Archive for October, 2010

Privilege In a Woman’s World [Part II]

Friday, October 29th, 2010

I ended Part I of this blog with the observation from my experience teaching in the new Darden Executive Education Program, *“Women Emerging in Leadership,”: When I worked with the extraordinary group of women in the program, I began to understand even better both frustration of their experience and, more importantly, the power of their resolve not to be taken down by it, whether here in the U.S. or abroad.  That was very cool.

Less cool was the fact that my experience and expertise in diversity did not spare me from the ongoing sense of feeling awkward and defensive at times when I was with the group.   I was not spared the sense of feeling ignorant when I heard of women’s negative experiences about which I was largely clueless.  Nor was I immune to the most disturbing feeling that, at some level, I was just superior to most of these women.  I noticed myself thinking about how I did not have to deal with the setbacks they dealt with, and that even though I was a man, that was less important than the fact that I had been more adept at managing my education, my career, and my state of mind.  Seriously, I felt like I was just better than they were.

I was experiencing what my colleague and co-author Heather Wishik and I have described as a dilemma that members of groups with higher societal standing face when confronted with the reality that their lower societal standing counterparts experience.  As a man, I underwent a predictable set of thoughts and feelings that are not so much about my own shortcomings (and believe me, I have many) but are more about what happens when a person sits in a position of privilege.  The position helps make the person think and behave with arrogance, defensiveness, shame and obliviousness.  I realized that in these moments of bizarre imaginings, I was a victim of this set of thoughts and feelings.  I was in the grip of my privilege.

Now, I will add that this is even more disconcerting because I am black.  When I see the racial part of myself, I’m on the other side of the tracks, worrying less about privilege and much more about fairness, struggle, and resilience.   But part of what I realized in my time with these women was that the more I could set aside the comfort and familiarity of seeing myself racially, the more I could actually hear and understand what my women participants—and colleagues—were telling me about their lives.  I guess it boiled down to being less absorbed in my own experiences and instead being more open to understanding their experiences, even if doing so made me constantly uncomfortable.  This is part of what it means to engage constructively with one’s privilege.

The benefit, when all was said and done, was what I hope was a week of helpful, restorative, and flat out fun learning for the group.  I know that’s what happened for me.  The real privilege was just being there.

*The program will be offered again in the Spring and Fall of 2011.  Please visit for more details.

Privilege In a Woman’s World [Part I]

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

It’s not easy to get women.

Last week, I had the distinct privilege of serving as a faculty member for Darden’s inaugural Women Emerging in Leadership executive education program.  The brainchild of my colleague Erika James, this first installment of the program brought together women from a variety of companies from all over the world to learn together with faculty colleague and leadership negotiations expert Melissa Thomas-Hunt, Erika, and me.  I was, as Erika introduced me, the “token male” on the team and in the program.  It was a funny and unsettling moment to hear myself described that way and, as the week unfolded, I really decided to pay attention to my role in the program.  I had been the token many times in my life—the first and only black person on my faculty or work team or social gathering.

But, being black and token is not the same as being male and token.

Now, this is almost self-evident to me.  I and many others before me have written about how being a token who is part of a society’s minority group (thus making token status pretty common) is different than being a token who is a part of society’s majority group (where token status is mostly just an indicator of a having a pretty weird day).  But it occurred to me that by virtue of its rare occurrence, I had not paid close attention to what it was really like to be a male token.  After all, I teach and consult with managers and executives in a markedly male business environment, both in terms of demographics (the Bureau of Labor statistics reports that about 63% of management positions are occupied by men) and broader masculine business culture.  I have had the luxury of operating in a predominantly male environment, a luxury that affords me, as a diversity scholar and professional, the opportunity to focus my interest on issues like race without having to worry quite as much about gender.  Since I’m not a woman, understanding women and gender wasn’t really the place where I could add the most insight, I told myself.

