White Men Can Increase the Diversity of Executive Leadership in One Move

by Julie Graber | on 8 Sep 2020

One of the places where diversity has been missing in action is at the executive level in most companies. In most cases, if there is a woman or person of color serving as an executive officer, it is typically in a staff (vs. line) position. As we’ve covered before, these positions are unlikely to lead to the CEO spot or a board appointment.

There’s an easy way to fix this.

Succession planning.

We could drive diversity metrics off the chart if every white male executive officer/senior leader would develop a succession plan for his position that would fill his role with someone different - someone whose identity doesn’t match his own. 

Maybe it’s not his immediate successor, but companies serious about tackling the lack of diversity and inclusion in their organization need to start at the top - they need to plan now by identifying diverse individuals in the line of succession for executive leadership positions. Once those people are identified, companies need to nurture them. These individuals need sponsors, they need the opportunity to build a network with senior leadership, and they need have access to the development opportunities that will give them the skills and experience they need for the role. 

This is not as simple as identifying your “high potential” group - I’m talking about specifically identifying one or two candidates who are in direct line to an executive officer role who will bring diversity to the executive team (even someone outside of the organization).* 

And let's state this for the record: this approach will not result in less qualified candidates moving through the pipeline.

I’ve said it before, and there is research that documents it: women and people color (any diverse individual) who advance through the pipeline - who capture the attention of the leadership team - are typically more qualified than their white, male, counterparts. As Rainbow Murray, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London has noted, the overall quality of a slate of candidates is in fact negatively affected when most candidates are drawn from a more narrow pool of candidates (i.e. white men) than necessary. Being purposeful about including diverse candidates, Murray says, would result in an increased use of merit by ensuring “proper scrutiny” of all candidates and improvements to the criteria used to evaluate candidates.

White men are only 35% of the entry-level hires into professional positions overall but 68% of the individuals who eventually end up holding executive positions (McKinsey/LeanIn research). There’s one thing everyone in those roles who are truly committed to addressing the systemic bias and discrimination that got them to where they are today. 

You can drive diversity by making sure you eventual replacement is someone whose identity doesn’t match your own.

Drive diversity through succession planning.


*The same approach can be used by boards that lack diversity. Identify someone who can take your board role who would bring additional diversity to the table (and I’m not talking about “diversity of thought.” That’s doublespeak for “another white guy”).

Tags:  By The NumbersSystemic Bias