children.

Companies with the best talent and the most innovative thinking will pave the road into the future that others will travel. People who see the world differently, not just people who look different, will help you be one of these trail-blazing companies.

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