HR's role in getting more non-white males into leadership positions

Diversity & Inclusion

Recently, I've been reflecting on a reality faced by many HR professionals. They describe a work environment where executives and line managers hold rigid opinions about their work. This is intriguing, considering that I rarely hear HR professionals expressing opinions about processes like supply chain management, customer service, or sales execution. Let’s acknowledge that this is likely for the best. However, as an HR professional myself, I empathize with the intricate challenges they encounter daily, affecting both their operations and their involvement in business decisions.

During this post, I will dive into why this is a problem and what HR can and should do about it.

The Current State: A closer look at the numbers

Recent findings by Allbright echo the ongoing journey about Sweden's progress (or lack thereof) in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). They (Allbright) consistently reveal significant challenges in addressing the gender gap in leadership, underscoring not only issues of fairness but also the unfulfilled potential that results from this disparity.

Despite ongoing discussions and initiatives aimed at gender equality in leadership, the disparity remains. According to Allbright, fewer than 30% of senior positions in publicly traded companies on the Nasdaq Stockholm are held by women. Furthermore, while 78% of these organizations claim to actively pursue gender parity, the actual impact of these efforts seems (perhaps) minimal or at least not good enough.

These senior positions are currently being filled through two channels, internal and external hiring.
In terms of internal mobility, a mere 30% are being filled by internal female candidates, and just 35% of the help with external recruitment agencies, i.e executive search agents. A number that by no means reflects the true volume of talent out there. (And if we look at other factors like ethnicity, sexual orientation or other nonwhite male groups, the numbers are even worse in representation).

There are already many takes on this report, but my personal reflection after reading the report was, the failure of HR department.

Hiring a central pillar in DEI

The hiring process emerges as a critical determinant of leadership diversity. The current approach often leaves a wealth of talent untapped, filling positions with less-than-ideal candidates not due to a lack of qualified women or minorities but due to systemic biases in the selection process. This situation underscores a need for HR to employ a mathematically and morally sound approach to recruitment, challenging the meritocracy myth and ensuring that the best candidates are given equitable opportunities to lead.

The issue extends beyond mere statistics; it lies at the heart of the hiring process, a critical determinant of who gets to lead. Despite intentions, a significant portion of talent remains overlooked, suggesting a systemic issue where many positions are filled by candidates who may not be the best fit—a situation less about opinion and more about arithmetic. The data presented allows for various interpretations, but one stands out: a significant portion of talent remains untapped. This means positions are often filled by mediocre candidates. This is not a matter of opinion but a mathematical fact.

The problem goes beyond mere numbers. It's deeply rooted in the hiring process, a crucial factor in determining leadership. Despite good intentions, a large pool of talent is overlooked (in this report females), suggesting a systemic issue where many positions are filled by candidates who may not be the most suitable. This situation is less about opinions and more about arithmetic.

The debate around meritocracy often surfaces in this context, with some suggesting that men are inherently more suited for certain roles. Or there aren’t women out there…However, my experience counters this narrative, revealing a landscape where claims of meritocracy often mask deeper biases. Just claiming we’re a meritocratic organization and we ended up with more males than females simply doesn’t cut it in my book. 

For those intrigued by the dynamics of leadership selection, Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic's analysis, "Why So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders," offers profound insights into why our criteria may be flawed, urging a reevaluation of what true merit entails.

The Path Forward

The crux of the challenge lies in redefining our approach to leadership recruitment, ensuring it genuinely reflects and promotes diversity. This journey requires us to delve into the nuances of our current practices, identify the barriers to equitable representation, and commit to crafting a future where leadership is accessible to all, regardless of gender.

As we contemplate these issues, it's essential to recognize that the pursuit of diversity in leadership isn't just a moral imperative but a strategic one, opening doors to untapped talent and perspectives that can drive organizations forward in unforeseen and innovative ways. Something that is eloquently put but by the World economic forum.

“Women have the power to turbocharge the sputtering global economy,” said Indermit Gill, Chief Economist of the World Bank Group and Senior Vice President for Development Economics. “Yet, all over the world, discriminatory laws and practices prevent women from working or starting businesses on an equal footing with men. Closing this gap could raise global gross domestic product by more than 20% – essentially doubling the global growth rate over the next decade—but reforms have slowed to a crawl. 

Decoding the challenge: The crucial role of HR in shaping diversity

Identifying the root cause of the persistent gender gap in leadership roles brings us to a pivotal question: How do we foster a workforce that's not just diverse, but also inclusive and equitable? It's a complex issue, but not insurmountable, especially when we consider the central role that Human Resources (HR) plays in this transformative journey.

HR: The architects of organizational change

Often referred to by various names—People Operations, Talent Management—HR is essentially the backbone designed to navigate and orchestrate the intricate human dynamics within organizations. This department isn't just about filling vacancies; it's about crafting the very fabric of the organizational culture and ensuring the strategies align with broader business goals.

