By Dee M. Robinson, Board Director; CEO of Robinson Hill, Inc., a concessions management firm; Principal at Disruption Global Strategies, a firm specializing in innovative strategies, training and metrics to win at Diversity & Inclusion. C200 member since 2018.
Many organizations have claimed that diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts have been a top priority for years. Numerous studies certainly have shown that employing team members who have different viewpoints, backgrounds, and experiences translates to higher performance and profitability. As such, many companies have been on a long-term quest to improve their D&I. They make commitment statements in annual reports, bring in trainers to talk about unconscious bias, and they make some effort to consider diverse candidates for open positions, while proudly touting their efforts as part of their corporate values. Although these actions should drive change, making real progress has been a painstakingly slow process.
The D&I battle has been waged for decades, but it seems like we’re reaching an apex.
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a movement of people taking to the streets to show their outrage at yet another heartbreaking and deadly setback in the ongoing fight for justice and equality for all. As business leaders, we cannot ignore that this social unrest isn’t just about safety; at its core, it represents a fight for having a fair shot at opportunity—in life and at work. It’s a fight for unbiased consideration for hourly jobs, salaried jobs, housing, educational opportunities, procurement opportunities, executive management positions, and board seats.
While companies pour resources into D&I and think of these efforts as a badge of honor, people of color, specifically African Americans and Latinos who work in corporate America, continue enduring subtle (or not-so-subtle) racism at work. They are often overlooked for promotions they deserve, and they are routinely viewed as being token minorities that “check a box” when it comes to diversity efforts, rather than being valued as talented and qualified employees. Colleagues fail to realize how hard they worked, and the obstacles they encountered to get there, just to be in the room. They are worthy. And they feel unending pressure to work even harder to prove themselves, while facing challenging barriers to advancement that are largely invisible to white professionals.
Racial inequality has become so pervasive that many people believe those who aren’t using their privilege to challenge the status quo are contributing to the problem. And unfortunately, although many corporations and leaders think they have been part of the solution when it comes to supporting an inclusive environment, in reality, their lack of success in driving real change has indeed been part of the problem. The lack of support minorities receive at work can be linked to affinity bias, which is when people have a favorable bias towards others who have similar backgrounds, or to those who remind them of themselves. Too often we see business leaders fail to advance members of underrepresented groups simply because those leaders have an affinity bias toward other candidates whose backgrounds mirror their own paths to success.
If leaders truly care about leveling the playing field and supporting people of color, they need to start developing adequate systems for measuring progress. We’ve all heard the mantra that what matters gets measured. Without metrics, it’s impossible to rally people behind specific goals and determine whether progress is being made.
For example, can you picture corporate executives and boards sitting around saying, “It seems like our leaders should be doing more, but their hearts are in the right places. I guess our hands are tied.” Successful businesses are simply not run that way. And yet that’s how most organizations are managing their D&I efforts. No wonder companies aren’t making much progress.
The reality is that people do what they are incented to do. That’s why companies develop key metrics that matter for business success, and leaders are measured against those metrics in their performance reviews. When leaders demonstrate progress in improving on key metrics, they are rewarded. It’s a simple concept that virtually all successful businesses use because it works.
It’s time to start leading D&I just like any other contributor to the bottom line.
Companies need to evaluate where they currently stand versus where they want to be, determine the key metrics needed to get there and develop a realistic but assertive timeline for closing the gap, and then tie those metrics to performance reviews of the company and key executives. Companies need to ensure they foster and build a strong sense of empathy, equality, and effort. This is what I call E3. A company’s E3 score can be quantitatively measured through a variety of constructs to determine whether a company is vested in minorities and inclusion. Key D&I metrics that leaders could be measured against include the pipeline of promotable people for key management roles, benchmark promotion tracking, hiring trends, mentorships, recruitment colleges, and hiring mandates. What does the breakdown look like for women and people of color in middle and executive levels? It is customary to report aggregated diversity statistics, but it is not always a complete reflection of reality because companies know how to manipulate the numbers to tell a story. How do compensation packages compare for different races and genders? Research reveals disparities continue to exist. These kinds of metrics yield concrete data, showing whether companies and leaders are making progress, remaining stagnant, or going in the wrong direction entirely.
When leaders know that they will be reviewed based on those D&I metrics, businesses will start driving real outcomes. Instead of just hearing people endlessly “talking the talk” when it comes to supporting inclusion, women and people of color will actually feel like they are finally being heard, but more important, valued. Companies don’t create value, people do. A CEO or key executive would be dismissed for mismanaging company resources. Human capital must be managed the same way—as a strategic asset.
As an African American woman, I didn’t have a sense of opportunity when I entered the corporate world at the beginning of my career. In the banking industry, there were very few people who looked like me, and virtually zero women and people of color in senior roles. I graduated from an Ivy League school, worked hard, was dedicated to my job, and I even did my best to fit in and socialize with the executives—including taking up golf. But in the end, I chose to leave corporate America because I did not have faith that I would be valued, simply because of the color of my skin and my gender. Why? I only had to look around me and at senior management. Probability theory and history suggested the risk was too great to leave my future in their hands.
When women and minorities choose to leave, companies miss out.
Companies are driven by performance, and a commitment to diversity is a winning strategy. According to McKinsey, companies with more than 30 percent women executives were more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranged from 10 to 30 percent, and in turn these companies were more likely to outperform those with even fewer women executives, or none at all.
McKinsey also found that companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity on executive teams were 36 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile.1 This data shows that women and minorities are not a box to be checked, but an asset to be leveraged.
It’s curious that the “fight” for inclusion is a fight at all, when the data so overwhelmingly reveals that diversity enhances financial performance. Companies that like to win should start approaching diversity as a strategic priority utilizing meaningful metrics and accountability to ensure optimum results. The secret is out! Now it’s time to take action.
Leaders, this fight needs you. There are untapped, undervalued resources within your reach. Lead forward, lead bravely. Use the power of your voice and position to effect real change in how your organization approaches diversity & inclusion. It will only happen with you. This work cannot be delegated. Most important, we can’t afford to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.
“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.” – Mahatma Gandhi