Last week’s news that President Obama has selected two women to be his nominees to lead two of our nation’s most important agencies put me in mind of a remarkable comment made by the great Dick Parsons at a recent event celebrating Black History Month: “President Obama is a first. And what we need now are more seconds, thirds and fourths.”
Parsons, the former CEO of Time Warner and former chairman of Citibank, is no stranger himself to being a “first,” but he rightly identifies a serious problem in both the political and business world: while there are some very notable bright spots, neither the public nor private sectors look quite like the people they serve, and without a meaningful pipeline of diverse talent, we’re not going to get to our seconds, thirds and fourths.
We have made significant strides in the right direction—not only have we re-elected the nation’s first African-American president, but in 2009, he assembled the most diverse Cabinet in U.S. history. Women are now a record 20 percent of the Senate. But while we congratulate ourselves for the progress we’ve made, we must remember that even these milestones don’t come close to fully reflecting America.
While we may be setting records in Washington, the private sector hardly fares as well. A 2010 study put out by the office of Sen. Robert Menendez found that just one in ten executive managers is a person of color; a 2012 study by Ernst & Young found that women held a scant 14% of board seats at S&P 1500 companies. In the post-recession world, across the business sector and on corporate boards, people of color and women have not only not made gains – they have lost seats.
All too often when I work with Fortune 500 companies, I hear: “We understand the business case for diversity and we’d love to hire more women and people of color, but we cannot find them.” It’s not because they don’t exist; it’s because companies often (and quite understandably) hire within their networks. Unfortunately, lack of diversity is self-reinforcing: in a hiring market where vacancies are few and candidate pools large, it can often take a personal connection to rise above the pack.
But if those networks aren’t diverse, it can be hard to recruit new, more diverse leadership. In research contained in a forthcoming book, The American Non-Dilemma , sociologist Nancy DiTomaso shows how Caucasians use family and friend networks to find the vast majority of jobs they hold over a lifetime—and that such seemingly innocuous networking shuts out people of color and helps perpetuate job market inequities.
Complicating matters further, even once women and people of color make it into mid-level positions in business and public service, they can find it difficult to break through that final glass ceiling which leads to executive suites and boardrooms. Too often, this is because when women and people of color look up, there are few role models and mentors ahead of them, and in the words of Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Additionally, our research has shown that not only do diverse leaders lack access to mentors and sponsors, they often don’t get direct candid feedback from their supervisors. This adds up to a crucial problem: the “unwritten rules” of leadership—those key things that every senior executive should know—have to be learned de novo by women and people of color almost every time.
In almost any case, the barriers future leaders of color and women face are ones that executive leadership development and strategic networking opportunities can help overcome. The organization I lead, the Council of Urban Professionals, is doing just that. Through programs that develop management and leadership tools, mentorship and forums that bring high-level executives and academics to work with emerging leaders, and high impact connection building—what we call “circles of reciprocity”—we are developing a pipeline of diverse leaders for Wall Street, the White House and leading nonprofits, and transforming communities in the process. Our model works: we’ve placed over a hundred new executives and board members, all women or people of color, despite the impact the recession has had on hiring.
What I’d like to see most of all is a day when we don’t need a Council of Urban Professionals—when the training, mentorship and circles of reciprocity we need are built into the very fabric of diverse leadership in this country. Whether we are developing diverse talent on Wall Street or in the White House, we need to ensure that we’re offering women and people of color what they need to advance into positions that traditionally have not been available to them. That’s how we will, to paraphrase Parsons, find our second, our third and our fourth President Obama. That’s how we will build a new generation of leaders who look like the constituents, customers and clients they serve.
Chloe Drew is executive director of the Council of Urban Professionals (CUP), a nonprofit membership organization whose members are leading professionals of color and women from across the private, nonprofit and public sectors.