I want to change myself. For much of my career I’ve been an entrepreneur as well as a senior leader in larger companies. For the past decade I’ve coached startup CEOs and taught entrepreneurship to more than a thousand business students. Recent challenges have spawned deep discussions about diversity. What to do? What to say to teams? It’s a very difficult time.
In an environment of social frustration such as this, many leaders have a narrative that goes like this:
- I’m sorry about the ways you’ve been made to feel;
- I want to learn more about those feelings and their causes;
- I want to learn how to correct my own actions and change the things I can control;
- I’m setting up an inclusive process to make progress with urgency.
This is a good place to start. But why does it feel like it’s not enough?
People need to know where their leaders stand on the big questions of inclusiveness. Where do you stand on the big questions? Where do I stand?
Merit is a word that quickly enters the conversation with today’s leaders. The position usually goes like this: “I believe in meritocracy, hiring the most qualified individual regardless of gender, colour or ethnicity – period.” It sounds and feels objective and grounded. It seems eminently reasonable to say that the most qualified candidate should get the job.
But the merit game is rigged. And the sad truth is that one qualification has been consistently overlooked for decades: diversity. People affected by policies and decisions should be able to see “people like them” on the decision-making team. Not only does it foster inclusion and buy-in, diverse teams bring better analysis and judgment. About products. About markets. About user experience. This doesn’t eliminate the need for know-how and experience when hiring or promoting. But it does mean that enlightened leaders should commit to building teams that are as diverse as the broader communities in which they work.
I believe that regulation is needed. There, I said it. I’m aware of the dangers of regulation and I too have seen enough examples of regulators getting it wrong. On the other hand, organizations have proven they will not always act in the best interests of society. Self-regulation and best efforts simply haven’t worked, as today’s protesters would attest. Furthermore, clear and consistent rules ensure a level playing field. If all companies had to increase the pay of women who earn less than men for the same job, then there would be no competitive disadvantage.
Regulation should take the form of mandatory disclosure. Organizations should have to measure and disclose tracking data as it relates to their employee base and how it reflects their communities. Consumers can then vote with their purchase decisions. Like-minded consumers have a great deal of power to drive change. That power is preferable to the heavy hand of government regulation. I’m not in favour of hiring quotas, as they raise the risk of undermining the credibility and effectiveness of the chosen candidate.
We must stimulate timely action. We have known about underrepresentation in executive seats for decades now. Why doesn’t your leadership team reflect the look of your community? The answer to date has been that there aren’t enough qualified female or Black candidates. But those very people say they have been systemically blocked from gaining that experience, so they aren’t qualified for these senior roles. It’s a valid point.
One answer could be to populate entry roles today with women and visible minorities, giving them access to the career ladder through which they can gain the experience needed for future leadership. While we may wish we had started this 30 years ago, now is not too late. Nor is it enough.
We must have the courage as a society to measure and report on relevant metrics tracking the treatment of women and visible minorities. What gets measured gets fixed. The real risks of racial profiling are outweighed by the very real need to track data so we can right the wrongs.
School curricula and workplace training should be reviewed to ensure it includes education and sensitivity training on bullying, women’s rights, racism, immigration and unconscious bias in decision-making.
Cultural events and cross-cultural mingling should be supported and celebrated by communities and governments. The goal is not assimilation. It’s appreciation. It’s respect. It’s sharing. It’s educating. By increasing our social exposure, my bet is we will lower our shared levels of fear.
There are many things that divide us.
“I can’t pronounce your name. I can’t understand your accent. We don’t share cultural celebrations. Even our values may differ meaningfully. Women’s rights. Individual freedoms. The roles of family, church and community. Sometimes you scare me.”
More diversity at work and at play is a start. By itself, it may not lead to equality of treatment in law enforcement or economic opportunity or freedom from suspicion. And those are the legitimate demands of today’s protesters. Current debates on important issues such as effective policing are valuable steps in getting this right. There do indeed appear to be some serious differences among cultures. Some things, such as religious intolerance, gender inequality, even the value of a human life, seem to be monumental obstacles to peaceful coexistence.
What do you choose to believe? Do you want a world in which like people cluster together, comfortable in their familiarity and their particular customs? While this view of the world is less demanding in the short run, it will inevitably lead to bigger moats, higher walls and greater insecurity.
Or can you imagine a world rich in diverse cultural sharing? Can that shared future exist without the fear we engender today in each other? Can we overcome all the things that divide us, enough to get along, to operate successfully in a shared community? I choose not to give up on this desired future.
So I want to elevate diversity as a criterion for hiring. I want regulations supporting mandatory disclosure of an organization’s employee base. I want students to be taught about cultures and biases and immigration and human rights. I want more cultural co-mingling. I want to develop friendships with people who aren’t necessarily like me. I think it will help me overcome my fears and my mistaken assumptions. I think it will be better for my kids and my grandkids. In the end, we really can only change our own behaviour. I want to change mine.
Ron Close is an executive, director and entrepreneur and a former board member of The Globe and Mail. Through RGC & Associates Inc. he provides leadership advice to startups and ventures.
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