Testing Our Assumptions: Why and How Leaders Should Retain Diverse Talent

Jennifer Brown | | ,

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In this special “minisode” Jennifer reveals the biggest obstacles that get in the way of retaining diverse talent and how leaders can shift their thoughts and actions in order to develop and nurture diverse teams. Discover what needs to be addressed in the workplace in order for diverse talent to feel acknowledged and heard, and the positive impact that can have on an organization. Finally, Jennifer discusses the need for men to be allies in this process, and the important role they have to play in creating change on a larger scale.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Why team members may cover up a diverse identity (3:10)
  • The resistance that many leaders have about their own privilege (4:30)
  • What can be gained by empowering others (6:35)
  • One of the most powerful ways to retain diverse talent (8:15)
  • A great resource for examining portrayals of women in the media (10:30)
  • Why vulnerability will help attract top talent (11:00)
  • The importance of the “rule of three” for diversity in the workplace (12:35)
  • Things to consider when mentoring diverse talent (14:40)
  • How men can be allies and what’s needed from them in the workplace (17:30)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta, producer of The Will to Change with Jennifer Brown.

Jennifer is with me today as the guest. She’s going to be speaking about her reflections from doing now over 20 episodes of The Will to Change, 20-plus episodes. Jennifer, welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug. Has it been 20? Oh, gosh!

DOUG FORESTA: Yes, time flies when you’re having fun. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: I want to do more, it’s so fun.

DOUG FORESTA: There we go, well, we will.


DOUG FORESTA: What we’re talking about today is one of the things that’s come up—the idea that there’s a lot of focus on how do we get diverse talent? How do we increase diversity in our organization?

But one of the things that came out quite a bit in several episodes—more than several, we’ll talk about that—is it’s one thing to get people into the organization, but then you have to keep them and help them grow.

Can you say a little bit about, let’s say, the difference between getting, quote/unquote, diverse talent and actually keeping them?

JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. So what we have to understand at the core, the biggest concept that people don’t get, but they really need to get, is that the business world is not a meritocracy. We want to believe that it is because we might have succeeded by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, working hard, keeping our head down, and trusting the universe to take care of us.

But that is not going to be, nor has it been the story for any kind of talent that’s been underrepresented. It’s been a very different story. All you need to do is ask a colleague. They will tell you from a first-person experience how it wears on you to be one of the “only and lonely,” as we say. The only woman on an all-male team in a tech company, or the only person of color, the only African American in a particular office or area of the country, or the only out executive in an entire company. Believe me, I have more examples of that than I am comfortable with. But it’s all true.

We’ve got to realize that it is a different experience every day for folks who have an obvious or visible diversity, and especially if you have an invisible diversity. You’re constantly navigating. “How do I show up? What stereotypes are people going to apply to me?” This hearkens back to Claude Steele’s work on Stereotype Threat. When we perceive that a stereotype will be applied to us, we feel threatened, and we minimize or “cover” what is that stigmatized or stereotyped identity.

That is something that a lot of us walk around with every day, wondering whether we’re at the table for the right reasons, for example. Wondering whether we’re being listened to or in a double bind in terms of being strong or assertive.

Women will recognize this because the word “aggressive” gets used, the words “sharp elbows” get used in performance reviews. Meanwhile, a man can behave in exactly the same way and have a whole different set of words used to describe what a wonderful performer he is.

This is all still going on. We’ve got to help our leaders understand and just admit that it’s not a meritocracy. It might have been easier for you to travel through the corridors of power because you were pulled up. Perhaps you fit in, you were on the inside, you were one of the group. Therefore, people were looking out for you and speeding your way. It was not something that you earned, it wasn’t something you fought for, it was just given to you because of the way you look and the fact that you had a shared with somebody in power. That’s just a fact.

I find, Doug, there is still a lot of resistance just to acknowledging that.

DOUG FORESTA: I was going to say that. That’s been my experience as well.


DOUG FORESTA: What I hear usually is something like, “I worked damn hard for what I got, I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth.” What do you think is the reason for that level of resistance?

JENNIFER BROWN: There is a fear that if you acknowledge this is true, then does it reflect poorly on you, that you’re actually not as talented as you thought? I don’t know. Does it harm your image of yourself if you thought you bootstrapped you way, you did all these magical things, accomplished all these things?

To say, “Gee, I had it easier when I was doing all that,” is that something that challenges our concept of who we are, how hard we work, and how ingenious we are or self-starting—all the myths that we want to believe about ourselves?

