I was leading a small team in a culturally diverse city in the U.S. when two of my employees asked why all the titled leaders on our leadership team were white.
I was raised in a part of the country that was not culturally diverse, today – nearly a decade after their question 89% of the population in my home state is white and 95% of the county that surrounded the town I grew up in was white. As a result, it was a question I didn’t see coming and one I did not have a good answer for.
Honored that they trusted me enough to ask.
Pondered the team I was responsible for:
- A few whites
- A few blacks
- A few Hispanics
- Both male, female
- With a span of ages on the team that represented 5 different generations.
Reflected on how new team members were hired:
- I had never considered skin color or nationality. Ever.
- No quota’s to fill.
- No strategy to match the culture of my team with my customers.
I consistently looked for people with the skillset for the job, and people that would work well with the team. (And if the skillset was a match but they were obviously not a fit for the team, they were not hired.) And oddly enough the team was a pretty accurate reflection of the percentages of nationalities in our city.
So when I looked at the leadership team and considered their question, I wondered:
- About the quality and variety of the applicants that were being received for those positions. (No doubt there were plenty of qualified people of other nationalities in our city.)
- Was it how those positions were advertised?
- What it where the business was located?
- Was there an intentional prejudice present that I’d never noticed?
- Was it the preference of any previous candidates not to be the first person from another nationality on the leadership team?
- Were there other contributing factors I was missing?
Please don’t misunderstand. I am NOT advocating quotas. As they encourage organizations to hire warm bodies instead of the best talent or the best fit for the team. They also foster laziness and a lack of accountability by those that fit into the required group.
But I do believe that if we are willing to consider uncomfortable questions, there is often an opportunity for leaders to grow and improve.
A few weeks ago, I returned from South Africa and where learned more about the Apartheid System that smothered, separated and limited their people and the potential of their country for more than 50 years.
This is one tiny example from Nelson Mandela’s book that gives a glimpse of how much confusion, pressure, and division Apartheid caused, “Africans were desperate for legal help in government buildings: It was a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the streets past eleven, a crime not to have a passbook, and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live.”
When you dive into history like that, it is natural to look for evidence of change.
As we walked streets in Cape Town and Johannesburg it was clear that the oppression that had killed hopes, dreams, collaboration and synergy for years is gone. People now have the freedom of movement, without passbooks, without limits on where they can live, visit, sit, eat, or who they can be friends with or date.
It has only been 20 years since massive change came to South Africa and change takes time. At the same time teams and cultures will only continue to evolve if everyone is willing to keep asking and answering uncomfortable questions.
Throughout our stay in Cape Town, Johannesburg, on our Safari –we saw more white people in leadership positions, and more black people in entry-level service positions.
And the nagging question in my head and my heart was the one I’d been asked so many years ago… Why were so many of the leadership teams we saw… White? Why were all but one of the guides on our safari white, and all of the trackers black?
…And yes I asked the question, more than once.
My job is to turn over rocks and look at the squiggly things, even if what you see can scare the h_ll out of you.
-Former Pitney Bowes Executive, Fred Purdue