Successful leadership depends on embracing diversity

Genuine cultural change starts at the top, argues Stanford professor Brian Lowery.

by Brian Lowery
Last Updated: 19 Jun 2017

Diversity could scarcely ever have been a more prominent cause celebre and bone of contention than in the business world. Whether companies come from the traditionally male-dominated corporate heartlands of banking, finance, and professional services or ostensibly more forward-thinking, progressive, and liberally-minded sectors such as technology, they find themselves under intense scrutiny for the unrepresentative homogeny of their workforces.

Debate has raged about the merits - or otherwise - of imposing quotas of women in senior positions, and initiative after initiative has been rolled out to encourage women into careers in STEM industries in particular. Silicon Valley’s big hitters have in recent years taken to publishing annual reports demonstrating the success of their efforts to diversify their workforces, only to be met with criticism that too little is being done, and too slowly. Barely a month seems to go by without some big corporation or technology company being thrust into the media spotlight for demonstrating, facilitating, or permitting actions and attitudes that perpetuate a damagingly pervasive ‘bro’ culture.

Little note appears to have been taken of the fact that the diversity success stories of the business world are not random exceptions to industrial-structural inequalities, but the product of enlightened leadership. Failures of diversity are fundamentally failures of leadership - specifically, a failure to understand both what really constitutes good leadership and how leadership sets the tone for how effectively challenges around diversity are handled within an organisation.

In business, the CEO, managing director, or other top executive, bears ultimate responsibility for the success of the organisation. They are often leading the implementation of their own vision, especially if they are also the founder, and it is therefore no surprise that they can tend towards ‘mirror-tocracy’, filling senior positions with people that look like them, and have similar experiences, worldviews, and approaches. This practice often sets the tone for an organisation’s wider personality and attitude. We don’t need to look too far to find examples of leaders, even highly successful ones, whose success has been tarnished by high-profile backlash against incidents at least partly attributable to the insular and homogeneous cultures they have (perhaps unconsciously) created.

But achieving more representative levels of diversity is not as simple as just changing the composition of the HR department or the nature of its hiring briefs. HR might execute the stipulated hiring strategy, but the ultimate veto rests with the leadership team. It is their responsibility to exemplify the best values in the final decisions they make, and not to simply reflect their own innate or unconscious biases. Changes in HR policies and teams may reflect the leadership’s commitment to change and diversity, but they will not drive it.

Executing your vision of diversity for your organisation requires strong leadership skills. Developing these skills requires leaders themselves, individually and collectively, to have better exposure to diversity. Self-awareness is key for leaders to be able to identify gaps in their experience and capabilities, and to take proactive steps to address them. Even Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, for many years seen as a totem of corporate ‘bro’ culture, felt moved to admit that ‘I need leadership help and I intend to get it’ after a string of negative incidents led him to reflect on the need for him as a leader to ‘grow up’ and behave ‘in a way that makes us all proud’. (He’s now on leave from the company.)

Meanwhile, there is a strong body of evidence that diverse groups are more effective and productive as a result of the different perspectives and experiences they bring from different social and professional backgrounds. But these ‘softer’ benefits should not obscure the real elephant in the room – that women in particular remain under-represented, especially in senior positions. With data showing that women are starting to outperform men academically at university level, there can be no argument that they are not capable of filling positions. The education system may not yet be producing enough highly-qualified female candidates in certain areas, such as STEM, but those that do come through continue to be under-represented in the workforce.

Positive changes in leadership attitudes that include moving beyond the idea of ‘diversity for diversity’s sake’ can help redress that imbalance. Organisations, and society as a whole, should not be deterred by middle-class white men who may feel slighted by the actions being taken to correct systemic inequalities. They have, after all, had the scales of inequality tipped in their favour for too long.

Brian Lowery is Walter Kenneth Kilpatrick Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business

Image source: International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre

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