Diversity and Inclusion – It’s Personal

November 20, 2015

Why a white male CEO over 50 cares about diversity and inclusion

I am white, middle aged (although perhaps a bit north of the middle) and there is no mistaking that my hair has long ago left the premises. By all the data available, that profiles me as the average CEO or senior leader – which in fact I am. Additionally, the data suggests that the leadership teams that surround the average leader look a lot like me, which given the macro changes in the world today is rather frightening. Simply put, how can you really effectively run a business built for the future without having a workforce that creates insights representing the dynamics of a changing world? Creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace is the right thing to do on its merits alone – moreover, for leaders of the future, building a more diverse and inclusive workplace is good business – period.

Leadership insights often come when we least expect them. The best leaders have learned to seize these moments. For 20 plus years I led divisions of global multinationals or independent businesses as CFO, CEO, or Chairman and CEO. Today, I spend the majority of my time advising operators and talent leaders on developing leaders for the future. Through my work today, I know that diversity and inclusion are major topics of discussion and action. The best talent leaders clearly see the issue and are working diligently to improve their company’s record on these fronts; some high profile leaders have taken very public and encouraging positions on the subject. Still, there is a significant gap in the way senior leaders are addressing how they can make a difference.

The data is there and that is part of the problem. Just presenting the data and asking teams to improve the numbers in and of itself won’t solve the problem. The bigger problem, and equally important to fostering a diverse workplace, is creating inclusiveness. A purely data driven approach can drive the wrong behavior, as it doesn’t address the broader question of “why does this matter?”

We have a problem
Major companies have been rocked over the last five years by the economic realities of the last recession, and by major blind spots as new entrants created disruptive technologies, products, and solutions. Looking ahead, it appears that the speed of disruption will move even faster and will press companies from even more angles. In almost all of those searching for ways to adapt, there is a frozen layer of leaders under the top level who look up for answers. The case for businesses to be more collaborative to spark insight and innovation is quite clear. Businesses need to be representative of consumers and willing to tap the best of all employees’ thoughts – not just the ones that feel comfortable because they fit the conventional mold. Leaders need to lead and unlock that frozen layer and create an inclusive workplace—or be bypassed by those companies who do.

There are always those who wonder, “Does a problem exist?” The clear answer is yes. Take gender bias –David Rock and his team at the Neuroleadership Institute have done some great work on this front for those who say “gender bias – not me.” A great thing about working with companies from the outside is I get to see this with more clarity than I ever imagined. A woman says something and gets largely dismissed; her male peer says the same thing moments later and colleagues applaud. Doesn’t sound very inclusive to me. Yet, research continues to prove that leadership teams are better with women present and innovation happens where diversity and inclusion are a reality.

My colleague Margaret Heffernan’s book A Bigger Prize investigates the detriment competition has on teams, and explores research conducted by professors at MIT and Carnegie Mellon who found that among great teams there was “a strong correlation between group achievement and social sensitivity… the teams that had more women did better[1].” Her book ought to be required reading for executives. Despite findings that scream out a great case for inclusion, gender inequities still exist: McKinsey reports that “women [account] for an average of just 16 percent of the members of executive teams in the United States[2].” Think of this in the context of total diversity and the impact it could have on developing insight in a changing world.

Upon reflection – three light bulb moments
I learned a lot as young leader in the military; I had some very personal leadership moments while an Army officer, which helped shape my leadership style in business. Having said that, diversity issues were easier to solve when the mission involved keeping people alive. I learned real lessons on diversity and inclusion much later that challenged my own sense of leadership. I thought I was on top of all leadership issues, but new insights made me realize that I don’t know what I don’t know. I have had multiple light bulb moments regarding diversity and inclusion, igniting a passion that has me always challenging myself and other leaders to get this right.

I really thought I was open minded
It’s easy to say and believe that you’re open-minded. I know I did. I grew up in a largely blue collar, middle class community where “things were said” that I didn’t always challenge; later in life I developed the confidence to challenge those that used language that was flat out wrong. But it is what you don’t see – either in yourself or others – that can undermine open-mindedness. No matter what we say, do we create an environment that truly fosters openness? The LGBT community experiences this regularly with people who claim they don’t care about sexual preferences, but also don’t think about what inclusiveness really means. I once spoke to an ex-employee who finally shared with me that he had a male partner. When I asked why he never brought his partner to any events, he told me that unlike his home country, he was nervous of how he would be viewed in the US and was concerned he would lose benefits. The very idea that someone could feel that way under my leadership qualifies as one of my lowest moments as a leader.

