Article · 5 minute read

Pinpointing Potential: Improving Diversity in Pipelines

How can we build and maintain diversity in our leadership pipelines?

By Hannah Mullaney 20th May 2022

In 2021, the CBI said progress had been ‘painfully slow’ in making executive boards more diverse and that firms needed to set ‘clear and stretching targets’ to improve diversity.

In the second of our Pinpointing Potential series, we spotlight the common pitfalls in building more diverse leadership pipelines and how to overcome them.

To improve the diversity of leadership pipelines for a new world of work, we need to look at who is identifying individuals as ‘high potential’. Most nominations onto leadership development programs involve the manager. Over half of the organizations in a recent Saville Assessment survey relied on ‘manager-only’ nomination, with just 7% saying they used self-nomination alone.

The trouble with this is that managers can often struggle to effectively identify potential. This is not just something we hear about from clients; we have seen it in our own research too. The reasons are multi-faceted but unconscious bias is one of the most problematic.

Where there is no structure, rigor or objectivity in an assessment process, you might be creating a breeding ground for bias. The similar-to-me bias is probably the most rampant. Leaders and managers identify those similar to them as high potential. This is not only likely to be inaccurate, it results in a pipeline of ‘mini-mes’, seriously lacking in any diversity.

Even if you think you are being objective, the chances are that you aren’t. In her book ‘Invisible Women’, Caroline Criado Perez references how research shows that the more you believe you are objective and not sexist, the less objective and more sexist you are likely to be. Incidentally, Daniel Kahneman also found that interviewer confidence is not a predictor of interview effectiveness. These are challenges that will spill into promotion and potential identification processes too. Moreover, research suggests that evaluation also tends to favor the dominant group – usually white, cis, able-bodied males in many organizations, or at least at the levels where these decisions are being made.

Criado Perez also cites a study looking at performance reviews in US tech companies (N=248) that found how differently men and women can be evaluated. First of all, the study found that women were more likely to receive negative feedback than men.

Secondly, the language used in feedback provided to men and women was strikingly different. Words and phrases used in feedback for women were: “watch your tone”, “step back”, “bossy”, “abrasive”, “strident”, “aggressive”, “emotional”, “irrational”. Of all of these words, only “aggressive” appeared in men’s reviews, and in two cases the messaging was suggesting that the individual should be more so.

See the theme emerging? Left to their own devices, without tools that systemize, structure and objectify the decision-making processes, manager-nominated approaches to potential identification may never conquer the diversity gap. It is time to start doing things differently.

So why aren’t more organizations opting for a self-nomination approach? Talking to Talent teams, hesitation seems to come from the hypothetical equation of increased opportunity and transparency equaling more rejection and disengagement. It could also be argued, though, that opportunity never being made available to all is just as disengaging, as people simply feel overlooked.

Self-nomination isn’t a silver bullet; ‘You can’t be, what you can’t see’ and if people don’t see themselves represented higher up in the organization, they are unlikely to put themselves forward. But used alongside the right assessment tools, it is a step on the road to improving D, E & I outcomes in leadership pipelines.

Key Take-Aways

Invite, Include, Involve
Making development programs available to all should organically create opportunities for a wider and more diverse talent pool. This will also help to engender a more inclusive culture which our employee experience research shows is a key driver of retention and building a high-performance employee experience. Involving more diverse participants can also show broader alignment to wider career tracks across the organization.

Educate, Equip, Energize
Take managers on the journey with you. This may require educating them on the process as they may have blind spots about what potential looks like, causing people in their team to be overlooked. Equipping them with the tools and insight to look beyond their traditional viewpoint can energize them to engage in something new.

Fairness, Flexibility, Feedback
Ensure you are using a well-researched, data-driven solution for identifying potential that has been fairness tested and is underpinned by uncompromising reliability. Whilst there are key characteristics for predicting potential, in our first article we discussed the benefits of flexibility to capture organizational nuances. Finally, ensure your program can offer meaningful development to all. You have a core group of willing talent who you want to remain engaged and accelerate to being ready talent in the future.

How Can We Help?

Wave-i  is an end-to-end solution for strategically identifying and developing emerging talent and leaders. It offers a new way of measuring potential, aligned to your organizational needs, to accurately reveal the types of career or leadership roles individuals will thrive in. 

This new solution has been shortlisted for ‘Innovation of the Year’ at the 2022 Firm Awards.

To find out more and sample the tool for yourself, please complete the form below.

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