Pye: Want diversity results? Change your ways

"If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got," comedienne Moms Mabley once said.

Cassandra Walker Pye
Cassandra Walker Pye

"If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got."

Those are words to live by from Moms Mabley, the trailblazing African-American comedienne who graced stages from the Apollo Theater to Carnegie Hall from the 1930s until she died in the mid-1970s. Her point? Any measurable change in results requires a notable change in behavior.

The quote always springs to mind when I hear executives in the PR industry and others bemoan their challenges in finding and retaining diverse talent – especially at the executive level. The truth is it really isn’t rocket science. It’s harder. And, the sad truth is, when you peel back the curtain, very few companies truly invest the time, energy, and resources it takes to move the needle. They continue to do what they always did.

I believe we’re at the point where we all (finally) agree that diversity of experiences brings about diversity of perspective, and the more varied the perspectives, the greater the outcomes. Underrepresentation of women and people of color in any communication effort is a missed opportunity to gain another set of important – and unique – perspectives. Having us in the room also brings a level of truth to debate and discussion that yield communications and marketing campaigns that truly inspire. Unfortunately, most companies (and agencies, for that matter) still fail to gain and retain traction on the effort – making the same five mistakes when it comes to managing diversity and building a sustainable and diverse team of leaders:

1.  Companies don’t hold themselves accountable to improve their results. They don’t manage diversity like they manage other aspects of their business – oftentimes, the biggest mistake of all.

2.  Diversity efforts are inconsistent. Company leaders, HR, and department heads set out to make diversity a primary focus of their operations and achieve some results, but, then they take their eye off the ball only to find – in no time – they’ve lost ground again.

3.  Companies fail to put structured systems in place to reinforce their diversity commitment. Let’s face it, we’re human, not cyborg. Without systems and genuine oversight people will always revert to their old habits.

4.  Companies fail to recognize bias is real. We accept the fact that bias exists in society, yet we won’t acknowledge its existence inside our companies. And, this is the kicker: it’s not so much who leaders and decision-makers are biased against, it’s who they’re biased for. That partiality manifests itself in who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets mentored, who gets sponsored, and who goes under whose wing.  Bias, my friends, creates inequities.

5. Companies make the mistake of believing if they hire diverse talent at the entry-level, that talent will make its way up the ladder. That, typically, won’t happen. See #4.

Stop repeating yourself
There are companies that have had measurable success recruiting, hiring, and retaining women and people of color to executive posts in their operations. I’ll admit I bring a political bias to the table, but where I’ve observed the highest degree of success is where companies treat the deployment of diversity programming as they would a political, marketing, or media campaign. None of these elements should surprise you; these are campaign fundamentals all of us engage on every day.

Mine the Data.
We often counsel clients to survey the landscape before embarking upon campaigns. Getting traction in this important element of operations begins with being honest about where you are. Share the data with your teams. It may not be a pretty sight but transparency around data is key.

Apply the right resources.
This is a no-brainer but one that companies fail to do, repeatedly. Put resources behind your diversity programming. Manage it the way you would any other important element of your operation. Results won’t happen overnight and they definitely won’t happen by accident. And, you won’t get them at a discount or, most importantly, for free.

Ask the tough questions.
Step back and take a good look at how people progress through your organization. How do associates obtain the visibility to takes to get noticed and, ultimately, promoted? If it’s via key projects, do team leaders go to the same people when they assign those? Where in the company is there the greatest underrepresentation of women and people of color? Who are the managers/leaders of those departments? Are they promoting people with whom they’re more comfortable? What systems does your company have in place to discourage bias when it comes to promoting women and people of color? Asking tough questions and insisting on honest answers can lead to implementation of programs and systems that actually achieve results.

Think outside the box. Imagine, for a moment, that your employee base and leadership team were 70% female. You’d have to think about how to recruit men in a different and certainly more creative way. Great diversity efforts allow what happens naturally for majority populations, to happen for all populations – in the workplace and otherwise.

Hold everyone accountable, and mean it. Create a baseline, based on good data, and set objectives. Reward those who achieve their objectives; don’t reward those who don’t. It’s not rocket science; it’s harder. From what I’ve observed, measuring results and doling out rewards based on fact, not fiction, holds a lot of feet very close to the proverbial fire. Accountability will be painful but it can achieve results.

Diversity on senior leadership teams is critical to any company’s success in a global marketplace. It brings about innovation. And, it can be the lynchpin for success in a connected world. But it won’t happen if companies stick with their old ways. Doing so means they’ll continue to get what they always got.

Cassandra Walker Pye is senior counselor in APCO Worldwide’s Sacramento, CA, office.

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