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YOUR LEADERSHIP TEAM NEEDS “OTHER”

Here we are in 2013 and the variety on most executive teams still leaves a great deal to be desired. White men continue to dominate and there is much more talk than action when it comes to shifting the equation. It’s not that companies don’t understand the business case for having more women and people of color at the top. That was settled a long time ago. It’s not that there aren’t “binders full” of great candidates. So why hasn’t the needle moved enough?

In the real world it usually comes down to like preferring to be with like. At my core I’m a social anthropologist/sociologist. We humans are very clannish. We gravitate towards our own type. We live in neighborhoods where the majority look like us and worship like us and have the same station in life. We are hard wired to move in our own packs. To counteract all of our innate instincts takes huge and persistent effort.

And I think that is where the rubber hits the road in organizations. You can have all the best intentions, go out and hire great women and people of color to join your team. But as long as the dominate culture is white and male it is more likely to stay in that gear in spite of an infusion of new perspectives. It becomes the responsibility of the “other” to conform rather than for the majority to actively open up the boundaries. To transform the culture of the executive team is very tough work and it can only be done with a very enlightened and committed CEO.

If you’ve never been the “other” this whole concept of making room for different voices is hard to wrap your brain around. (Mitt Romney may have been the most pathetic example of this.) You assume that your point of view is valuable for all and others will gladly follow. You don’t have a catalog of experiences where you were invisible or ignored or discounted or denigrated…just because you were other. This doesn’t make you a bad person…just someone with limited life experiences.

Conversely, for those of us who are in the “other” category (to paraphrase that great philosopher Kermit the frog), “It ain’t easy being (green) Other.” Try being the only (fill in the blank) woman, person of color, anything that distinguishes you as the outsider on a leadership team and it ain’t easy…or all that fun. Being the lone voice or representative of all “your people” sucks. We have to manage our incredulity (poker faces), keep our frustration in check (no one wants to be the angry black man or bitch) and navigate through the maze to find the tone and approach that allows us to be effective members of the team. It ain’t easy…

So how do we change this in the real world? That is before the 20 somethings are in charge and their lifetimes of true inclusion and cultural awareness take over…

I think every CEO and executive needs to know deep in their bones…and have a mantra running through their brains…that the best decisions are made with multiple points of view. Period. Full stop. Said another way, you will screw up if you have insulated thinking. (Again, see GOP during the last election.) So whether or not you are adept at interacting with “other” or even if you don’t have a strong commitment to diversity, you must understand that group think is a disaster. There are decades of science and documentation on this.

Even if your executive team is nearly all white and male, bring other voices into the discussion at critical junctures. Get input from external experts. Go find “others”. Keep your mind open even if you are wedded to your best idea. Get in the habit of extensive vetting processes where you invite as many points of view into the room as possible.

I don’t think it is realistic to get people to change their stripes…reverse their hard wiring. But I do think it is possible to get them comfortable with experiencing better business decisions and results because a whole panel of people were consulted. And I think that can lead to new habits. I think that is a goal that can be achieved in the real world.

Unfortunately I have too many stories about executive teams that actively recruited and hired women and people of color where the dynamics never really achieved the desired outcomes. The non-majority executives struggled to find just the right positioning and the majority executives tried to embrace these folks but in the end everyone was frustrated.

I will continue to be an optimist about breaking down the barriers. Selecting a woman to run the Secret Service is a gutsy move and the biggest signal that the President wants to end the frat house culture. Not a bad example to follow….

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