But, I came to realize that there was a lot for me to learn during this week.  Interestingly, just before I taught my first session in the program, I had an email exchange with a female colleague about women’s experience in organizations. We were lamenting the fact that in her organization, the focus of diversity this year was on increasing the representation of people of color because, at about 25-30% representation, they had taken care of the gender issues. This is, by the way, a hallmark of Managing Diversity organizational mindsets; to think that you focus on different types of identity in a piecemeal fashion, rather than looking holistically at the organization’s ability to deal with difference.  But more to the point, my colleague and I were agreeing that it’s pretty common to think that because a near critical mass of women have been recruited to a company, that it has solved its gender problems.  This delusion is appealing, but in my work in organizations, I often find that the cadre of disaffected women who are part of this so-called “satisfied” minority is sometimes just waiting to explode.

When I worked with the extraordinary group of women in the program, I began to understand even better both frustration of their experience and, more importantly, the power of their resolve not to be taken down by it, whether here in the U.S. or abroad.  That was very cool.

In Part II of this series, I’ll talk about what part of the experience wasn’t so cool.

Making Diversity Work: Leveraging Difference is the Right Thing to Do

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

“Unfortunately, ‘diversity’ has become a dirty word. When all is said and done, it just doesn’t work in our company and I don’t care what all the zealots say, facts are facts.”
Fortune 100 corporate executive

I interviewed a large firm’s leadership team recently that had abruptly ended virtually all of their traditional “Managing Diversity” work. This company’s leaders genuinely want to create a more inclusive and diverse environment, but the CEO was fed up with years of dead end initiatives that had done little to create meaningful change. That firm is far from achieving the change the leaders say they want, and ending all of their existing activities was probably not the right approach. But their discontent was legitimate. If leaders really do want some kind of shift toward greater inclusion in their companies and if they don’t really see compelling value from Managing Diversity efforts, then what should they do?

My work on Leveraging Difference—which I explore in much more depth in my upcoming book, Stop Doing Diversity! How Diversity Fails and Why Leveraging Difference Can Succeed—lays out some critical principles for moving forward the right way:

  • Strategy first (and I don’t mean diversity strategy). The greatest challenge that diversity professionals grapple with (and HR professionals, too, incidentally) is having command of the business’ strategy. This is important because doing diversity right requires an enterprise view—not just a talent or HR management view—of the company. The starting point for doing diversity well is having the same understanding of the business strategy that a senior line executive has. That way, exploration of how difference can make a difference is well aligned with the purpose of the company. This step has two powerful implications. First, any activity that is well aligned with the business strategy is much more likely to last! If you are looking for sustainable change in diversity, this is where to start. Second, and more challenging, is that this means that the common diversity agendas, like closing racial or gender disparities, may not be the most important work for an organization to do. Instead, their focus may be on greater diversity of educational background, or age, or level of divergent thinking. The best diversity work comes from following the business strategy.
  • Let all differences matter. The corollary to the “strategy drives diversity” principle is that the menu of differences that can be pursued is big. In the U.S., the “rule of 7 to 11” has traditionally applied to diversity initiatives. Diversity activity is restricted to incorporating roughly 7 to 11 traditional types of differences into the mix: race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness, age, religion, etc. But in leveraging difference, leaders get to step back and explore what differences really matter to achieving the organization’s goals and what differences don’t? If learning style diversity is more important for a consulting firm’s success than gender diversity, it’s legitimate to pursue the goal of integrating people with diverse learning styles as the primary diversity agenda. Here’s the caveat. Across the world, I continue to see one powerful reality for doing difference work: there is a tremendous amount to be learned from dealing directly with societal “hotspots.” Those differences that are most charged and contentious in a society are the most fertile ground for learning how to leverage difference. It’s hard to build a personal competency and an organizational capability for engaging difference if you aren’t willing to deal with tough differences directly.
  • Be a leader who sees the larger goal. To be the driver for leveraging difference, you have to clear your head and heart. What undermines sustainable difference work is the difficulty people have in subsuming their personal and emotional agendas to what is best for the whole organization. Diversity resistors are convinced that diversity is bad and they adamantly refuse to attend to the irrefutable evidence of the benefits that diversity—skillfully engaged—provides for their organization. Diversity proponents often avoid dealing with the legitimate discontent expressed by the executive I quoted at the beginning of this post, and advocate for—and bully people into acquiescing to—a diversity agenda. Both of these stances destroy the opportunity for the value of difference to be realized in organizations. Leveraging difference leaders take a realistic view of where and how difference helps and then drive that message through the organization with meticulous analysis, social adeptness, and the boundless energy that derives from doing work that really helps the organization do better and be better. Jim Collins identified the “Level 5” leader who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” That same blend is critical for anyone who wants to leverage difference.

