3 Ways to Build Diversity on the Leadership Bench

October 15, 2020

Contributor: Teresa Zeuch

To increase diversity in leadership, HR must first expand diversity in the leadership pipeline and successor talent pools.

Despite deliberate efforts, many organizations continue to struggle with achieving a diverse leadership bench. A recent Gartner survey reveals that nearly two-thirds of talent management leaders say 10% or fewer of their organization’s successors are women from diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds.

“ Leading organizations are changing how they define their model of who in the organization has the potential to be a successor”

“Over the past 3 years, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has become the No. 1 talent priority for CEOs, yet an April Gartner survey found that nearly 90% of HR leaders feel their organization has been ineffective or neutral at increasing diversity representation,” said Ania Krasniewska, Vice President, Gartner, at the Gartner ReimagineHR Conference, taking place virtually in the Americas and EMEA.

Download Research: Mitigate Bias in Succession Planning

Building diversity in leadership is a team effort

To achieve diversity among leadership and successor pools, HR and DEI leaders need to partner with senior business leaders across their organizations to evaluate current systems, processes and stakeholders. Three actions, in particular, have proven effective at advancing diversity on the leadership bench.

1. Go beyond mentoring 

Many organizations try to advance underrepresented talent via formal mentoring programs. Although mentoring is important and should be part of the solution, it cannot be the only approach, as all the burden is on the employee. Instead of trying to “fix” the talent in question, organizations should work to fix their systems instead.

While many mentorship programs are based on employees volunteering to take part, leading organizations work directly with an employee’s manager and skip-level manager to define specific roles and responsibilities for employee development. This enables employees to grow their networks and increase their senior-level exposure, while not placing everything on their direct manager. Responsibility for development is shared across the parties, all accountable to each other and to the organization.

2. Increase representation

It can be tempting for an organization to celebrate when it successfully advances underrepresented talent; however, it can be isolating for a minority employee to be a lone representative. When a candidate is “an only,” employers can inadvertently create systems that put more weight on their shoulders to simultaneously stand out as well as represent their entire category disproportionately.

“Broadening existing talent pools requires HR, and other business leaders, to think differently, source differently and act differently,” said Krasniewska. 

Employers need to be acutely aware of the systems that prevent their candidates from being successful. In many instances, organizations will need to force an intentional shift in their thinking to surface underrepresented talent beyond traditional means. After surfacing talent, HR must ensure their future systems can identify potential successors and support them through networks and development.

3. Reframe talent processes 

Nearly every talent process provides an opportunity for bias — a 2019 Gartner survey revealed that 88% of DEI leaders perceive bias in their organization’s promotions or succession processes. Seventy-eight percent of DEI leaders believe that their recruiting and performance management systems are biased.

To tackle bias within their succession processes, leading organizations are changing how they define their model of who in the organization has the potential to be a successor. One tactic is to presume everyone is eligible for promotion and to discuss why a nominated employee is not ready, rather than presuming they are not and pushing for advancement. 

Often, when planning for a particular person’s successor, the default is for leaders to think of an individual most like that particular person. Some employers are tackling this by reengineering their succession process to focus on the role rather than the person.

Learn more: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Resource Center

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