What Has — and Hasn’t — Changed Since “Dear White Boss…”
More than 18 years ago, we co-authored a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Dear White Boss… .” It was a fictional letter from a Black manager to an anonymous white executive. The letter was based on our years researching, interviewing, and working with Black leaders, as well as personal experiences. We described how the challenge of inequity based on racial, gender or other differences was debilitating for both people of color and the broader organization.
Fast forward to 2020, and we’re in a new global conversation about racial justice. Inequity and systemic racism are on the corporate agenda in a whole new way. And, unfortunately, our letter is still as relevant as ever.
Little has improved over the past 18 years. The responses we’ve heard to the re-sharing of “Dear White Boss…” only confirm the continued existence and expanded impact of what we call miasma – the unseen attitudes, perspectives, and actions that create barriers for African Americans and others experienced in the workplace and beyond.
Most organizations have failed to “walk the talk” in delivering on long-held promises to further diversity and inclusion. This lack of progress has fueled discontent and disengagement. As a result, what we see and hear from Black America is that “WE ARE NOT OKAY.” We African Americans. We people of color. We women. We in the LGBTQ community. We global colleagues, and more. We are not okay. And even if you don’t identify with one of these groups, many of your clients and customers certainly do, and they are not okay, and neither is your organization.
In a world that is increasingly complex, stagnant thinking and holding on to the remnants of yesterday’s power will neither serve companies today nor in the fast approaching future. So, what can organizations do to accelerate their efforts to drive greater inclusivity and reap the associated benefits while also ensuring success for the future? In reflecting on what has and hasn’t changed since we penned “Dear White Boss…” we suggest the following areas of renewed focus to elevate and accelerate your organization’s talent management and inclusivity efforts:
- Build trust by changing your high-potential leadership assessment criteria and basing it on future capabilities, not past performance.
- Exhibit transparency across these processes.
- Reinforce leader accountability at every level of the organization.
Change How You Assess and Identify High-Potential Leaders
In the current environment of social and economic disruption, companies generally regard DEI initiatives as timely and necessary responses to correct for longstanding inequities and biases. However, recent research from McKinsey reports that while our country’s workforce continues to become more diverse at lower and mid-range levels, this demographic shift does not tend to be the case the higher you go in the organization, including on the board of directors. At these levels, women and people of color are systematically screened out, as the McKinsey report and other research shows.
So, our first recommendation comes with an important distinction — start talent assessment at the top of the organization. This will send a clear message that the organization is changing how it creates opportunities for underrepresented groups to occupy roles for which they are qualified.
There’s evidence for this in Breaking Through: the Making of Minorities in Corporate America, the seminal 1999 work from David Thomas and John Gabarro. In it, they conclude: “Even when recognized as outstanding performers with comfortable boss and peer relationships, opportunities for minorities to be tapped for accelerated paths may be hindered by the structure of decision making and racial/gender composition of the decision maker.”
For too long, organizational leaders have said the right things but their actions – their willingness to examine and change their own behaviors has been lackluster at best and disingenuous at worst. Tepid support for DEI change frequently results in impressive slogans and comfortable images of smiling employees from underrepresented groups, but little real progress. Further, employees of color and others from underrepresented groups recognize shallow organizational commitments to diversity, and they may deeply distrust their leadership on these issues. Consequently, any DEI initiative must begin with honing or building organizational and leadership trust.
Companies can rebuild this trust by developing a diverse leadership pipeline strategy. This starts with using objective and relevant assessment data and casting a wider net for talent at every level of the organization. Why is this important? Primarily, because it is a widely accepted practice for individuals identified as “HiPos” by their organizations to be afforded differential privileges and access to company executives, developmental experiences, unique roles, and other opportunities capable of catapulting their promotability, wealth potential, and long-term viability. These privileges have a significant impact on career advancement — as observed by Thomas and Gabarro some 20 years ago — and reveals how flawed the system is and how it is in need of deep and immediate change.
Based on our combined nearly 50 years of experience designing, developing, and administering manager and senior leader assessments combined with our work in development experiences, we know first-hand how useful these tools are when leveraged appropriately. We see assessment tools as critical as identifying new, diverse talent within an organization. Often, a perceived lack of success is not because the employee has performed poorly, but because they have not been given the opportunity to learn the requisite skills or they have not been accurately assessed. In such cases, diverse groups often find themselves last in line to receive opportunities to develop those records of success.
The long-held belief that past behavior is the best predictor of future success is also particularly questionable given the dynamics of the 21st-century workplace and the fact that past experience may be unintentionally excluding certain groups who have not had the same access to opportunities as their majority cohorts. Further, in many cases, organizations may be assessing for skills which may have little relevance in the future. Therefore, while companies cannot completely ignore past performance in the assessment process, at the very least they should explore alternative ways to predict future performance that is not so reliant on past experiences or potentially biased criteria.
