In May I had the very good fortune of attending CUES CEO Institute II, a weeklong program focused on organizational effectiveness. One of the topics presented in this impactful leadership learning journey is understanding unconscious bias (a topic that often garners more than a few eye rolls). Regardless of your personal feelings about bias, what the research shows is shocking. An example – both physical attractiveness and height are consistent predictors of perceived leadership ability. Seriously?! It’s 2023; shouldn’t we be beyond this?!? And, sadly, many biases that sway positively for men are perceived negatively for women in leadership. Harumph!
But, here’s the related and most frustrating aspect of this story. Of the 61 program participants at this CEO Institute, a mere 17 were women. Stunningly, only 6 were “visibly” racially or ethnically diverse. Yes, diversity comes in many different forms and is not just about gender or racial diversity. For me, being an Air Force brat who never had the same address for more than a few consecutive years while growing up, I often bring a diversity of experience, for example, in addition to my gender diversity. My worry – how is it that an industry represented by more than 70% women overall (according to recent research conducted by Filene Research Institute) has a mere 28% females attending a premiere CEO development program?
We all know by now that bias is inherent in the way humans think and is, for the most part, unavoidable. Building awareness about our biases and implementing tactics to reduce bias in hiring and promoting is critical but ultimately these actions will merely chip away at the issue of fostering diversity in senior leadership roles.
One way to address this diversity challenge, and reduce expenses when replacing critical roles, is developing and actively managing an analytical succession planning process. Succession planning begins with understanding which roles are critical to the organization’s success and evaluating and documenting the skills and competencies required for the role. Then, using objective tools such as competency and strengths-based assessments, while uncovering ambition, potential, and performance, your existing talent pools can be evaluated on data rather than perceptions. Meetings during which leaders can collaboratively weigh in on successor candidates can provide another bias mitigation step.
Once the succession planning fly wheel gets turning, leaders can work with successor candidates to create individual development plans, the outcome of which is building a pipeline of ready-now internal talent and doing so in a way that reduces bias in the process as much as feasible.
In the end, we can and must do better. As an industry we have a history of making a tangible difference in the lives of people from all walks of life and our leadership ranks should mirror the same.