Then to talk about it as a whole group being relatively more advantaged, people get protective of the group. They double down and protect each other in a way. You and I were just talking about this. The conversations that happen behind closed doors, maybe among men about a female colleague in a negative way. I think men are afraid to stand up to other men, potentially because that group identity is so strong, and the pressure to confirm is so intense.

Admit that there are chinks in the armor and there are flaws in the system. Also, wrapping your mind around the fact that if I admit this or if I support this idea, not only does it challenge my own narrative about how I got ahead and why, but it might mean that I have less for. If I give somebody else more, am I going to have less? Am I going to get aced out?

People don’t want to give up power, they don’t want to give up a fat paycheck. I get it. It’s human; it’s a survival mechanism.


JENNIFER BROWN: That’s some real stuff. What really is the reason? If you give up something or you perceive that you give something up, could you actually be richer in spirit or leadership skills or legacy on the other side or challenging the way you think about this? Could it make you a better leader to actually have diversity on your team? Could it actually solidify your reputation, your leadership abilities, and your savvy around the marketplace if you seek that diversity? It will make you a better leader. I can promise you that. It may not be easy, but it will absolutely change you in terms of your ability to respond to a chaotic world, your ability to resonate with your workforce. If you’re a senior leader and you look a certain way, it’s going to be assumed now, more than ever before, that you’re out of step.

Fortunately, people are going to look at you, put you in a box, and say, “He doesn’t get it.”

DOUG FORESTA: Right. And you’re going to be “that” leader. Right?

JENNIFER BROWN: “That” guy. Yes. You’re going to be “that” guy. What are you doing to counteract what is, hopefully, an incorrect stereotype that’s going to be applied to you? How are you pushing against that? There are private ways and public ways.

You were asking about diverse talent and the trick for retention.


JENNIFER BROWN: It’s revisiting that whole myth of meritocracy. It is the ability and the want to actually share the spoils and opportunities of being high ranking, and actually believing that decisions you make now have far-reaching implications way down the chain for talent, and far-reaching implications for how your company is going to be able to succeed and thrive.

It all starts with a single conversation across difference saying, “Tell me about what it’s like to be you at this company. I want to learn, and I want to know what particular support I can give and how I can share my social capital with you.” Earned capital, unearned capital born of unearned advantage. I always talk about my intersectionality is partially my woman/LGBT status is a disadvantaged status in many ways, but my ethnicity, my socioeconomic background, and being able-bodied all give me privilege. I can use that for good to change the trajectory for so many. That’s what I choose to do—to use what I’ve been given.

Some people, Doug, will respond to that. Others are a little tougher, but hopefully it’s a wake-up for some people to say, “I’ve never looked at it that way, and I could be doing more.” When I can get somebody to that point, then I feel like we can build a better retention strategy for all talent.

DOUG FORESTA: I remember one of the things you talked about in the very first episode with Vivienne Ming—the tax on being different. You talked about how, if people can’t see themselves represented, if you can’t see it, then you can’t imagine yourself going up the ladder. Can you expand a little bit on that? I thought that was really profound.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Really, it’s Geena Davis’s work. She’s just rocking it. Read up on her think tank and how she looks at images of women in the media, particularly in the film industry and TV. Literally, they’re analyzing how many spokes lines female characters have. And are all of those spoken line about a male character? Getting down to the brass tacks about the air we breathe every day about gender, and subtle cues. We are literally being indoctrinated with feeling like we are less than and that we are always in existence in reference to—


JENNIFER BROWN:—someone else. That’s the work of finding our voice. It’s really profound.

Yes, Geena Davis says she’s, “got to see it to be it.” In the LGBT community, when I was talking to Vivienne, who is a trans woman, talk about not seeing anyone ahead of you in your career path who has achieved what you aspire to, what you want to be someday. It happens really, really early for little girls, little boys, little kids of color, and any kind of young person. It just takes that one role model to say, “Whoa, I didn’t know people that looked like me could be that.” It’s like Obama. Who knew?

DOUG FORESTA: Right. That really changed.

JENNIFER BROWN: Changed everything.

DOUG FORESTA: We’re not there right now, but it really changed what people can see. Although, I would say for young girls, we still need to see that representation.

JENNIFER BROWN: Boy, don’t we? Yes. We really do. For companies, there may be one or two, but there is an inordinate burden placed on the person who’s representing, theoretically, that entire demographic.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m the one black woman board member ever.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s a ridiculous amount of responsibility and potential stereotype threat. Talk about walking a fine line. There need to be more.

