One of the common critiques against efforts to advance workplace diversity is that deliberate manipulation of talent management processes to increase numbers based on race, gender, etc. doesn’t always promote worthy candidates.
Instead, diversity critics say the people who are pushed forward for positions are often ill qualified and undeserving. These critics believe that promotions and career advancement opportunities should be granted solely based on merit. I agree – in a perfect world where the playing field is completely level. Of course, we don’t live in that world. But there’s one thing that’s often missing from this particular conversation – potential.
I ran into a tweet yesterday, Sheldon Whitehouse, a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island posted a video clip of Republican @SenJohnKennedy asking one of the President’s U.S. District Judge nominees basic questions of law, and “he can’t answer a single one.” I’m no lawyer, but if Senator Kennedy was, as Senator Whitehouse suggested, asking basic questions about the law that would be directly relevant to the job this candidate, Hon. Matthew Spenser Petersen, would take on as a U.S. District Judge, he seemed extremely inexperienced.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that he was nominated because he showed great passion, fabulous instincts, keen intellect, blah blah blah. He is essentially being offered an opportunity based on his potential. So, that passion and intellect, those instincts might – at least partially – circumvent the gaps in his knowledge or practical experience.
The problem is, that propensity to promote based on potential only works for some people. And frankly, those people are often white and male. Leaders, managers, those who are responsible for identifying high potential talent for promotion or development, are often more willing to bet on certain types of talent.
Other groups are required to prove that they deserve a shot. They have to earn the right to compete, and some of us, despite proving and earning and proving and earning, still don’t get a shot. There’s always something that we need to do before we can reach the next level. The finish line basically gets further and further away, but only for us.
I don’t know this Petersen. But based on that short video, I wouldn’t bit more want him to be a U.S. District judge than the man in the moon – despite his avowed overseeing ability and skill as a decision maker in enforcement matters. But even though I’m left to wonder, why is he even up for this job? I know that I can’t judge him based on a 5:14 video from a social media post.
He could be qualified for any number of reasons, none of which I know or care to speculate about. My point is, let’s not grant some the luxury to not already be the perfect candidate when there’s an opportunity, but not others. Further, let’s not be quick to judge someone’s suitability based on a superficial/limited first impression.
That’s often what happens to minorities who try and fail to be promoted. They could have all the right education, credentials and experience, have improved in all categories 100-fold, but based on one snafu three years before, they will be forever judged as unsuitable, or “lacking in executive presence.” I’ve seen it over and over, and I’ve experienced it myself.
If I could make a call to action, I would say, managers, be aware of who you’re promoting and why. Also, look to see what talent you may be leaving on the table. What criteria are you using to gauge readiness? Is it objective, subjective, objective for some, subjective for others? I think a good rule of thumb is that you should have both kinds of data at hand, and any decisions you make along this line should be defensible. If they aren’t, there may be something hinky going on. And for hinky, I want you to read unconscious bias.
There’s two things I wish the workplace was more amenable to: taking chances on untried talent and being forgiving when that talent doesn’t perform as expected. It is the absolute worst when you finally convince someone to take a risk, things don’t go exactly as planned, and then all risks going forward are forever shut down. Or, you’re penalized for daring to take a chance at all.
Come on. That’s silly, unproductive and reactionary. And when it comes to finding those hidden talent gems, silly, unproductive and reactionary are not valuable descriptors. We often claim to prize innovation, but when it comes to taking a risk on talent we hesitate to the point of atrophy.
As I wrote this blog I kept getting an image in my head of the little engine that could. That little red train was completely underestimated, but he came through in the end because someone believed in him. Then, when the opportunity to shine presented itself, he was able to chug right along and do his thing. I may be remembering that storyline incorrectly – it’s been a minute since I read that book – but y’all know what I mean.
People are no different. Most of us need someone to believe in us. We need someone to have a little faith, be willing to take a risk, and potentially even take a loss or a fall or allow us the space to learn – with dedicated guidance – before giving up and throwing us into the reject pile never to rise again.
As I said, I know nothing about Peterson. I did not research his skills, experience, his background, nothing because when I watched that clip all I saw was a white male being given an opportunity to compete just because he was a white male. And I know in my heart, and from my experiences, that a black woman or a Latino man or any other combination of minority you can think of in the same scenario would not have been given the same latitude.
I could be completely wrong about him. But that quick situational assessment and judgment that I made, neither of which were at all flattering? It happens to minorities all the time. Talent managers and leaders need to think about that, and work out strategies to root out that kind of bias in the systems that seed their various work pipelines.