Improving Diversity: What works … spoiler alert it’s not having targets and a plan

You’ve set some targets, you’ve published your plan, be that around race, gender or other aspects of “diversity”. You have probably published both on your website and you’ve briefed recruiters.  Now all you need to do is sit back and wait for the results to roll in.

After all, everyone knows that there’s a McKinsey study out there that proves that organisations with a more diverse make up are more successful, so leadership must be bought in. What could possibly go wrong?

Why good intentions fail

Let’s cut to the hiring manager.  There’s a vacancy to fill and the budget is signed off.  He (or she) has a choice of candidates.  One is moving from a similar position at a competitor, the other has had a career break.  Or perhaps there’s another whose academics are a bit suspect, whose most recent work was with an organisation he considers a bit “second rate”.

This hiring manager has short term targets to achieve, against which he will be judged and rewarded, or not.  His team is under pressure, there are never enough people, they are already working long hours, the last thing they need is someone who can’t “hit the ground running.”

“We are a meritocracy.  At the end of the day, it has to be the best person for the job.”

How many times have we heard that?

“Diversity” does not (automatically) improve performance

Simply adding people of colour or more women to a team that is predominantly made up of white men will not, in and of itself, improve performance.  In fact, there’s a good argument to say things will get worse.  If the majority don’t really believe the new joiners have a valuable contribution to make, they’re unlikely to create the environment to ensure they do just that. If the new joiners believe they’ve been hired simply to fill a quota, they are hardly going to start with a confident spring in their step.

So what’s the answer?  We know intuitively that having a team with diverse points of view, experiences and contributions should lead to better outcomes.  We also know that throughout society some groups are severely disadvantaged and deserve better opportunities: simply because it’s the right thing to do.

The question is, what does it take to get from her to there?  How do we change the choices made by the hiring manager and the experience of those joining from a “diverse” background.

What we’ve learnt at the Reignite Academy

After two years of working with various law firms in the UK, here is what our experience has taught us.

1. It comes from the heart not the head

Someone has to truly believe that people with a different background and experience have something to offer that will enhance the team.

This was never more clear than at one member firm, when the senior partner realised that the women we are helping to resume their careers are the very same women that he trained with.  He could reel off the names of women he respected and admired who had stepped back from their legal careers, largely because of the long hours culture and lack of flexibility, which only became a problem once they had children.   It helped that one of them was his wife.

No McKinsey study on earth will ever replace a real person saying “this is a waste, look what talent we’ve lost, we have to try to provide opportunities for them to return.”

2.  Create the pipeline before you make a hole

Immediate vacancies usually need filling with some urgency.  We have sympathy for the hiring manger who has a hole to fill.  However, in our experience is “whack a mole” (to purloin a phrase) approach to filling vacancies with the best available candidate is counter-productive if you are serious about creating a more diverse team.

At the Reignite Academy, for example, we often begin speaking to candidates months – sometimes more than a year – before they are finally ready to return.  Women often have concerns about how they will manage their other responsibilities along with reigniting a career, not to mention worries about how to get back up to speed.  This has been exacerbated by the home-schooling situation.

In the same way that we are nurturing a pipeline of talent, it helps when our member firms look ahead and think strategically about the practice areas that are likely to grow and where they could create opportunities for our candidates.  That way we can engage in a proper conversation and make appropriate introductions that, in time, will lead to people into jobs.

3.  You have to allow the seeds to grow, the flowers to bloom

There is little point hiring someone who is bringing something valuable and different to the team if you do not then allow them to contribute that something.  Put more bluntly, if you squash them into a box like all the other members of the team, you are likely to be disappointed when they fail to thrive.

A great example of this was when one of our candidates, who had spent over 6 years as a General Counsel, was given the opportunity to share that experience with younger members of the team.  After her first nine months being frustrated at this knowledge being disregarded, she was asked to give a talk on “how to approach” GCs.  This talk was so valuable that it turned into a regular training session.

4. Teach them and they will learn

Shortly after the black lives matter movement erupted last summer, I spoke to a couple of black women – one a banker, the other a lawyer – about their experience of joining big City institutions as the first person in their family to join this profession.

Both told me that, looking back, the one thing that no-one explained to them, was the importance of networking from day one.  Not going to “networking events” per se, but getting to know people at all levels throughout the firm and slowly but surely making sure they knew you.

To other people who joined at the same time, many of whom were following family members into the profession and who had been to the same private schools, making connections and building a network came so naturally.  For Yvonne and Janine, it was an anathema.  They assumed doing a lot of good quality work would be enough.

At times, leaders are “unconsciously competent” about what it takes to succeed.  With a little more dissection of the attitudes, skills and behaviours required to succeed and some targeted training, this could easily be addressed.

5. Leaders, be prepared to learn

It’s easy, if you’re at the head of successful organisation or team, to assume that you have leadership nailed.  The results, surely, speak for themselves.

And yet, it’s not so if you are going to lead a different type of team – one that is made up of people with different backgrounds, motivations, cultures, attitudes.  Social events centred around alcohol, client networking that always takes place after work, for example, can exclude some member.  Although who is doing any of that during lockdown?

More subtly, now, it’s about watching out for and recognising ways in which some people may behave differently to others.

One partner we worked with, for instance, told us about how, in the run up to the appraisal season at the back end of lat year, it was very noticeable to her that most men on the team were confidently claiming their contribution to certain projects and activity whilst many women were, on the face of it, under-performing. Until, that is, you looked at which members of the team were simultaneously trying to home school two children whilst also delivering their billable hours target.

It wasn’t just that she noticed, it was that she was looking in the first place and then took the initiative to talk to other members of the leadership team about how to adjust evaluations to reflect people’s different circumstances.

6.  Acknowledge and remove discrimination and unfairness from the system

One of the reasons that organisations end up being less diverse than when they started (for example, beginning with a 50/50 gender split at graduate intake and ending up with something more like 80/20 at partner level) is that there is discrimination in the system.

It varies by organisation but in our experience one common, though unintended, source of bias is found in the system for work allocation.  Especially when there is no system for work allocation. Partner comes out of office, finds associates they’ve worked with before and enjoy working with, gets them involved in the pitch.  Pitch is won, the same team does the work.  All get on very well, go for drinks at the end of the job.  Pause and repeat.

Unless you are prepared to root out, acknowledge and change areas like this, where unfairness has a huge impact on people’s experience and progression prospects, you are unlikely to make a dint in your targets.   The flipside is that if you can change this, the benefits will be immense.

7.  Remember – Everyone loves a story

The good news is that everyone loves a success story.  Get it right and you create a virtual circle.  Tell someone the story of the woman who came back to work as a newly divorced single mum and who was able to get her career back on track, who adds perspective and humour to the team and who is now helping open up a new practice area.  Or the story of the young black lawyer who was the first in his family to go to university and who was given the opportunity to join an inclusive team with a leader who actively sponsored his progression.

The McKinsey study is memorable but will never touch anyone’s heart.  As someone cleverer than me once said

Facts tell, stories sell.

Celebrating Success

Along with setting targets and creating action plans, the other thing we’ve noticed is that firms love to produce an annual “Diversity and Inclusion” report.  The good news is that if you follow these steps, you’ll have plenty to put in it.   You might even hit some of those targets.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *