Diversity and Attrition in the Global Executive Suite

Image of Indra Krishnamoorthi Nooyi, PepsiCo CEO (NOT the subject of this post)

A major global corporation lost a 25-year senior executive at the prime of her career. She explained in her exit interview, “The corporate culture here is too parochial and I am tired of fighting it.”

How did the company lose such a gifted executive, at the point it could have most benefited from her contributions?

I will tell you a story that she shared with me, one that will hopefully provide a taste of how she felt during her career with this company. She shared the story with me at the conclusion of a two-day training course I had conducted, in which she had just participated.

“Dianne, I have so very much enjoyed this global management training you have facilitated for us. These are exactly the cross-cultural skills and mindsets needed in our world today! You are providing us tools and processes for acknowledging and using unique contributions, hearing the voice and perspectives of all involved. This type of training is so very different from diversity training,” she told me.

Well, I happen to be a fan of diversity training. I was troubled by her words, and wanted to understand what this obviously intelligent, wise woman did not like about it.

“Well, Dianne, in my experience diversity trainers go through the motions. They do activities and they often don’t know why. I’ll give you just one example. A year or so ago I was in a senior management diversity training. The facilitator asked us to stand in a line, side by side. He instructed us to take one step back if English was not our first language. A step back if our skin color was not white. He said to take another step back if we were not Christian. A step back if we had not attended a first-tier university. On and on he cited the categories, and I took so many steps back that I was the only person at the far side of the room, alone. There were several others in between, but I was visibly alone.”

“I thought to myself, ‘YES! THIS is what I’ve been trying to tell you all these years! This company forces me to do backbends and jump through hoops in order to succeed! I have to lose who I am to influence decision making. I have to communicate in a way I dislike in order to be heard! Let’s change this corporate culture to be more inclusive!’ Oh, Dianne, I was so excited by this powerful exercise!”

“But, do you know what happened? The President of the company looked at me standing there in the back of the room and said, ‘Look how inclusive we are. A dark-skinned woman, an Indian Jain, can become a senior director!’ I thought to myself, do you know how much harder than a man I have had to try to succeed? How much harder than a white skinned person? How much harder than a European or American? He seemed to have no idea of the price I’d had to pay for my promotions. He didn’t acknowledge my accomplishments or the super-human efforts of other minorities in our organization. Rather, he prided the company on its color-blindness! And worse yet, the trainer didn’t say anything! The exercise concluded, and we went on to the next activity! Rather than a learning moment, the activity only reinforced ignorance and legitimized discrimination! I was absolutely crushed and stunned.”

Such a loss for this corporation. Such a difficult decision for this woman to have had to make. It was also a challenging position for the trainer to have been in; hindsight is 20-20 regarding how the trainer could have handled the President’s comments, and debriefed the activity, more effectively.

Let me close by asking you this: Have we all taken the time today to empathize, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes? Have we done our part to change dysfunctional systems? What have each of us learned today?

I look forward to your comments on this post. Thanks!

Linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.

“Diversity Training Doesn’t Work!”

“Diversity Training Doesn’t Work: Rather than extinguish prejudice, diversity training promotes it!” This was the title of a 12 March 2012 Psychology Today online article.

While so many of us complain about media sensationalism, I begrudgingly have to admit that, in this case, the inflammatory title led me to read this article from among the 200+ crossing my desk that day.

The article’s author, Peter Bregman, relies on research from 2007 to prove his point. He repeats or paraphrases the subtitle four times throughout his article, each time stating it as fact. Yet, in reviewing the original research he cites, I feel it does not support his premise. The original paper is much more nuanced and even-handed (“certain programs increase diversity in management jobs but others do little or nothing”).

While I take issue with much of what Mr. Bregman says in his article (that there are two types of diversity training, for example: those that tell people what to say/not say, and those that break people into categories. Come on, really?), there is also learning to be gained from it. His conclusion: “We decided to [teach all managers] to listen and speak with each other — no matter the difference — which is the key to creating a vibrant and inclusive environment,” was one I could heartily agree with.

