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Imagine your organization is expanding into Texas, where your goods or services are needed but you have no footprint or name recognition.
The population of the region is very diverse but largely Hispanic, specifically Mexican American. You are responsible for hiring the person to lead the expansion — to brand the organization, hire direct reports, find ways to connect with customers, and work with local leaders in the communities and government.
There is no internal candidate for the position and the search has been narrowed down to two equally qualified and likeable candidates: a Mexican American woman who has never lived or worked anywhere but Minnesota her whole life and has no knowledge of the target market and a non-diverse woman who has lived and worked with the target market all her life and is well-established in the business community.
Who would you hire?
Did you say the Mexican American? So did more than 80% of the senior leaders — both in HR and in other departments — I presented this scenario to. The percentage was over 95% among non-diverse leaders, and after they answer, they all look at my face and say, “Uh-oh, I’m wrong, aren’t I?”
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Yes, they are, and so are you if you chose the Mexican American. Here’s why: you were thinking about optics and workforce representation — not increasing influence. You were thinking about diversity — not inclusion — which is why workforce representation, as it is usually defined, solves for quotas and not growth. It solves for diversity but rarely solves for inclusion.
Of course we need more diverse leaders in positions of influence to serve diverse marketplaces. But you think that influence is achieved by hiring a single Mexican American who looks like the market but has no idea how the people in that market live? She’s from Minnesota — a state that looks and acts nothing like Texas — but company leaders want to hire her simply because she is Mexican American. The result is that a company hires for representation rather than the best talent for what it is solving for. Representation is about quotas — not moving all people to the center of our growth strategies. It’s about compliance — not influence.
I get that organizations across industries from education to healthcare to engineering to retail are facing demands to increase the workforce representation of diverse populations. But those organizations also know the talent pipeline of qualified diverse workers available to fill roles of influence is limited. Those that are available need to be placed on high potential tracks that allow them to earn influence in the organization based on performance capabilities. In other words, organizations need to understand and celebrate how their backgrounds introduce new ways of thinking that promote diversity of thought throughout the organization.
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To do that, we need inclusive leadership that prepares diverse populations to be successful by embracing authenticity rather than forcing assimilation. Only then can they challenge the status quo and create inclusive foundations for identifying and hiring the most qualified diverse and non-diverse leaders long term. Otherwise, we get diversity without inclusion, and all that solves for is quotas rather than growth.
Simply put, a leader does not have to be a diverse candidate to best serve diverse populations or their communities. In this particular example, the non-diverse candidate was this organization’s path to long-term growth and sustainable inclusive leadership. The usual mindset of quota and workforce representation made this hire a short-term compliance play.
This is why human resources (HR) should not and cannot be responsible for managing all of these change management requirements. Ask yourself how many decisions you have made through the HR, I-have-to-choose-the-diverse-candidate lens? How much has that cost you in engagement and retention, workplace culture, and close-minded decisions, along with all the money associated with those things? Probably a lot.
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Both candidates may know they need talent to help sell and sustain the company in that market and need to hire talent that understands that market to solve for the opportunity gaps that lead to a long-term growth strategy. But only one candidate has the relationships and understanding in the market and the wisdom to best serve the unique needs of the community to do this, and what she lacks in diversity, she makes up for in diversity of thought.
It is time to disrupt the status quo and reinvent the ways we work and lead. The marketplace has changed, yet our thinking has not evolved. It’s time to embrace a new mindset that moves diversity and inclusion to the center of an organization’s growth strategy and gives diverse talent influence to start growing from the center out, so everyone has the opportunity to be inclusive and influence the future.