Plant the Right Seeds

If there is one thing diversity executives can do to leave a sustainable impact on their corporations, it’s to make sure there is a solid group of up-and-coming women and minority professionals.

In many corporations, there is a perception that the demand for strong female and minority leaders exceeds the supply. The signs of this are everywhere. Search firms specializing in diverse candidates are flourishing, and organizations are trying to attract women and minority “stars” with large compensation practices.

The truth is there are plenty of female and minority leaders within our organizations who are working hard to break down glass ceilings and subtle barriers due to unconscious bias. Many of us are working hard to eliminate these barriers, and based on the lack of female and minority CEOs, we still have a ways to go.

I advocate a “both/and” approach — one where we don’t give up the fight to eliminate obstacles for women and minorities, and where there is a commitment to ensure there are effective female and minority leaders at every level of the organization. Diversity executives must develop methods that ensure more women and minorities than ever before will be prepared for and placed in roles with increasing levels of responsibility.

To accomplish this, consider these three areas:

First, help business executives look at the development of female and minority talent as integral to business strategy. They, not HR, should feel responsible for seeding the future pipeline of diverse talent. The reason many don’t is they see this as outside of their domain.

We need to help business executives change their mindset for certain positions from “work to be done” to “developmental assignments.” Business executives who adopt this mindset actively fill roles with high-performing, high-potential female and minority employees, and the result is a stronger, more diverse leadership pipeline bench.

Second, help guide all employees, especially women and minorities, as they go through key transitional roles while moving up the career ladder. For example, help employees make significant transitions, such as going from managing a function to managing a business. During this transition, business managers are in charge of integrating multiple functions as opposed to simply understanding and working with other functions.

There are other critical changes that must take place regarding time allocation, capabilities and work values when employees go through these key career transitions. However, I say focus more on helping women and minorities because when they fail, they do not often get second chances.

Plus, I believe that in corporate America, women and minorities do need to work harder to get ahead. That is why I advocate ensuring minorities are mentally ready to challenge, and in some cases ignore, stereotypical expectations about their talent, work ethic and capability.

A third area where diversity executives can have an effect is in developing programs that further help women and minorities have “executive presence.” I use this term because I hear it mentioned often when women and minorities are passed over for promotions.

Many of us know that advancement isn’t always based on performance. Perception and looking the part are key considerations as well. I’m not just talking about how people dress, though that can make a difference. I’m talking about some of the unwritten items executives look for when determining promotions. They may ask themselves, “Am I comfortable with this person representing our firm to senior-level executives from our key clients? Are they polished enough to present in front of our senior executive team or board of directors?” When women and minorities lack these attributes, their advancement tends to stall.

There are many other things diversity executives can do to ensure sustainable continuity of women and minority leaders. But changing business executives’ mindsets on how they view jobs, providing additional support through key transitional assignments and coaching for executive presence will create a leadership profile for the future that has an increasing diverse identity.

In closing, I want to say what a pleasure it has been writing the Leadership column these past six years. This is my last column as I transition my writing focus to complete my second book. I wish all of you continued luck and success.

Robert Rodriguez is president of DRR Advisors LLC, a management and diversity consulting firm, and author of “Latino Talent.” He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.