How to Rethink Diversity for the Corner Office
Executives aren't minted, they're made - but some candidates don't know the path.
A successful workplace sets goals — profits, growth, scale — and the best way to achieve those goals is to hire exceptional talent. That means mission-driven people with goals of their own, such as landing a corner office. This is a healthy ambition because the corner office is where strategies are formed and financial and social impact are made. But there are no shortcuts. Becoming an executive or board member requires a combination of many ticked boxes along the way: attending the right college, networking with the right people, seeking the right certifications, choosing the right paths.
Not all of these boxes are accessible or obvious to candidates with diverse backgrounds. That’s unfortunate because executives aren’t simply minted, they’re made — usually over a span of many years. Candidates need to be well-coached and qualified because even companies that are sincere about change are unlikely to compromise on their senior leadership, and rightly so.
That’s not to say the hiring process isn’t flawed. I’ve seen firsthand how bias affects employer judgment of a candidate’s education, skills and experience. We tend to hire people who are more like ourselves even though study after study shows that workplaces are more profitable and perform better with diverse leadership — of traditional diversity, but also of thought and experience.
For too many people, the old path to senior leadership was never clear to begin with
I’ve been thinking about this as workers across North America return to the office and make plans for a new normal. Covid-19 has thoroughly disrupted how we work, search for jobs and build careers. It also disproportionately burdened underrepresented people. But for too many people, the old path to senior leadership was never clear to begin with.
As a son of Indian immigrants, I have seen the career hurdles faced by many visible minorities. Even those with the highest potential face unique challenges when striving for executive ranks and board positions. They don’t tick the right boxes early enough. Sometimes that’s because of systemic prejudice, but other times it’s a simple lack of exposure to the right situation or the right mentorship they need to bridge gaps.
My parents came to Canada with nothing. To them, work was about survival, and the best way to survive was to get educated and make money with a respectable career path — doctor, lawyer, dentist, accountant. Everyone in my Indian community was guided to those careers. We scarcely knew there were other options. My parents coveted safety and security; they weren’t aware they could aspire to the risks and rewards of leadership.
The good news is that there are concrete, formal ways that sitting executives and those responsible for talent can increase upward mobility for employees from diverse groups without compromising on quality or implementing quotas.
Increasing mobility for employees from diverse groups
Let’s start by ending one common yet problematic practice in promotion: Usually, when leaders hire or promote people for executive positions, they select candidates from one career level below them. A president hires a director to be vice president; a director hires a manager to be junior director; and so on. This saves time and helps ensure that candidates are ready on day one. But it also perpetuates the status quo.
If business leaders want to get serious about diversity, they need to hire to empower people who aren’t like them. If you want more diverse senior leadership, look to superstar candidates who are three or four levels below you — ambitious people with fresh ideas who can be groomed for success. If you want more diversity on corporate boards, you need to create training programs and paths for diverse junior employees (internal and external) who may not otherwise have the resources to reach the top. A board director is developed over an entire career, not in a single role.
Of course, diverse candidates still need to deliver. The goal is to hire the best talent for the position, free from bias. Good thing these workers often have unique gifts to help them along. My own immigrant family experience, for example, gave me a curiosity for other cultures, a prudent approach to finance and the drive to get lots of experience, including education, most of which I did concurrent with work. (I have five degrees.) It also gave me an appetite for risk.
As the pandemic eases, there will be an unprecedented influx of new faces to our workplaces. If the business community wants to get leadership right and turn the corner office into a place of progress, we need new hiring strategies that allow diverse candidates to show off their strengths while driving their business.
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