When it comes time to create a succession plan, too often sponsors seek out candidates that look just like them.
According to a new study from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), 71% of sponsors admit their protégé is the same race and gender as themselves — and for women and minorities in the workplace, the "mini me" syndrome may prevent them from advancing up to the C-suite.
How can businesses avoid the mini-me trap and assure that growth and mentorship opportunities are available across all categories of workers? L&D may play a valuable role in creating an even playing field for everyone.
How common is the problem?
"The statistics speak for themselves," Deborah Munster, vice president of Diversity Best Practices, told HR Dive in an email. "We have stalled on progress of women and people of color at the executive/c-suite level with little improvement." She pointed to some efforts, like the 30% Club, which aims to achieve 30% female representation at the top. Last year saw a 25% decline of female CEOs in the Fortune 500. "Until representation gets closer to reflecting the talent pipeline," she added, "I'd say the issue is pervasive."
It's common for people to gravitate to those similar to them; there's comfort in known qualities and shared experiences. But study after study verifies diversity boosts innovation in the workplace — a key element in business success. When it comes to attracting and retaining talent, a majority of employees (64%) state that diversity and inclusion is "an important factor" in their decision to accept a job offer, according to research from Yello.
"The saying 'business deals happen out on the golf course' has some truth in it," Nancy Wang, CEO and co-founder of Advancing Women In Product, told HR Dive in an email. "If you share commonalities or are around those who can make decision on promotions and succession, you have a higher probability of getting into those roles."
How can L&D affect change?
The first step in promoting a more diverse management pipeline is to work with employees at all levels to raise awareness of biases and present ways to overcome them. "We all have bias," Munster said. "Some is conscious, most are unconscious."
L&D's role should include education awareness as well as personal impact stories, Munster suggested, but that strategy alone isn't enough. Employers must be willing to encourage "courageous conversations" about passive resistance to action and the oft unspoken barriers in place. Munster noted the "often unspoken anxiety about white males losing jobs to make room for others," or "reverse discrimination." Those who make talent decisions also need to be self-aware of the types of unconscious biases that may be employed when it comes to promotions, hiring and succession.
A close collaboration between L&D and advocacy can lead to the development of inclusive trainings and to more buy-in on the issue from a wider audience, Wang added.
Making the case to management
The issue isn't about a business advantage: "It's about leadership taking accountability and action for their results," Munster said. Organizations that hold their leaders accountable for real change, including diversifying senior leadership and building diverse sponsorships, have better results. "Often times," she added, "it takes a collective voice to take the lead in establishing diversity as a priority, other times it takes a passionate and bold leader."
Making the case to management can be challenging because no one likes to be told that they are the root of the problem, Wang said. But the answer, according to Wang, is to lean on data and undeniable facts; by showing concrete data points, the truth becomes inevitable and the solution very much necessary. By including those who are in decision-making roles, it also provides them with agency to be a part of the solution. "That is why at Advancing Women in Product, we strive for 50% male membership on our board and leadership community," she added.
Getting there from here
Talent and L&D teams who are committed to overcoming the mini-me syndrome must target diversity development plans and actively identify talent for advancement. Munster said identifying the top 10% of diverse talent in addition to the top 10% overall can help establish a broader pipeline. L&D can target these groups for sponsorships and growth.
"The first step in identifying a strong successor is to look ahead and see what is required for the role in the future," Beth Linderbaum, VP, principal consultant for Right Management, told HR Dive in an email. This becomes the criteria for evaluating a successor's fit for the role versus other factors such as evaluating the person based on a manager's own characteristics or how well an individual knows the organization.
"Organizations with strong succession planning practices are often hiring with the future skill sets in mind when a viable successor is needed," she added.
Unlike mentorships that provide assistance and help, sponsorships actively seek out prospects for development and growth. Creating formal and informal plans can open opportunities for all. Having a D&I plan is important; turning it into reality is key to assuring sponsorships reflect the culture of the company, not just of the sponsor.
Diversity in leadership starts with diversity across all levels, Wang said. One best practice she recommended: for every key leadership hire, they must interview at least three diverse candidates and have diverse decision-makers on the panel before proceeding.
In organizations where representation at the top is more diverse, you'll find two commonalities, Munster said: passionate and bold leaders who drive accountability and an organization that has an inclusive culture with D&I holistically integrated throughout systems and processes.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Deborah Munster's name and title. Deborah Munster is vice president of Diversity Best Practices. HR Dive regrets the error.