Not Just a Job

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Until the war in Afghanistan eclipsed it in 2019, America’s longest war was our national nightmare in Vietnam. Almost two decades long, the struggle in Vietnam forced itself into the culture of the 1960s.

Newsreel: Thousands of demonstrators assemble in the nation’s capital for a mass protest.

I grew up with it, it started just months before I was born, and ended the year I graduated from high school.

Voice Over: (They were combat ready as they landed.) For the first time on a regular basis, news from the front lines made its way into living rooms across America.

The nightly TV images of young men dying for a conflict that seemed so vague and so distant, tore the country apart.

Demonstrators: Peace now, peace now…

Respect for the military, at its peak in World War II had been strained in Korea, and virtually destroyed in jungles of Vietnam. The controversial policy of the draft forcing teenagers to fight certainly didn’t help.

Demonstrators: Hell no, we won’t go…

By the late 1970s, both the war and the draft had ended. But the all-volunteer US military still needed recruits and it was clear patriotism alone wasn’t sufficient inducement. Their potential recruits had spent the last decade in protest.

Country Joe MacDonald: … and it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn …

So when the Navy needed new sailors, they turned to the ad wizards of Bates and Company. The marketing geniuses who had made Colgate toothpaste a household name, needed to recast the Navy experience. They pulled out all the stops.

Navy ad: Most jobs promise you the world. The Navy delivers. See your recruiter. Navy. It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.

The “not just a job, it’s an adventure” tagline ran for over a decade. And it worked, the Navy reversed a steady decline in recruiting partly on the strength of that campaign.

As the working world wrestles with the challenges of diversity and inclusion, this tag line rings in my head. I watch as organizations large and small struggle to figure out how to include more women and underrepresented minorities in their power structure. They make earnest pronouncements and do a range of things that seem like they should make a difference. And yet little changes.

That’s when I find myself practically screaming that tagline: “it’s not just a job”.  And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

In this episode we’ll look at diversity and inclusion, and why it’s so hard to get it right. This is Episode 206 – Not Just a Job.

When I was at Microsoft, the lack of diversity was crystal clear. The company was overwhelmingly white, young, and male. Even though there were a number of people from Asia, they were predominantly young men. Certainly, the company had women, but they were too few in number, and fewer still were in positions of power.

In HR, we gathered many statistics on the issue, sometimes at government request, sometimes of our own volition. In any case, the numbers weren’t great. And despite efforts from many, including me, they weren’t getting any better. The day I was promoted to VP of HR, there were 14 women vice presidents. The day I retired, the woman who replaced me was the last remaining one.

It wasn’t because the company didn’t care. It made all the right noises. We worked hard to try to promote a meritocracy, to celebrate success and ideas from wherever they came. We created programs to advance math and computer science in primary and secondary education to try to address “the pipeline problem”. We were among the early companies with a Directory of Diversity, and they reported directly to the Vice President of Human Resources.

Yet, this is where that tagline echoes: It’s not just a job. I’ve said it hundreds of times in my career, there are articles on my website about it, and countless people have lived the nightmare. A job with all the responsibility and none of the control is torture.

A Director of Diversity who researches best practices, creates policy proposals, and evangelizes inclusion accomplishes little if they have no way to effect day-to-day behavior. In fact, it can actually stall progress.

Companies create a Director of Diversity and flaunt them as proof that they are serious about the issue. Extra points are given if that person is given a great title like Chief Diversity Officer and they report directly to the CEO. “See?”, they say, “we’re doing something.”

But in reality, the role conveniently compartmentalizes the problem. When the statistics come out that the company is woefully imbalanced, they deflect to the CDO. When some heinous act of racism rears its head, it’s not the CEO who gets trotted out, it’s the CDO. And though given a C-suite title, they’re rarely in the key C-suite meetings or have the respect or impact of their C-suite peers.

I see a Chief Diversity Officer as a net negative for an organization. It saps any energy the organization may put toward the problem and bestows it on a single person. A person with no real control. And when it doesn’t work, when no progress is made, well, it’s clear who to point to.

True diversity is not just a figurehead. It’s not just a job.

But, don’t you understand? It’s a pipeline problem. There aren’t enough women and minorities applying for our jobs. Colleges aren’t turning out a broad enough base of people to hire. High schools aren’t enticing girls and kids of color into the fields we need. That’s where we have to start.

Here again: it’s not just a job. Even if you fill the pipeline from grade school to grad school. Even if that creates a diverse base from which to hire. Even if you manage to defeat all the many biases in your hiring process. You’ve only just hired an entry level employee. It’s by no means certain that your new hire will eventually reach a role where they can have real impact. And:  Even if it does happen, it will take years, maybe decades.

