Thursday, August 8, 2013

Leading for Others

Guest post from Bill Treasurer:

  A lot of leaders default to creating duplicates at the top. It’s natural to gravitate toward, and develop bonds with, people who look like, talk like, and think like we do. So a lot of leaders end up promoting people who are just like them in gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disposition, and education. It’s just plain easy to want to be around members of one’s own tribe. It’s also just plain dangerous.

By promoting duplicates at the top, people who are outside of the predominant majority – whom I call Others – are often passed over for plumb opportunities. In addition to the well-known dangers of groupthink, when leaders exclude Others, they also exclude the varied perspectives and ideas that could help the leaders make better and more imaginative decisions.

The vast majority of senior leaders across nearly all organizations throughout the United States and Europe are white men. That’s not an indictment. It’s just a fact. The challenge is that it’s not a natural act for male white leaders to open doors for women, blacks, other nonwhites, people with disabilities, or homosexuals. Excluding these Others from the top ranks likely has less to do with duplicity or racism (at least consciously) than it does with obliviousness and ignorance. Yet the impact is the same. Qualified people are inhibited from getting a fair chance to succeed, which harms both them and the organization.
This tendency for like kinds of leaders to cluster together ends up limiting opportunities for Others. Consider, for example, that 89% of the American public say that they are comfortable with women in senior leadership roles. Yet only women hold only 18% of top level positions. Worse yet, only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Despite the fact that a growing body of research suggests that women are more effective in senior positions than their male counterparts.

Some might argue that women have made great strides in cracking the proverbial glass ceiling. The CEO of IBM is a woman (Ginny Rometty). But while the glass ceiling may not be as solid as it used to be, it still exists. History suggests that women will not be able to fully dismantle the ceiling by sheer force of will and talent without the active contribution and cooperation of male leaders. One difference between men and women at work is that a man can climb the corporate ladder based on hard work, ambition, and merit with very few obstructions. There’s almost nothing stopping him if he’s effective enough. Women can demonstrate all these attributes and still find diminishing opportunities as they progress, through no fault of their own.

At that point, candidly, a woman may not get any farther without a man opening a door for her. This isn’t paternalism. I am not suggesting that women are weak damsels who need men to rescue them. I am suggesting that by being overly attentive to their own tribe, male leaders routinely, and often unconsciously, obstruct opportunities for women. The reality is that men largely hold the keys to the boardroom and C-suite.  So if they aren’t actively creating opportunities for women—a very large group of Others—male leaders run the risk of becoming opportunity obstructionists.

To be clear, most leaders are not consciously racist or bigoted. My experience working with many leaders has been largely the opposite. Most are decent and ethical people. They just default to creating duplicates at the top. So they need a lot of reminders—from shareholders, advocacy groups, outside consultants, etc.—to include Others. Including less-obvious candidates during the screening process lowers the risk of missing a talented gem who could have shined as a leader.
A wise leader gives special attention to those folks who are least like the leader. They go out of their way to understand the needs of Others. They make sure that Others are included in opportunities. They value the perspective of Others when making important decisions. And they remove whatever barriers stand in the way of helping Others achieve more.
If you’re in a leadership role, or if you’re aspiring to be one, consider taking these actions:

  • Identify a time in your career when you felt like an Other. What was the situation? What emotions come up for you when you recollect it?
  • Identify two colleagues who are Others to you. Pick one person from each gender. Take each person to lunch, separately, simply to get to know him or her better.
  • If your organization has a diversity office or function, spend an hour getting educated about what the organization is doing to create a level playing field for Others. Review the data and statistics about the composition of your workforce, including the top team and the board of directors. Meet with the diversity manager to ask how you can contribute toward the organization’s diversity goals.     
Influence is often judged in organizations by who has “a seat at the table”. If you do, take a look at the people sitting next to you. Who else has a seat? If the seats are all occupied by people who are just like you, it’s time to create a space at the table for Others. 

Bill Treasurer is the Chief Encouragement Officer of Giant Leap Consulting. His latest book is Leaders Open Doors, and focuses on leaders as opportunity-creators. Bill is also the author of Courage Goes to Work, an international bestselling book that introduces the concept of courage-building. He is also the author of Courageous Leadership: A Program for Using Courage to Transform the Workplace, an off-the-shelf training toolkit that organizations can use to build workplace courage. To inquire about having Bill work with your organization, contact


Ctimboc1 said...

Leadership a contextual phenomenon. Leaders emerge to match context, so perhaps we need to change the context before trying to 'fit' 'Others' into 'Our' context.

Can we envision a future where equality and diversity truly means honouring difference and accepting that we all have parts to play in our authentic society, rather than trying to 'shape' others to fit?

Anonymous said...

Are you suggesting that CEOs should deliberately target women, non-whites, and gays for leadership positions ahead of their white male heterosexual colleagues?