There is no question in my mind. Senior leaders – those who have the responsibility and capacity to consider vision and strategy – have been allies of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) for some years now. I’ve heard many eloquent CEOs espouse the benefits of engaged diverse employees, the creative and innovative solutions proffered by those with unconventional (for the corporate world) experiences, and the benefits of justice and equality in the workplace and beyond. One might think that some of them were bowing to pressure and delivering a carefully-scripted speech, but I’m confident that many genuinely believed in their words – although their subsequent actions may not have always been entirely consistent with those words.
Leading the EDI transition is not as easy as it sounds. I offer you three reasons why:
1. Yes, but!
Even those leaders who consider themselves allies of EDI have found it difficult to make what they might consider ‘irrational’ sacrifices. As one leader asserted, ‘You can either choose diversity or you can choose to be “super-duper”… To privilege diversity above excellence… is likely to undermine the very objectives that inspired it.’ (This was Justice Antonin Scalia, quoted by Matthew Syed in his book Rebel Ideas). I have also heard leaders say ‘Yes, absolutely we want more Diversity, but we’re not going to hire someone who isn’t qualified.’
This is of course a fallacy, but many leaders struggle to believe that Diversity can go together with excellence. On its surface, this statement makes perfect sense. After all, why would you want to hire someone who isn’t qualified? The question is, qualified for what? And how? The idea that hiring someone from an underrepresented background will inevitably lead us down the path of less than qualified candidates, defeats logic. This trade-off between excellence and Diversity simply doesn’t exist. There are as many underqualified people out there as there are professionals, irrespective of background. Time has shown again and again that, if one puts in the effort and goes in with the right mindset and attitude, finding qualified people from different backgrounds is not difficult at all. And before you say that’s not the case, I invite you to try, really try. Put in as much effort into it as you would finding the ‘right person’ and you’ll be surprised at what that effort will yield.
A leader who clearly understands the benefits of a diverse experience and background will see those as additional qualifications for a role and will consider them in addition to any other required skills. By combining skills and a diverse outlook, a leader is more likely to hire a candidate from an underrepresented background and thereby increase the collective intelligence of their team.
2. Give with one hand, take away with the other
Organisations that work hard on getting EDI right are sometimes surprised at the pushback they receive from their employees. In many cases, what they hear is that these efforts to promote and embed EDI don’t appear genuine because they are inconsistent with other corporate efforts. I’ll give you an example. One of our engineering client firms was working hard to attract female engineers to the company. They had connected with local universities, established shadowing and internship programmes which gave people a chance to find out what it might be like to work there. In addition, they had broadened their pipeline channels beyond the traditional institutions from which they usually hired.
While the graduate recruitment team was working hard to attract a more diverse pool of candidates, a different team had been promoting a colleague referral scheme to employees to recommend friends into the business. And we know that, given our humanity, we are more likely to recommend someone who is a lot like us. In this way, the referral scheme was undermining the company’s efforts to expand their pool of underrepresented candidates. A classic inconsistency that’s easily achieved in a big organisation.
Given that companies were not originally set up to consider Diversity, it is understandable that this will be the case. Leaders, therefore, should be aware of the potential for conflicting policies and messaging when it comes to EDI.
3. Do as I do, not as I say
We often talk about the importance of walking the walk – and yes of course it is important. That said, if a leader isn’t able to clearly articulate the reasons for greater EDI to their team and beyond, it becomes difficult to take people along on this journey. Even more complex than giving the right messages is to know how to respond to push-back. People need to process the requested change for themselves, and it’s rare for everyone to follow just because they’re told to. In processing for themselves, people will inevitably bring in their own views of the world. A leader who is unprepared or unfamiliar with what might come up (or hasn’t considered what might be being considered, even if it sometimes not expressed out loud) will find it difficult to embed EDI to the desired extent.
These are but a few examples of how leading for the EDI transition requires an additional set of skills and tools that many leaders don’t yet have. This is in addition to being culturally aware and cognisant of one’s own and others’ biases. We at Voice At The Table (together with a few other excellent consultants) prepare leaders for this important role in many different ways, including with one-to-one coaching and as advisors at the end of a phone line when situations arise that could have been prevented.
Inclusive leadership is much more than a skill, of course. It is a way of being and behaving. This takes time, patience and perseverance, but those leaders who are keen to leave a legacy of success are willing and able to further evolve. Are you?