HR's responsibilities are manifold, extending from translating business needs into strategic hiring and development initiatives to crafting role descriptions that not only attract but also retain the right talent. They're tasked with designing and implementing processes that ensure every candidate not only gets a fair shot but is also positioned to thrive and contribute positively to the team's success from day one.

The challenge, however, lies in the execution. Throughout my career, I've encountered HR departments at both ends of the spectrum—some struggle to address these critical issues effectively, while others excel, becoming indispensable strategic partners within their organizations. However, my experience is that most HR departments tend to perform as the prior, rather than the latter, creating a vacuum in the organization, hence other departments and executives start having opinions about what value HR creates. In these cases, simply put, HR needs to start speaking business. 

The difficulty lies in implementing HR strategies effectively. I've worked with HR departments throughout my career, some of which have struggled to address critical issues while others have excelled and become essential strategic partners. However, my experience suggests that most HR departments tend to perform poorly, creating a void within the organization. This situation prompts other departments and executives to question the value HR provides. In essence, these HR departments fail to communicate in a business-oriented manner. 

HR is the function that is designed to address systematic human processes in organizations. They are the ones who will and should set the playbook from which managers work, in how they hire, how they lead and so on. 

HR is the function that is responsible for; 

  • mapping and translating business needs into hiring and development processes
  • crafting relevant and inclusive role descriptions to attract relevant candidates
  • Designing processes that systematically assess and select the best possible candidates
  • Designing onboarding processes that allow every candidate to accelerate their ability to contribute as a net-positive team member.

The list can go on, but I think I’ve made my point clear, HR is the function that should have the capability to design these processes and make sure that the organization works accordingly, and mind you, analyze outcomes and synthesize next steps and of course implement updates and changes if needed. 

Not doing so properly has led us to the situation we’re in today.

Speak the Language of Business: Aligning DEI with Strategic Goals

One of the most pivotal roles HR can play in advancing diversity and inclusion within organizations is to articulate the value of these efforts in business terms. It's not enough to champion DEI as the right thing to do morally; HR must also demonstrate that it's the smart thing to do strategically. This requires a shift in perspective, from viewing DEI initiatives as mere compliance or ethical obligations to recognizing them as critical drivers of business success.

Demonstrate Impact on Key Business Metrics

HR professionals should strive to link diversity and inclusion efforts directly to key performance indicators (KPIs) that matter to the business, such as:

  • Innovation and creativity: Diverse teams bring a wealth of perspectives that can fuel innovation and creative problem-solving, leading to the development of new products, services, and solutions that keep the company competitive.
  • Market expansion: A diverse workforce can better understand and cater to a global customer base, facilitating entry into new markets and enhancing customer satisfaction.
  • Talent attraction and retention: Companies recognized for their inclusive culture are more attractive to top talent, reducing recruitment costs and lowering employee turnover rates.
  • Financial Performance: Numerous studies have shown that companies with diverse leadership teams outperform their less diverse counterparts financially, offering a compelling case for D&I as a factor in driving profitability.

Quantify the Benefits

To effectively "speak the language of business," HR must go beyond anecdotal evidence and provide quantifiable data demonstrating the positive impact of DEI initiatives on the organization. This might involve presenting case studies of successful DEI programs within the industry, sharing metrics on how DEI efforts have improved employee engagement and productivity, or highlighting correlations between diversity in leadership and financial performance.

Communicate in Business Terms

HR should also ensure that the rationale and outcomes of D&I initiatives are communicated in terms that resonate with business leaders. This includes:

  • Cost-Benefit Analyses: Illustrating how investments in D&I initiatives can lead to cost savings through improved employee retention or enhanced brand reputation.
  • ROI Calculations: Provide estimates of the return on investment for D&I programs by linking them to increased revenue streams or reduced operational costs.
  • Strategic Alignment: Demonstrating how D&I initiatives support the company's strategic goals, such as entering new markets or driving innovation, making them integral to the organization's overall success strategy.

Engage in Continuous Dialogue

Finally, speaking the language of business is not a one-time effort but an ongoing dialogue. HR should regularly update leadership on the progress of D&I initiatives, incorporating feedback into program design and implementation. This continuous engagement ensures that D&I remains a central component of the organization's strategic planning and decision-making processes.

Actionable steps toward meaningful change

For HR to truly lead this charge, a shift in perspective is necessary. Beyond the traditional metrics, HR must speak the language of business—articulating their strategies in terms of cost savings, revenue generation, and ultimately, their impact on the bottom line. After all, the ultimate goal of any for-profit entity is to enhance shareholder value, a principle that CEOs and HR alike should prioritize.

Empowering change through data, knowledge and technology

Armed with data and the right tools, the journey toward closing the gender gap in leadership becomes less daunting. 

Knowledge is power. Jump into the stats, check out the figures, and get clued up on the state of female leadership recruitment. With the right information and communicating it in plain business language, we can all push for change and become advocates for a more diverse and more efficient workforce.

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