I was recently reviewing a number of articles in the business press about needed changes in leadership development. There were many excellent takeaways, including the need for more individualized leadership programs and the importance of not limiting growth and development to formalized programs, as well as valuable insights from heads of learning and development in major organizations.
However, I was disheartened that none of the articles on improving leadership development programs mentioned the importance of including diverse individuals in the process and of developing leaders who are consciously inclusive. I find it especially surprising since empirical evidence continues to mount on how diversity at all levels improves decision making, profitability and shareholder earnings.
Never in the history of corporate America has the workforce been more diverse. For example, at the lower corporate levels, there are now more women than men, while at the highest levels, the numbers become staggeringly low, often hovering at 15-20 percent women in the C-suite.
Yet, there remains a failure to actively marry diversity and leadership development. I believe this failure is an offshoot of a much more pervasive issue in which diversity is not an integral part of corporate-wide initiatives. Despite good intentions, diversity and inclusion are often not given the level of seriousness and specificity worthy of a major policy. While managers may understand the need for diversity and believe in its importance, they can remain in the dark about what specific steps to take. Often the CEO and the top team do not send a clear message of their expectations for corporate-wide commitment to D&I. They do not emphasize that performance will be linked to the hiring and fostering of diverse talent. Furthermore, companies rarely measure diversity. So there are no benchmarks for success or failure. In other words, the standard criteria that put initiatives front and center are usually not applied to diversity.
Since an integrated approach to diversity does not exist company-wide, it becomes understandable why it is not married into leadership development programs or upgrades to them. Leadership development is echoing the attitudes and the culture of the company as a whole.
It’s clear that organizations need to increase the number of diverse leaders at their highest levels, as more and more studies show that their future success literally depends on it. Making diversity part and parcel of changes in leadership development initiatives is a major step in the right direction.
Working with our Fortune 1,000 partner companies at WOMEN Unlimited Inc. in developing their female talent, I have found the following changes essential to building a diverse talent pipeline:
- Male managers at all levels must acknowledge the importance of focusing on the advancement of those who do not look like them. The highest levels of corporate America, despite some significant strides, remain largely “male and pale.”
- The development of diverse talent needs to be integrated into the corporate DNA … not left over to one side.
- Corporations must move away from the conscious or unconscious bias that only male leadership is good leadership.
- Organizations need to monitor progress and recalibrate as necessary. For example, they must check and re-check that the number of women with profit and loss responsibility is continually on the rise.
- Leadership development programs cannot be generic or one-size-fits-all. They must adapt to the diverse talent who mirror the overall demographics of the organization.
Clearly, more and more corporations are acknowledging the importance of diversity to both individuals and to the organization as a whole and are stepping up their inclusiveness initiatives accordingly. In the process, they must remember a key ingredient to sustainable success: diversity and leadership development go hand in hand.