The Dark Side of Tradition

I like old stuff. Finding a hidden gem in my mom’s basement is exciting, and not just because I’ll probably get to take it home. There’s a certain satisfaction in being able to reuse something, rescuing it from obscurity and reinstating its value that makes me feel good.

Recently I found an old photo of my mom at my age, resplendent in a vintage-style bikini and one of those beehive wigs. She got a big kick out of looking at her fine younger self and told me several hilarious stories about the vacation she was on when the photo was taken. Then there’s the fabulous silver flatware I found a few months back — it wasn’t too far from the box where I found the photo. There were a few pieces missing, but what remained of the set was perfectly functional. While she had moved on from that style, it was cute and new to me so I took it home. It looks perfect next to my pink ceramic dishes.

Finding value in something old or traditional is wonderful when you’re talking about dishes and heirlooms, but there is a dark side to tradition when you ignore the potential need for change. An idea, for instance, may represent a traditional way of doing business, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be changed for the better.

Women’s advocacy group Catalyst released a report in December discussing why women need to take on more “hot jobs.” One of the reasons was that women’s advancement in the workplace has stalled because they’re not being placed in key international roles or in critical and highly visible profit-and-loss management positions. Without these, women will never reach the top leadership ranks or earn the larger salaries that go with them.

According to Catalyst, more men than women — 88 percent versus 77 percent — were assigned to work on global teams that did not require relocation.

On the flip side, women are getting more access than men to development opportunities. Catalyst research indicated within 18 months of completing a leadership development program, 47 percent of women were assigned a mentor. That compares with 39 percent among men. Women were also assigned to leadership development programs earlier than men and participated in them for longer periods of time.

There’s two ways to look at that. On one hand, companies are making a concerted effort to prepare women for the top. On the other, women aren’t getting the kinds of jobs that will stretch, challenge and prepare them for the roles so many want. Development is fabulous and everyone needs it at some point. But in reading the research I got the feeling in this case it was a kind of sop, a way to get women out of the way.

I’ve been on jobs where I’ve watched men in the same position being groomed and given stretch assignments that I did not get. I’m no shrinking violet, so the belief that women aren’t always the best negotiators or they don’t step forward to make their desires known doesn’t apply. I’ve clearly stated my interest in moving ahead. I’ve asked what I need to do to advance. I’ve even asked why someone else was chosen over me. I’ve gotten a variety of answers, but in many cases I think overly traditional thinking had more to do with those placements than anything. The man in charge of making it happen simply thought of another man before he thought of me.

As we move into 2013, I challenge you to creatively and honestly evaluate not only your thinking but your programs. What could use an overhaul? Are you taking chances on new talent or just shoehorning in the most likely suspects? Where can you inject some new blood or thinking into your work process or strategy? Have there been hints or suggestions of bias about something in the workplace, suggesting it may benefit one work cohort over another?

It’s a new year, so shake things up. You never know what innovative nuggets may emerge. We all know innovation and change isn’t just the new normal — it’s now an increasingly traditional idea that organizations must embrace to survive.