BlogWhy Your Leadership Development Programs Are Holding You Back From Creating a Culture of Belonging

April 14, 20220
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Take out a sheet of paper and let’s do a quick reflection. The prompt: who’s on the leadership team in your organization?

Identify each person and consider the following questions:

  • How did they obtain these roles?
  • What were the unsaid “criteria” used to make it into these positions?
  • Were the promotion processes equitable and fair?

For most of you, it’s likely that while you can’t precisely answer all of these questions, you often grapple with the fact that your leadership team looks pretty much the same. I’ll admit it: I was hoping to see more progress around representation over the last couple of years, but sometimes it still feels like we are going backwards, especially when it comes to Black people. For instance, the most recent Fortune 500 board diversity census from Deloitte shows that while white women are seeing more representation, there’s little movement for other underrepresented groups—and Black men actually lost five board seats. This backward trend extends all the way from the C-suite to our approaches to developing emerging leaders on university campuses. College students are still reading the same ole stuff. Take a look at the top 50 bestselling management books and you’ll notice that many of these titles have been in circulation since the late 1980s, racking up a pervasive lead over newer titles written by diverse authors with fresh perspectives.

Why does all this matter? Oftentimes, we forget that one of our most critical organizational practices can tell us everything about our organization’s culture. That practice is leadership development. The reality is that organizations can’t effectively create a culture of belonging without first taking a long and hard look at how they develop leaders. Your leadership development programs are symbolic of your culture is whether you like it or not. So, what are some steps you can take to create more inclusive and equitable leadership programs?

Audit Current Programs and Approaches

The first step is to audit your current leadership programs. If you work in a larger company, audit your programs for diversity or other ideas contained in this article first. Some of you reading this may try to skip past this section because you “don’t have any programs.” That’s simply not true. Whether you call it a program or not, your organization has an approach to leadership development. At Change Coaches we have learned that even very small companies have a leadership development approach. For example, in companies without formal “programs,” that approach often involves tenure. The longer you have been in the company, the more likely you will make it onto the leadership team. What is your approach?

Challenge “Traditional” Definitions of Leadership

As the future of work continues to evolve right in front of our eyes, it’s past time we challenged the definitions of “leadership” that we live and work by. I encourage you to start by reconsidering your own definition of leadership and the values it presupposes. The dominant leadership standard runs on values such as speed, meritocracy, competition, high energy, and relentlessness. But, as I discuss in my book Leading Below the Surface, these concepts are well outdated and don’t represent today’s workplace. Are you still focusing on these dominant standards out of habit? For many folks reading this article, your leadership programs may revolve around these qualities. But the more we continue to operate this way, the more we reinforce the biases that got us to this point in the first place.

Hire Diverse Speakers

Whether you like it or not, the people you choose to speak onstage during employee conferences, retreats, leadership programs, and special events can make a powerful statement about what leadership is expected to look and feel like in your organization. Featuring leaders who are all the same in terms of characteristics such as race, gender, and age may send the message that people from different backgrounds don’t belong in these ranks. Consider approaching a few middle managers with different backgrounds for speaker recommendations, and the next time you have the opportunity to hire external speakers, use the opportunity to bring in diverse speakers from your industry on topics other than diversity and inclusion.

Open Up Opportunities for Advancement

If you offer special programs for “high potential” employees, it’s worth revisiting what “high potential” means and clearly articulating it. When was the last time you had an objective discussion with your team about the qualities and skills that are important for future leaders? How much room for interpretation is there? If your leaders are currently hand-picking individuals for these programs, consider opening them up for applications but, first and foremost, gain consensus on what defines a successful candidate up front.

Update Leadership Program Materials

Books and multimedia materials you use in your programs should represent voices outside the norms of traditional “corporate” leaders. Everyone may not need to “climb the corporate ladder” to be successful. As the research says, hiring people from a unconventional backgrounds has many benefits —  with innovation at the top of the list. Instead of leading a group discussion of Who Moved My Cheese for example, include perspectives from diverse authors that challenge the individualistic narrative of the “rat race.” If you need help finding titles, ask your team what they’re reading or feel free to send me a DM!

I realize that many organizations resist change because what they’ve been doing has worked for them for a long time. But diversifying leadership is only going to become more important as the future of work will bring us even more complexity.. As a former leadership development leader, I have first-hand knowledge of how important this function truly is and this is precisely why I wrote Leading Below the Surface.

If you want to explore how to make your leadership development programs more inclusive, contact me at [email protected]. And, please consider re-sharing this article if you found it useful.

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LaTonya Wilkins. All rights reserved.

LaTonya Wilkins. All rights reserved.