Matt Carter has some advice for CEOs coping with the skills gap: look harder.
He’s has had to do that himself with his tech company, Aryaka, which is located in Silicon Valley, where it competes for talent with giants like Google, Facebook and Apple—all of which Carter says are drawing from a limited and overly-homogenous well.
“Silicon Valley has a dismal track record, quite frankly, in its ability to attract and retain diverse talent—women, African-Americans, Hispanics,” he told Chief Executive. “I believe the issue is related to a perception that certain groups of people of color are just not as qualified. So we believe there is a lot of talent that we don’t get a chance to engage with because of where we’re located, the high cost of it, and the lack of diverse communities of color. So we’ve become much more about finding talent where it may be.”
That has meant embracing flexibility and being willing to hire remote workers, he says. “I mean, obviously, we can’t have a facilities manager who lives in Shanghai, so there are certain roles that are critical to be in the office, but [for other roles] we’ve embraced, as a company, that we’re going to go find talent wherever it may be.”
At the same time, Carter wants to push his local business community leaders to up their diversity game and deal with implicit biases in their hiring and promotion efforts that are keeping talented people of color down, or out altogether. Over the past year and a half, particularly since George Floyd, there has been a lot of talk about diversity, he says, but not much action. “There are folks who are allies and they’ll do all the appropriate things, whether they have signs in their hallways or they have certain days dedicated to certain groups, etc. But the proof is in the pudding,” he says. “What have you done besides provide slogans? Has there been meaningful progress? Have you hired more people? Promoted more people? Have you addressed some of the systemic issues in your organization that have prevented all your talent from being able to rise? What happens during the interview process?”
The interview process is where implicit bias continues to stand in the way of otherwise great candidates at all levels of the organization, says Carter, who experienced that bias personally during the interview process earlier in his career. “I’m a relatively successful guy and I’ve gone to great schools, but I went through a process in Silicon Valley where they didn’t see all that I was—they only saw what I was not.”
Carter says he has heard similar stories from other people of color as well as from women who have tried to make inroads at Silicon Valley companies.
“Because it’s not about the qualifications—it’s the comfort level,” he says, noting that people are most comfortable with candidates like themselves, and they tend to make snap judgments about people who look or sound different from themselves. While they say they want to hire outside the box, those unconscious reflexes keep them from taking chances on star potential. He points to Dennis Rodman as a good example of the sort of uniqueness that benefited every organization he joined. “You look at him and say, ‘Oh, I would never hire a guy like that because he’s so different from us.’ But actually it’s that difference that is giving him a chance to make a difference for your organization—and how you see [and value] that difference matters.”
Carter also has a particular bone to pick with CEOs who protest the focus on diverse hiring because “we don’t want to lower our standards.”
“You’ve already been lowering your standards by tilting the system toward a particular type of person and not opening up the opportunities to all.”
It’s time to stop doing that, Carter says—and he has some tactical advice for his peers.
• Stop negotiating. “You’re the CEO of the company. If you ask Bob if he’s going to [prioritize] diversity and he says, ‘Let me get back to you on that,’ you say, ‘Well, Bob, we’re gonna miss you, because you’re part of the problem.’” Leaders have to take a hard line and insist on diverse slates for hiring. “The problem with some CEOs is they don’t have the courage to stand up. You can’t wait until Bob has an epiphany of some kind, because that day may never come.”
• Ask the right questions. “Let your people know you want to understand who’s in the interviewing process. Because the CEO can’t do it by him or herself, but what he or she can demand is integrity around the process. Which people are on the interviewing panel? Are we actually looking at the talent in the right sort of way? Are these people trained to pick talent and build a team? CEOs have to be more demanding of their teams and ensure that the process around talent identification and selection actually has good rigor. You can’t just hire the way it’s always been done.” Carter, who also sits on the boards of NRG Energy and JLL, adds that directors also have to be asking management these questions to hold them accountable for change.
• Language matters. The tone has to come from the top and the CEO has to enunciate. “You have to say, ‘We’re focusing on bringing in the best talent wherever we can get it.’ If you stick to that and have some confidence in the process around identification and selection, you will by default end up with a more diverse group of candidates.”
• Really use ERGs. In addition to creating community, employee resource groups are seen at Aryaka as a way for management to better understand the experience of particular groups. Carter suggests tapping them, and really listening. Carter also sits on the advisory council of the Women’s Business Collaborative in D.C., and he encourages other CEOs to seek out opportunities to regularly hear disparate viewpoints.
• Look in unusual places. As a graduate of Harvard Business School, Carter knows that looking only at Ivy League B-schools will not be a winning hiring strategy. “If we’re looking for the next LeBron James to join our team and help us win championships—well, guess what? The LeBron Jameses of the world, they’re not some guy who graduated out of the Harvard Business School. LeBron James rose from the projects of Cleveland to become one of the global brands of the world. There’s talent like that all across America that, if given an opportunity, can do a lot of good things.”
Carter notes that the main reason CEOs need to make their companies open to, and inclusive of, the full range of potential employees is because it will help the company. But there will also be societal benefits that ultimately buoy industry as well.
“Look, obviously we have a responsibility to our shareholders. We understand what we’re here to do,” he says. “But we also have an opportunity to make a difference in the world. And if you, as CEO, are asking these tough questions and challenging your team, when that person goes home and interacts with their community, they’re going to be asking the same questions. It’s going to have that ripple effect, and be a positive change. As CEOs, we’re in a role where we can have a positive impact. Let’s use our resources to help make things better for us all.”