I remember when Arianna Huffington joined the Uber board. She was very big on the “rule of three.” She was very big on saying, “We need three women out of ten on this board or on this executive committee, because it’s too much risk to ask one to take on.”

We need to have not just solidarity, but we need to be in positions where we have a critical mass, where we can be seen as more than just our gender and more than just a token. It’s very cynical to say, but that is the truth.


JENNIFER BROWN: I think companies have to create—and this is hard, because what do we have? Under 20 percent women generally across executive levels, VP and above, in most of corporate America. In many companies, it’s less than that.

Then we’ve got single digits for talent of color at the officer levels for many of the companies I work with. When we say, “See it to be it,” it’s pretty dire.

Just because you’re a person of color doesn’t mean you’re going to vibe with the one person of color in your executive team either.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. We don’t ask all white males to get along like that.


DOUG FORESTA: “Bob, you’re a white male, why don’t you –”

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Right. Totally. (Laughter.) That’s another reason. We need more examples, but the problem is companies are leaking diverse talent—they can’t keep them. People hit a wall ten years in, 15 years in. It’s heartbreaking because it’s right before the true C-suite executive-level positions that would be seen by so many, that would really move the needle for thousands of people that are watching this leader.

People bail out. They’re leaking out before that point because it gets really intense. When you’re in your 30s, your 40s, you have young kids, you are caretaking for your parents, you are the only X,Y,Z, or you’re one of the few. And you have these opportunities like, “Oh, by the way, we have this great global role, we have a stretch assignment, we want to give you this massive P&L to run.” It all just gets really intense at that point. At the same time, those people are not being intentionally mentored and sponsored by people above them.

Most companies do a very poor job of intentionally doing development planning for diverse talent at these critical moments when so much can go wrong. There’s such a risk, by the way, of them getting poached as well. Diverse talent is hot.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. So if you’re not taking care of them, someone else will.

JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. Exactly. When companies aren’t intentional, literally, what I would do is assign every single person in the C suite and the next level down to be mentoring and sponsoring diverse talent with high potential, making darn sure that you are giving them feedback, you’re giving them the unofficial rules, that you are guiding them to the right assignments, that you are protecting them and giving them air cover when you put them in a stretch role. And you need to intentionally make sure that when decisions are made about how and when they are being advanced, that unconscious bias doesn’t again come into the conversation and derail them. It takes vigilance at all of these critical decision junctions.

I was just talking to a very senior woman leader today. She still has to tell her team when they bring a candidate slate to her for promotion, she has to point out that there are no woman on the slate. “Did you guys think about this? Did you notice it?” Every single time.

They’re getting better. They now say, “Whoa, we didn’t even think about that woman as a candidate.” And she will say, “Well, think about her.”

DOUG FORESTA: Right. Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: It doesn’t occur to people. Doug, you and I talk a lot about intentionality, and that none of this is mal-intended. However, it’s so harmful, the fact that it doesn’t even occur to people.

Back to the example I just used, lean on the female boss. She has the power. That’s great. She can say to her team, “Go back to the drawing board, come back to me with a diverse slate. And I want you to think outside the box about who you’re bringing to this process.” She can do that.

People who are not as senior have a harder time challenging that status quo, sticking their neck out, being the squeaky wheel every single time saying, “No, we can’t do this,” trying to convince everybody. We get penalized for doing that, too. Enter the men who get it. If they’re in the majority, they have got to step forward and be the ones to say, “Hey, guys, this slate does not pass muster. We’ve got to go back to the drawing board and think different about this, because it’s not enough.”

If we have more men sensitized to that, holding each other accountable for doing that work, we’ll start to see change on a much broader scale, and we will protect diverse talent from always having to fight their own battles.

To me, that’s the most exhausting thing leading to people saying, “I’m out. I cannot have this conversation one more time. I feel isolated, I don’t feel supported, nobody’s looking out for me, I’ve lost the support and the sponsorship—or I never had it. I can’t be successful here.”

Somebody said to me the other day, “When you lose your sponsorship, that’s when you know you need to go. You need to leave the company.” It’s tragic because that is so avoidable, and yet I still feel that people are not taking this seriously among the clients that I work with.

It’s a cry for help. The answers are there, we just have to have the “will to change,” as we always talk about, Doug. Do something.

DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer, thank you so much. Great golden nuggets in each one of these “minisodes.” You’ve give us some really good stuff about retaining diverse talent.

Again, thank you so much for joining me and sharing your thoughts with us.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s a pleasure, Doug. Thanks for the opportunity.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.