In the world of education and workforce readiness, the field where I work, we often hear the refrain that “diverse talent” that meets the skills and depth of the new economy or demands of lucrative executive positions is “hard to find.” In fact, this problematic point of view is so common that in September, the Wells Fargo CEO claimed there was a limited pool of Black talent for him to recruit from when responding to questions about his senior team’s lack of Black representation. He has since apologized—after being called out for his ignorance—and publicly stated that Wells Fargo has a long way to go to diversify its talent pool and leadership representation. But this false narrative of the “talent gap” isn’t just a problem in corporate America—it is a problem across every sector and stretches from the education to work pipeline.
The erasure of Black and Brown talent starts early. In elementary school, a White student’s “leadership behavior” would be equivalent to a Black student being a troublemaker. Black and Latinx students are systematically advised to take less rigorous coursework from high school throughout college and beyond, no matter their demonstrated academic aptitude. They are advised to turn away from lucrative careers such as engineering, architecture, medicine and finance, because it might be “too challenging” for them.
In fact, predominantly Black and Latinx schools have historically been and continue to be underfunded. This deprives these schools of the necessary resources and training to nurture young minds and talent.
During the job search, a Black-sounding name alone can prevent an applicant from even getting an interview. In the workplace, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) staff members’ work products are overly scrutinized, leading to harsher performance reviews and passed promotions.
These are not generalizations. These are the everyday realities of BIPOC trying to learn and to work. These actions are not overtly violent, but they ultimately result in death by a thousand cuts. Still, many persist past these systemic barriers and make their way up the ranks. Specifically, Black talent dismissal and White opportunity hoarding have led our country and economy to suffer from a perceived deficit of Black talent and a manufactured loss in economic prosperity.
What can you, as CEO, do to make meaningful change?
Know Yourself Better, Through an Equity-Driven Lens
One of the toughest things to do, for anyone, is to uncover your own hidden and unconscious biases that contribute to making racially insensitive and ignorant comments and underestimating talent of color. Oftentimes, these faulty beliefs have been so deeply embedded into your operating system that you don’t even know how it got there and how it is informing your decisions and worldview.
Conduct an audit of your professional journey. To whom do you typically turn to for business advice? What were the promotions that you personally advocated for and approved? What were the promotions you rejected or delayed? Who gets bonuses and raises at your company? Who do you hire to be in the C-Suite to work alongside you? Who do you say yes to for informational interviews and coffees? Who do you say no to? Whose ideas do you take risks in investing? Whose ideas do you put aside?
What patterns can you name in your professional journey? Do you tend to promote men over women? Do you feel more confident investing in new ideas from White staff members than your Black or Brown staff members? What are the demographics of your C-Suite and why might that be? Do you tend to mentor young talent that reminds you of yourself, as opposed to young talent with a different background than you?
During meetings, ask a trusted colleague to observe and mark down how often you talk over or interrupt your colleagues. Who do you tend to cut off? Who do you allow for more airtime? Who do you relent to?
The more discipline you bring to this audit, the more likely you are to uncover some of your unconscious biases. Once you recognize these biases, you can begin to address them. Remember, just because you overlook someone, it doesn’t mean they are not talented or worthy.
Hire Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Experts that Challenge You, Not Placate You
As CEOs, our positional power and authority can easily be used to eliminate dissent and to quiet critical voices. Whether you have diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) experts in-house or you plan to hire consultants, make sure you create the conditions of safety and honesty for you to be challenged and to be held accountable. If you are only looking for endorsement and validation, you will lead your company into a status quo of homogeneity and a company disconnected from the global economy. Listen to the experts and make space for being wrong and for making mistakes.
Seek transformation and not compliance. Don’t be content with being compliant with diversity efforts and HR policies and then using them as proxies for leading a company that stands for equity. A diverse company can still have exclusionary hiring practices. An inclusive culture can still exist in a company with racially-biased policies. A leader of color can still enforce harmful practices that are antithetical to equity. When you only aim for compliance, you will fail to do your job and see the big picture and imperative of transformation.
Normalize adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership is a powerful framework that can support your company-wide transformation to be a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace. While there are four main components to the adaptive leadership framework, the most instrumental components that help contribute to your own leadership development toward equity are leading with empathy and self-correction and reflection. No matter how you identify, you will inevitably make mistakes on this journey. Empathy will help you mitigate the severity of your mishaps because you will ask yourself to consider many perspectives and lived experiences. Building a leadership practice of reflection and self-correction will help you build trust with your employees and model for them how to learn and do better.
Follow All The Way Through
Corporate statements that assert your company’s solidarity with human rights, dignity, and social movements is the baseline of your diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Donations and financial backing of cause-related initiatives is the next level up to demonstrate your leadership commitment and your company’s actions. But your employees, especially your BIPOC employees, are looking for sustained actions and changes. Responsive statements and periodic donations do not solve the root cause of racial disparities within your own company. When you sign your name on that letter saying your company will do better, make sure you have the dollars, policies, practices, and culture to be true to your word. Lead with conviction and act with follow-through.
You are a CEO. You were trained and selected to lead your company to greatness. Approach your diversity, equity, and inclusion goals with the same fervor and foresight. Don’t stay where it is easy, achievable, and reductively measurable–go where it is boldest, most imaginative, and most audacious.