I met Black Russians today.
No, I don’t mean Russians of African descent. And I’m not using a euphemism for going on a bender of delicious vodka-laced drinks during this exciting trip to Moscow. Rather, I’ve just finished teaching an amazing session with a sharp group of Russian executives who I’ve been helping foster a high-engagement, high-performance culture in their company. They have been struggling with a culture that has pockets of cynical, demoralized people and they really want to do better. But it wasn’t until we dove more deeply into what was happening in the company that I stumbled onto this fundamental insight:
This young, talented group of Russians is having an experience inside the company that is remarkably similar to that of black people in U.S. corporations.
The parallels are fascinating. I’ve learned that the history of this generation of Russians is, in some ways, disheartening. First, the demographic patterns over the past couple of generations mirror the story of African Americans. Just after World War II, there was a major shortage of males in the population: there were 2.2 females for every male in the population. While those numbers have evened out over the years (1.2 females for every male in 2009), the legacy of the devastation of the male population during the 20th century remains—significantly higher health vulnerabilities than women, shorter life expectancy, and higher incidences of substance abuse, especially alcoholism. 2 These are all issues that have been visible and widely discussed in the African American community, too.
Culturally, the Soviet political structure left many challenges in its wake. For example, one participant shared with me that one consequence of Russia’s late entry into a capitalist economy is that Russian professionals receive a pretty consistent message from the multinational business world: your markets are lucrative, but as skilled managers and leaders in those markets you are lacking. No matter how competent they are objectively, there is a sense that many young Russian professionals feel as though they are not perceived to be competent enough to take senior leadership positions locally in global corporations. They don’t yet see many role models in their organizations that would counter that concern. And while they acknowledge that as a group, they do have a lot to learn professionally, they also feel that some are talented, experiences, and very ready. And they are frustrated by not having that talent, experience, and potential recognized. They spoke of wanting to have more authority and responsibility and of simply wanting a fair chance to advance to the highest levels of the company, messages I continue to hear in my work with black professionals in the U.S.
So often, I hear that “diversity” is a U.S. thing that has limited relevance globally. No one denies there is tremendous diversity globally—that’s obvious. But often, executives and students I work with see the way U.S. folks deal with difference as idiosyncratic. We are obsessed with race, they say, and we are too focused on attending to differences without seeing how similar we are.
Ironically, my experience reinforces how similar we truly are all over the world. We struggle with similar inequities borne of the unique circumstances of our societies and our histories. Whether it is slavery in the U.S., or the government political system in Russia and the former Soviet Union, or the ethnic divides in Vietnam (I learned that some people from certain provinces in Vietnam tend to receive preferential treatment within the labor force), every nation and every society has a story of difference, power, and inequity. Leaders and managers do a disservice to all of their stakeholders when they deny these realities in their organizations.
Leaders and their organizations do better when we engage these issues and these differences with openness and an attitude of exploration and learning. Today, my Russian colleagues will initiate a conversation about their experience as Russian professionals with their ex-pat leaders. It’s a great start.
 Age structure of the Russian population as of January 1, 2009 Rosstat Retrieved on 2009-10-08.
 Wikipedia entry “Demographics of Russia”