Let me focus this post on the constructive learning we might get from this article. Mr. Bregman urges the reader to do nine different things. I consolidate them, as there was quite a bit of redundancy. They are:
  1. See people as people instead of categories. Train them to work with a diversity of individuals, not with a diversity of categories. Move beyond similarity and diversity to individuality. Don’t reinforce labels, which only serve to stereotype. Reveal singularities. Help them resist the urge to think about people as categories.
    • I wholeheartedly agree! Yes!!! Please! That is exactly why Cultural Detective looks at an interactional process of how people communicate in real situations (using the Worksheet with real-life or prepared critical incidents).
    • It is why we have a package titled, Cultural Detective: Self Discovery, aiding users to create Personal Values Lenses.
    • It is why Cultural Detective: Blended Culture looks at the multicultural experience of so many of the individuals in our world today.
    • It is why our definitions of “culture” go way beyond nationality or ethnicity, and include looking at multiple influences on why we are the way we are (see Layering Lenses).
    • While we are all unique individuals, we are also all members of groups and communities, and our world views are shaped by those groups (cultures) in which we were raised. Cultures establish patterns of behavior that are historically sanctioned, so we each learn all kinds of things that seem natural, yet are culturally determined. Viewing people as unique individuals not influenced by culture is a step backwards, and not helpful in understanding others.
  2. Stop training people to be “accepting” because it doesn’t work.
    • Again I agree! If people can better understand themselves, and get a bit of insight into why others might behave the way they do, we won’t need to lecture them. These are two of the Cultural Detective Model’s three core capacities (Subjective Culture/know ourselves, Cultural Literacy/understand others’ intent, Cultural Bridge/skills and systems for leveraging similarities and differences).
  3. Teach people to have difficult conversations with a range of individuals.
    • Yes! The CD Worksheet came to life as a conflict resolution tool in multicultural workplaces in Japan in the 1980s and 90s. It emerged from diverse individuals having just such difficult conversations.
  4. Teach managers how to manage the variety of employees who report to them. Teach them how to develop the skills of their various employees.
    • While I might offer this as one reason to conduct diversity training, coaching, or mentoring, I can definitely agree with the goal. Cultural Detective offers a process for understanding, valuing and leveraging individual cultural differences. Our newest package, Cultural Detective Bridging Cultures, focuses precisely on skill development.
  5. Help them resist the urge to think about others as just like themselves.
    • Yes! Thinking about others as just like ourselves is one stage of a developmental process. Learning to distinguish the ways in which we truly are similar and different, seeing value in the similarities and the differences, and creating ways to benefit from them, is what Cultural Detective is all about.

The initial research referenced in the article, (“Diversity Management in Corporate America,” Frank Dobbin, Alexandra Kalev, and Erin Kelly, American Sociological Association, 2007), was a systemic study of 829 companies, designed to see which kinds of diversity programs work best, on average. A weakness in the original study is that it looked purely at diversity, not on inclusion or competence to manage diversity.

Having said that, the findings showed that diversity councils, diversity leaders, and mentoring programs most strongly correlate with increased management diversity, while training and diversity performance evaluations have a lower correlation. To quote the study authors, “On average, programs designed to reduce bias among managers responsible for hiring and promotion have not worked. Neither diversity training to extinguish stereotypes, nor diversity performance evaluations to provide feedback and oversight to people making hiring and promotion decisions, have accomplished much. This is not surprising in the light of research showing that stereotypes are difficult to extinguish. … Research shows that educating people about members of other groups may reduce stereotyping.”

“Optional (not mandatory) training programs and those that focus on cultural awareness (not the threat of the law) can have positive effects. In firms where training is mandatory or emphasizes the threat of lawsuits, training actually has negative effects on management diversity. Managers respond negatively when they feel that someone is pointing a finger at them.”

The original article by Dobbin, Kaley, and Kelley presents three broad approaches to increasing diversity:
  • Changing the attitudes and behaviors of managers
  • Improving the social ties of women and minorities
  • Assigning responsibility for diversity to special managers and task forces

These are all situations in which the Cultural Detective Model can be used to help shape constructive interactions and manage differences effectively.

What do you think?