Measure What Matters Most for Your Organization’s Transformation
We see PepsiCo as an example of this kind of forward-looking talent management approach. In a recent HBR article, PepsiCo’s former CEO described the importance of aligning and assessing talent with the business strategy as an essential component of their transformative agenda to “future-proof” the company. As a result, PepsiCo (which is also a client of Keith’s company, APTMetrics) has successfully moved beyond using performance to measure and identify potential by recognizing that those assessments are often a judgment call managers and human resource professionals make and are primarily reflective of what makes the candidate successful in their current role instead of illuminating what will exemplify success for the individual in the future — typically in roles two-to-three levels higher in the organization with representative challenges and complexities.
In order to better predict future behavior in a less-biased way, companies need to essentially create that future, immerse candidates into it, and evaluate how they respond to future-oriented leadership challenges. This does require drawing on the right thinkers, thought leaders, and data to essentially build a virtual organization as it will exist three-to-five years out. While this task may seem daunting, most organizations already perform some form of visioning activity or scenario planning as part of each strategic cycle. Whether consulting professional industry strategists, economists, or other credible resources relevant to the industry, organizations imagine the most important factors to be leveraged and identify strategic business, cultural and talent priorities.
Another recent HBR article, “Learning from the Future,” highlights potential challenges of over-reliance on past experience as the primary predictor of future potential. The article argues the futility of looking back in time for clues about the future, especially at a period when the present and associated challenges exhibit so little resemblance to the past and while the anticipated future is increasingly evolving to a truly volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment. What’s more, some practitioners may see the primary objections to such a future-focused assessment perspective coming from others who believe women and people of color may actually have an advantage in such circumstances, forged from years of operating under VUCA-like conditions in an environment where they may not be fully embraced or treated equitably.
Technology will also increasingly enable organizations to build contextually rich, multimedia simulations that can measure an almost limitless array of attributes. Done properly, this approach may serve to build confidence in diverse candidates by mitigating the potential for unconscious bias of assessors who might be affected by race, gender or other physical manifestations of difference.
Show Your Work and Hold Leaders Accountable
After your organization has laid the foundation for an equitable, inclusive, and future-focused talent assessment program, it will be critical to understand and communicate how the newly designed assessment initiatives are impacting the bottom line of the organization. To fully realize and effectively highlight the business value of your HiPo efforts, you have to tie the program’s solutions to valued organizational outcomes and build metrics that “speak the language” of the stakeholders and decision makers.
One way to accomplish this is to make senior stakeholders accountable for tracking data to see where disparities are occurring. And, to that end, organizations may want to audit the current makeup, selection processes, and recent trends for boards, executive teams, and HiPos across all managerial levels to identify practices that inhibit objectivity, equity, and accountability. Only then can organizations be in a position to truly exhibit the courage necessary to drive true transformation. Once disparities are illuminated and a more concerted strategic talent plan is created and communicated, leaders can set targets to make changes and commit to regular reviews at each cycle to review data to determine if the changes driving different behaviors and results.
Given the high stakes of any HiPo assessment program, organizational stakeholders will expect evidence that demonstrates that the program is meeting its design objectives and contributing in a measurable way to strategic success. Consequently, organizations need to be transparent about their objectives. This means they must uphold transparency and objectivity across human resource and talent management practices from the C-suite to the frontline worker.
Beyond the financial metrics, recent research from global industry analyst Josh Bersin indicates that when companies commit to diverse talent practices, they are 3.8 times more likely to be able to coach people for improved performance, 3.6 times more able to deal with personnel performance problems, and 2.9 times more likely to identify and build successful leaders. While future-forward predictive analytics may prove a critical aspect of creating an inclusive and engaged workforce, organizations also must be honest as they audit and evaluate their own organizational culture and practices. Executives, in particular, must strive to understand and synthesize DEI perspectives as an integral aspect of their organization’s strategy. Swiftly changing national views on equity, increasing diversity of clients and customers, shifting workforce demographics and a broadened global marketplace, frankly, all point to the need for a novel and more thoughtful approach and greater accountability around issues of difference.
Finally, and perhaps most important, organizations themselves need to hold leaders accountable for meeting DEI goals and demonstrating inclusive behavior. Beyond actively leading in an inclusive way, leaders must ensure that mid-level and frontline managers are committed to expanding their own diverse understanding and ensuring those who report to them are also working in an inclusive manner. As with other critical initiatives, inclusion metrics should be a critical part of everyone’s performance appraisal and metrics, and organizations should ensure clear guidance and expectations, the alignment with company values and purpose, inherent benefits for the company and each employee, and pointedly address consequence for failure to adhere to requirements.
While these efforts to increase organizational inclusion are clearly imperative for those who have been largely excluded from full participation in all aspects of organizational life, the overall benefit of inclusion and engagement goes far beyond people who are different. Inclusion is deeply connected with organizational success and viability and, as such, important to every member of the organizational community and all those with whom they interact.
Confronting the inextricably linked issues of workplace diversity, inclusivity, and bias — wherever your business may be right now — takes strong, diverse leadership and commitment. As leaders, facing your own biases, understanding how you are influencing the system, and understanding the criticality and impact of your actions is crucial if change is going to occur.
To achieve this goal, leaders have to be unflinchingly honest and personally and professionally courageous. It will be the only way in which we can seize this moment and work toward developing a better, stronger and more prosperous workforce capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century. And so that we won’t be having this same conversation in another 18 years.