It’s clear to me now that I hadn’t truly applied things I had learned from my own experiences to the work environment I was now leading. Just a few years before the above story, I had the opportunity to work with highly accomplished figure skaters. Being surrounded by both straight and gay athletes, I was struck by the level of comfort everyone felt. It was an eye-opening moment for me. Regardless of sexual orientation, people in the figure skating community felt safe and free to be themselves. It did not matter who you were, who you loved or what you wore, what mattered was that you brought talent to your art and it showed. This was a lesson I enjoyed learning. While it helped me become more open-minded and accepting, I didn’t fully apply the learning to my own leadership. It wasn’t that I purposefully did not create an inclusive work environment where everyone felt safe – I simply assumed that because I was open-minded, by osmosis my organization would also be inclusive.

Great lessons are everywhere
Years ago I owned and operated two sports franchises with two very different player profiles. As a former hockey player who didn’t make it to the pros, I learned a lot from my own hockey players about what it took to break through, and the impact very different upbringings had on their approaches to the game. I learned even more from my arena football players, many of whom endured hardships you only read about, but when you meet the faces behind the stories, they are no longer just stories. Overcoming the challenges of being poor, black, and without a father in the home shows immense strength and persistence, both qualities that can be very effective in organizations. You cannot teach certain kinds of determination. My players taught me this, and I have taken that lesson to every stop thereafter, trying to be mindful that I as the leader own creating a safe environment for people of all backgrounds.

You have to work at this. Leaders lean to what they know, such as specific schools or people they know. They often target competitors’ talent without regard to looking at a diverse slate. It’s a vicious cycle. Even in football with a rule in place, teams often bring in a minority candidate for show when they have pretty much already offered the job to someone else. The simple fact is it takes a mindful approach to look outside your comfort zone. The kids that played for me really made me see it’s worth the look.

The best man for the job is often a woman
The interesting thing about both of my hockey and arena football franchises is that the best person to run each happened to be a woman. I say interesting because not only were they amazing leaders, but I can’t recall a single instance where my macho players said a peep about my choice of who would lead the business side of the franchises. In fact, they valued the professional way the teams were run and were proud to be part of the organization. I didn’t realize it yet – I was in my 30’s and still had hair – but I had inadvertently created a safe environment where everyone’s voice was heard. I look back now and realize that when a leader sets the tone and walks the walk, the playing field changes. And when the playing field gets leveled, gender, race, and sexual orientation take a back seat to the power that great talent brings to an organization.

Diversity and inclusion– it is a leadership moment
Mindset shifts are hard work – even harder for senior leaders entrenched in businesses where the tyranny of the urgent can derail best intentions. Research indicates that when companies face a challenge they often double down on what they know. Too often leaders look for candidates who are safe – which sadly is often code for “thinks like me”. Countless times throughout my career a member of my team would say, “I know the perfect guy…” and rarely did the “perfect guy” represent a view any different than what we already had. The world is changing too quickly to look to only those like yourself. Leaders need to get out of their safe zones and see beyond what they already know. That only happens consistently in a diverse and inclusive workplace. Most importantly, it is the leader that needs to be out front making the company safe for that diverse group of perspectives.

Recently at a sporting event I met a young black man (“Steve”) who worked for a major sports franchise in corporate partnerships. Born and raised in Compton, a dangerous, gang-ridden community of south LA, Steve had worked his way up selling tickets. He didn’t come from a top school and he certainly wasn’t representative of the potential corporate partners to which he would be selling. I was with a CEO of a technology capital company, who wanted me to meet this young man. He’d told me in advance, “This is what the future needs to be.” After talking to Steve, I learned that he had more insights on how to attract corporate partnerships for targeted audiences than any of the young individuals that I have met in his industry. Yet, many companies would have never given Steve a chance, or if they had, wouldn’t have created a sufficiently safe environment for him to feel comfortable voicing his opinion. This franchise did, and now they have one of the brightest guys in the business kicking butt on their behalf.

We are at a crossroads, and diversity and inclusion is an opportunity. Companies can transform themselves by requiring leaders to own the diversity and inclusion platform. For me, that started with making it personal.

Most leaders have stories just like mine, telling how they have learned to see the world through different lenses. Bring that experience to the workplace. Raise your level of self-awareness about inclusion. Get back to talking to your employees. Make the workplace safe by demonstrating that every idea matters regardless of who said it. Lastly, stop looking to HR like they have a bag of magic dust that will make this “issue” go away. It is not an issue – it is an opportunity and one that leaders should seize. It’s a leadership moment – especially when you’re bald, white and perhaps a bit north of middle aged.

[1] Heffernan, Margaret. “The Case of Purdue Chickens.” A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better than the Competition. N.p.: PublicAffairs, 2014. 198. Print.

[2] Hunt, Vivian, Dennis Layton, and Sara Prince. “Why Diversity Matters.” Why Diversity Matters. McKinsey & Company, Jan. 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

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