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How to cultivate diverse leadership in succession planning

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To build organisational solidity and reputation – as well as attract and retain talent – HR must demonstrate that diverse talent can take up influential executive roles.

17th Mar 2022
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There is significantly more recognition for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in business today, but when it comes to building a more diverse leadership bench, action is in short supply. 

Research shows that just one in 16 people in management positions are from an underrepresented background, compared to one in 10 in the workplace and one in 8 of the working-age population. Indeed, when it comes to a lack of diverse leadership, failures within succession planning processes are a common cause. 

In part, the issue is because there are fewer diverse candidates able to fill executive roles. But why is this the case? When there’s more parity at entry level, why are organisations losing representation on the way up? Importantly too, if organisations are recognising a shortage of diversity in higher roles, why is succession planning with a distinct focus on DEI still not prioritised?

Problematically, 88% of DEI leaders identified bias within their promotions and/or succession planning, making it the talent process most susceptible to bias.

No one’s opening the door – but sometimes no one’s 'knocking'

It’s common that the inability to effectively fill leadership pipelines with diverse talent is a boardroom issue. An effective succession plan is one that is fully endorsed by leadership teams – yet if these teams don’t recognise they are actively creating a barrier, overcoming the issue can be more complicated.

In many cases, unconscious biases of those in high leadership positions can reinforce norms - it’s common practice, for instance, to hire in their own image or ignore candidates with different backgrounds, skills and schooling experiences. Intentionally or not, this can reduce job opportunities for those further down the ladder.

Uncovering challenges, talent and gaps in diverse groups at all levels of the organisation is essential for effective, long-term succession planning

At lower levels, lack of opportunities can be extremely prohibitive – not only in reducing job opportunities, but decreasing chances for networking and proactively managing careers. When this is blocked or unsupported, far fewer diverse candidates with the right skills and experiences are capable of rising through the ranks for executive positions. The sad reality is that often no one’s opening the door, yet also, no one’s knocking on it.

Failing to look further down the ladder

On the other hand, some organisations are aware of their internal issues and are actively taking steps to handle a lack of diversity in succession plans. It’s essential to bear in mind, however, that if talent teams are looking at succession planning with 3-5 year plans in mind; they are likely to only be assessing layers immediately below the board, with the organisation’s immediate future in mind.

Uncovering challenges, talent and gaps in diverse groups at all levels of the organisation is essential for effective, long-term succession planning. There are several steps organisations can take to ensure that succession plans don’t miss key opportunities to gain much needed diverse talent in leadership roles.

Tackling unconscious bias

Ultimately, tackling unconscious bias within hiring and succession processes is essential to understand and address why previous succession plans have not supported diverse candidates into leadership positions.

Many organisations undertake the first step of overcoming unconscious bias: assessing the areas in which hiring managers may hold prejudices. Yet problematically, unconscious bias testing, without the benefits of subsequent training, doesn’t produce meaningful action or change.

Uncovering perception gaps will enable tailored support to help underrepresented candidates and employees rise through the pipeline

Indeed, training should be an ongoing programme for organisations to adjust ingrained behaviours and deep-rooted values. Adjusting people’s perceptions is not a quick fix and must be endorsed from the top, so that change cascades throughout the business. By starting to overcome unconsciously-biased practices, as well as reviewing policies, organisations can enact wider scale strategies to make succession plans more inclusive.

Understanding barriers, motivations and preferences

From here, understanding the barriers, motivations and preferences of underrepresented groups – as well as how leadership perceives them – will reveal the top areas for improvement.  Assessing where minority groups are in the organisation and whether they’re reaching certain professional levels is the first step. 

Beyond this, uncover what’s blocking potential career moves, as well as preferences for cultural practices, learning and development opportunities and benefits that could support people through their journey. Unearthing leadership’s perspectives on the situations may also reveal gaps in understanding, demonstrating why the needs of underrepresented groups are not yet being met. 

For example, leadership may feel they have a compelling strategy to attract more female talent through organisation-wide family friendly policies and benefits. Yet there may well be individuals for whom this isn’t a primary driver.

These individuals may have other preferences - promotion opportunities, international assignments, higher salaries and bonuses, for instance – so they may not be compelled to take on a new role. Uncovering perception gaps will enable tailored support to help underrepresented candidates and employees rise through the pipeline.

Performing an internal assessment

To uncover these trends, challenges and employee preferences, perform an internal assessment. HR can gather talent intelligence from a range of sources even if they don’t have a specific Talent Insights (TI) team. Beyond traditional people data, having daily conversations with employees and candidates can uncover practical and cultural needs, while marketing and customer knowledge teams may also have revealing market research. 

While there are clear moral imperatives to do so, leaders often look for the commercial benefits

Look too at cross-sectional data between departments, departmental managers and hiring managers. Do they have the correct DEI and hiring policies in place? Are workforces aware of these policies and procedures? Do they know how to deal with the specific DEI challenges they face? Assessing these areas enables a roadmap to better align succession planning and DEI efforts moving forward and also ensures departments aren’t operating in isolation.

Getting exec buy-in

Ultimately, getting leadership on board with unconscious bias training and changes to succession planning strategies is essential to enact real change.

While there are clear moral imperatives to do so, leaders often look for the commercial benefits. Even if an organisation can’t prove an exact ROI, it’s still worthwhile highlighting DEI’s effect on future customers and investors. Increasingly, they expect organisations to have a position on diversity issues and if talent pipelines aren’t able to supply diverse leadership, they may walk away – with their wallets. 

For the sake of staff and increasingly for company solidity and reputation – as well as talent attraction and retention – organisations must show that supporting diverse talent into influential executive roles is paramount.

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