Diversity Doesn’t Work: Part I

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Let’s face up to it.  Traditional diversity initiatives in companies aren’t very effective anymore.  Contrary to the intentions of many leaders and diversity advocates, this kind of diversity activity rarely helps marginalized people in the long run.  And it doesn’t always help businesses that really want to do well (in bottom line performance) and do good (in corporate social responsibility).  Traditional diversity—what I call “Managing Diversity”— doesn’t work.  Here’s why:

  • Managing Diversity was built for short term change. Managing Diversity activity was always built for the short run.  It is triage work.  You see a demographic crisis in workforce makeup (a crisis that was and continues to be legitimately heightened by rapid demographic shifts in the new entrants into the labor market) and you identity steps that will head off the crisis.  Period.  That is what targeted recruiting and hiring and quotas are all about.  But now, we find ourselves living in a complex global economy in which coming up with sustainable solutions, not just temporary fixes, is what is needed.  You can’t follow the Managing Diversity tactic of ratcheting up recruiting of “diverse” people, without solving the problem of why those same people continue to turnover at higher rates than their majority counterparts.  “Let’s get people in the door and see what happens” is just not good enough anymore.
  • Managing Diversity has never provided the answer to legitimate pushback. The biggest challenge for diversity professionals I talk to is how to deal with the pushback on diversity activity from majority folks—straight white males, or variations thereon.  In a Managing Diversity world, diversity professionals and advocates take comfort in the fact that this pushback is a manifestation of resistance to change.  And it sure is.  But as the saying goes, “just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”  Just because resistors are making points just to oppose diversity doesn’t mean those points aren’t legitimate.   When a resistor asks why the female employee with lower qualification was hired instead of the male employee, Managing Diversity doesn’t equip us very well to say “because we want more women.  Period.”  It doesn’t teach us to respond to the observation that matching company demographics to society demographics is arbitrary with “you’re right it is.”  We should not be pursuing that aggressive a demographic shift (OR, we should be pursuing a much more aggressive demographics shift).  Traditional diversity is full of inequities and contradictions; imperfections that are constantly being surfaced by people resistant to diversity.  Managing Diversity does a mediocre job of addressing those imperfections.
  • Managing Diversity has lost the attention of people. People have become fatigued and desensitized to the powerful messages about difference that Managing Diversity approaches have tried to convey.  The “been there, done that,” attitude that people in organizations have towards diversity today is an indicator of this desensitization.  Managing Diversity has become more habit-like in its old age.  People either love it or they hate it, but they do so mindlessly, almost by script.  The messages, though valid, are worn and people are bored with them, even if they agree with them.

The “Diversity is the right thing to do” mantra has become a trap that leaders and stakeholders who want to seem virtuous fall into every day.  Because these folks genuinely want to do the right thing both by their companies and by society, they adopt Managing Diversity tactics without seeing how those tactics are doing just the opposite of what is desired.

You have to acknowledge that “diversity is the wrong thing to do,” in order to open up a set of possibilities about how to really incorporate people and ideas that buck the norms in a company.  More on that in the next post…

Global Leadership Executive Program

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Executive Education program for global Fortune 100 firm in Moscow, Russia.

Global Leadership Executive Program

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Executive program for global Fortune 100 firm in Hanoi, Vietnam for the second year.