Activating the Hidden Face of Diversity in Your Leadership Culture

Hidden Face of Diversity

If you write a leadership blog, you know the challenge of dredging the stock photo sites for perfectly politically correct photos of happy business women and men sporting every hue of skin color from creamy white to chocolate brown.

If you actually run a business, you know the photo-dredgers have it easy when it comes to filling the executive suite with such variety.

Building a diverse workforce isn’t so hard given the growing numbers of minorities in the U.S. population, but grooming them into leadership is another matter entirely.

The proof?

Female board members at Fortune 500s have reported in between 14-16% for the last ten years. While female executives hover now at about 19%, the female CEO ranks are bumping around at 5%. Black CEOs? 1.2%. Asian? 1.6%. Latino? 1.2%.

Put them all together and you don’t quite make 8%.

This data may bother you on general principle, but if you’re like many leaders you may not immediately see the connection to your own business. And there is definitely a connection, particularly in the new economy where talent is the most precious and limited resource.

Building a diverse workforce isn’t so hard given the growing numbers of minorities in the U.S. population, but grooming them into leadership is another matter entirely.

Understanding Your Opportunity Cost

Studies from organizations as diverse as McKinsey, Catalyst and The World Bank show strongly positive correlations between women in leadership and financial results. Other studies show similar correlations for “diverse” leadership, which are more broadly defined.

These studies trend across time and are so consistent across geography, industry and organization size that it’s now commonly accepted that diversity at the top equates with better performance.

If your gut’s telling you it’s not as simple as hiring a female CMO and a brown CFO, you’re right. Listen to your gut. High performance leadership teams are built with talent and trust, not political correctness.

However, there’s something going on behind these studies that you can learn from and leverage in your leadership development pipeline. So pay attention.

I’ve read a lot of these studies and talked with executives who have balanced leadership teams. And I believe there are two cultural dynamics at play in truly diverse leadership cultures that will pay off for your business.

When you incorporate these principles into your talent development and succession planning processes, you can realize the increased performance these studies find in companies that have diverse faces at the top.

  • Accepting that personal and collective bias exists in your hiring/talent development practices, and actively counteracting this bias so that it stops systematically (if unconsciously) eliminating qualified candidates from your leadership ranks
  • Valuing, and actively seeking out and rewarding diverse perspectives and thinking styles in your leadership culture

You see, what appears to be happening behind the correlations of race and gender and positive business results actually have little to do with race and gender. Gender and racial diversity are what we can easily see with our eyes.

However, what’s actually producing greater innovation and better results are:

  • diverse thinking and leadership styles
  • tolerance for differing viewpoints, values and experiences
  • variations in risk mitigation approaches
  • higher emotional intelligence

So why seek diverse faces and experiences in your leadership culture when it’s just diverse brains and backgrounds you need? For one thing, gaining enough true diversity in people who all look the same is harder than you think; what you think of as diverse viewpoints in homogeneous faces is really more like “variations on a theme.”

Listen to your gut. High performance leadership teams are built with talent and trust, not political correctness.

The kind of diversity that spurs dramatically different business results often comes from the discomfort of working with people that you find difficult to relate to at first.

Even more importantly, if your leadership looks like they grew out of the same socio-economic Petri dish, you’re communicating an important subliminal message to the broader talent pool. Even if you say you value diversity and display it up to mid-management – and even if you think you mean it – your workforce believes that their own chances are pretty dim past Director level.

They unconsciously take leadership in your organization off their aspiration list; they won’t think to refer high-potential colleagues from other organizations and most importantly, you never know what you’re missing.

On the other hand, if you genuinely value diverse thinking styles and experiences in your leadership; if you understand and learn to counteract the natural human bias that we all have to work with people “like us”; and if you build the emotional intelligence to leverage such diversity into your leadership culture, then your business will tap into a wellspring of creative energy that – the McKinsey and World Bank studies say – could add as much as 30% to your bottom line.

What does your gut say about that?

Executive Coach, women's leadership advocate & founder of, Dana cracks the code on personal power to help women and men forge their leadership identity & mindset. Follow her at,,, and @DanaTheus on Twitter

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