Inclusive Leadership Means Challenging Past Decision-Making

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Diversifying boards and C-suites requires a fresh take on promotion

By Summit Leadership Partners Corinne Mason, Ph.D., Partner, Kevin Impelman, Ph.D. Director, Consulting Products & Services, & Ashleigh Dickson, Analyst

Recent attention has been placed on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) with a renewed focus on addressing structural and systemic barriers that prevent opportunities for many underrepresented groups. While broader policies can address structural forms of racism and sexism, business leaders need to know that their behavior must also be part of the equation.

In Summit’s Inclusive Leader research, we find that a key characteristic of an inclusive leader is someone who will take a more rigorous approach to decision-making with the intention of promoting inclusivity.  To do this requires insight and awareness, appreciation for different perspectives, recognizing you have blind spots, not trusting your gut and re-evaluating how you make decisions. However, despite having an abundance of data and analytical insights at their fingertips, some leaders continue to rely almost solely on their intuition and experiences when making decisions and are therefore unconsciously keeping constraints against inclusion in play.

Summit Leadership Partners recently conducted a study with 200 Private Equity executives and portfolio CEOs, to better understand leadership expectations at the CEO level. Among other topics, we asked these executives what background experiences predict CEO success and what leadership skills influence success as a CEO.

When evaluating background experiences for CEOs, women placed much greater emphasis on expertise across business units and functions, while men placed greater emphasis on prior C-suite experience.  This highlights the classic issue: How do you get the job if you are required to have had the job already?

Additionally, when evaluating which leadership skills influence success, men identified “trusting own instincts in uncertain times” significantly more than women. This suggests that they rely heavily on prior similar experiences in making their decisions.

While trusting one’s instincts and intuition can be helpful in some areas, it requires gaining requisite experience, and it can lead to similarity bias when making people decisions. Making the assumption that prior experience in the CEO role is a proxy for the skills and expertise needed to be effective will certainly perpetuate differences across genders and other underrepresented groups. While 52% of women make up the professional workforce, only 21% are in the C-Suite. By probability alone, relying on C-suite experience will systematically give men the advantage. This also extends to board membership, as most boards are seeking people who have run the business in a general management-type capacity or who have had the title of CEO in the past, both of which set women and other diverse professionals at a statistical disadvantage.

These disparities continue with the investing community. Even though female-founded companies sell or go public faster and at higher valuations, very few women are seeing funding opportunities. And with only 12% of VC investors being women, male investors will need to help move the needle on representation. This means overcoming their innate bias towards prior experience in the exact role.

So how to create change? Men (and women) can start by avoiding an over-reliance on one’s exact title and think more deeply about the skills and expertise needed to perform the role now and in the future. Taking a more thoughtful, comprehensive approach will identify more leaders with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Alternatively, taking a convenient approach to decision-making can only seek to replicate the results in the same environment. At Summit, we work closely with our clients’ key stakeholders to understand what a significant role requires by identifying key deliverables, critical skills and attributes, and the strategic context when assessing and developing talent.  Too many hiring and placement decision-making tools overly rely on prior experiences and checking boxes from someone’s career history.

We are in a different environment now — one that is changing and one that requires an inclusive mindset that challenges assumptions and questions our decision-making. It’s time to hire and promote more talent on what they can do versus what they did do.

Read this article where it originally appears on Agenda Week.