Those young hires have to run a gauntlet of obstacles to get into positions of power. They’ll face the normal winnowing that takes place as even the most qualified employees rise through the ranks. They will be challenged on their skills and knowledge; they will be questioned about their fitness for each new role. They’ll combat the daily microaggressions that all outliers face in any competitive culture. And they’ll do it all without models or mentors as they look up to an organization that looks nothing like them.

True diversity is not just an entry level employee. It’s not just a job.

But, but: we have senior women and people of color in our organization. We’ve promoted several and are proud to have them front and center in all our promotional activities.

And again: it’s not just a job.

Because you have people in some roles doesn’t mean they have impact. If you have a woman in charge of HR, a person of color as your Chief Diversity Officer, and a transgender person as a mid-level manager… well that’s not enough. Those roles have little main line company impact. They don’t affect the products or services your organization provides. They don’t make profit, they don’t set strategy, they don’t hire and fire the senior-most people. In short, those roles look good on paper, even better in your PR, but they probably don’t change the culture in the slightest.

The reason people clamor for more diversity and inclusion isn’t simply to get women and underrepresented minorities better jobs, better pay, and more stock options. Those are all good things. But the real goal is to affect the organization, to bring a broader perspective to the products, the policies, and the outcomes. Without diversity and inclusion in the critical meetings that design products, that craft messages, and that set policy, organizations frequently make tone deaf decisions and unforced public relations errors.

That’s where so many people miss the mark. The standard shouldn’t be to have a diverse collection of people in senior positions, it should be a diverse perspective to your business. You can’t count heads, fit them into buckets, and call it done. Unless the people you’re counting are at the core of your business, you’re missing the point.

True diversity is not about titles. It’s not just a job.

But, wait, we have diversity and inclusion goals and incentives for our CEO and other senior managers. We’ve put our money on the line, we hold them accountable for it.

That’s wonderful, but like so many incentives the real question is: does it work?

Let’s say you’re really serious, you include an enormous 10% incentive bonus for some diversity goals. Will it change behavior? If a CEO is faced with an incredibly difficult, painful, and complex problem that will take decades to fix, will the bonus be worth it? Especially if they don’t believe it clearly impacts the more important metrics? Like the stock price, or short-term profitability? In other words, I’m not optimistic.

We’ll talk a great deal about compensation in future episodes. But incentives are incredibly complex, easily gamed, and fraught with unintended consequences. How do you set these goals and measure them? How do you incentivize something that takes years? How do you avoid the fake progress we’ve just discussed? And with diversity specifically, how do you negotiate the public relations minefield?

These are all tough questions, but the real litmus test comes on the other side. If they ignore it, simply blow it off, or even make the problem worse, are you going to dock their pay? Of course not. So, you’re not really making their pay dependent on the issue. And a cynic would say these incentives cost nothing, because the company doesn’t expect them to be paid out. The company looks good for offering them, but they don’t present any risk, and the bottom line is that everyone is fine with ignoring them.

True diversity is not just a numbers game. It’s not just a job.

Don’t get me wrong. I think companies should make concerted efforts to recruit and hire a diverse workforce. I’m all for companies investing in their pipelines. And carefully crafted incentives can help nudge behaviors. But, none of these are the real issue. And I still think you shouldn’t have a Chief Diversity Officer.

No, the challenge of increasing diversity and inclusion in your organization is not just a job. As long as organizations think about it like a chore, an obligation, a checkbox, and yes, a job, progress will be scarce.

Because as we’ve seen time and again, things that don’t directly align with the core mission of the organization never get done. They get side-stepped, handwaved, or blatantly dismissed. When the going gets tough, the first things to get abandoned are the mandates that seem like so much busy work. Do you want me to ship a product, or count heads? Should I answer the customer phone call or fill out paperwork? Are we here to make a profit, or are we a movement?

It’s bad enough when it’s simply paperwork or checkboxes. But true diversity is far more than that. It’s about culture. It’s about a way of thinking. And that’s what makes it so hard.

The good news is that improving diversity and inclusion in your organization is great for every aspect of your business. Adding more women, people of color, and other underrepresented minorities to your power structure doesn’t just feel good and make for great PR. It improves your product or service as they appeal to a broader audience. It greatly decreases the likelihood of an unforced error, something that attracts all the wrong kind of attention. It vastly expands your hiring pool, and with it raises the quality of recruits. And as we’ll discuss next time, doing it well improves the quality of decision making even for issues unrelated to culture.

Perhaps the best news is that making progress on diversity and inclusion doesn’t have to be that hard. The kinds of things that make it happen are the kinds of things you want in your organization anyway. You probably just don’t think of it that way.

We’ll discuss how that works in the next studio episode. We’ll talk about the kinds of culture that makes diversity and inclusion less challenging, and even, dare I say, automatic. Needless to say, it’s not just a job.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site

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That’s it for this episode. The next episode is another of my conversations with leaders. We take a look at a field where knowledge work meets the real world. We’ll talk with Tim Williams, a great leader in the world of commercial architecture. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.