5 Steps for Ensuring Diversity in the Leadership Pipeline

A recent study found unintentional discrimination in succession planning in two-thirds of the responding companies.

By Martin Lanik, Ph.D.

Diversity in leadership helps organizations grow and develop at a faster rate than leadership with no diversity. Bringing a broader array of background and experience to the table results in a larger pool of creativity, innovation, and insight. However, women and minorities still face many barriers in attaining leadership roles.

Pinsight’s latest research study, “Repairing the Broken Rung,” focuses on fairness in how organizations identify and prepare the next generation of leaders. To conduct our study, we collected data from 129 organizations that together employ more than half-a-million people and span most industries. We studied how these organizations identify high-potential employees (employees who show potential for a leadership role) and select successors for executive positions. We found that men are three times more likely to be identified as high-potentials than their equally capable women colleagues, and we found unintentional discrimination in succession planning in two-thirds of the companies.

As a solution, we have identified five steps organizations can take to ensure fairness in the selection and development of future leaders. These include:

1. Get the data. Start by obtaining data about your current practices for identifying high-potential employees, emerging leaders, and succession pools. Monitor the balance in these programs with the same rigor you apply to hiring decisions. Calculate adverse impact against any protected group periodically, after talent review cycles or managerial ratings. Review industry trends and best practices, as well as legal cases to ensure you are aware of risks and trends in this space.

2. Roll out bias training for all. Bias training is a good starting point, but understand that it is meant to increase awareness of the issue, not solve it—you can’t train bias out of people. All humans use biases to save time and energy when making decisions. Training can increase awareness of what biases exist; how they can affect organizational decision-making; and where to look for them in talent reviews, high-potential selection, and succession decisions. Because most people are reluctant to see their own biases, use data from your organization as evidence that even your managers show bias.

3. Turn up the rigor. Apply rigor to your existing processes for identifying high-potential employees and successors across the entire leadership pipeline, from front-line managers all the way to senior executive roles. Examine not just how those decisions are made, but exactly how the processes are executed: Do managers write down names and submit them in a sealed envelope? Or is there a transparent assessment in place? Are nomination criteria clearly defined? Do you have a validated list of the characteristics and attributes needed for employees to access high-potential programs?

4. Identify selection criteria. Formulate the criteria for high-potential and successor selection based on science, and insist that managers use these during the nomination process. What characteristics best predict success in leadership roles at your company? Educate managers on the criteria and what potential performance looks like for future leaders. Use the criteria in the nomination and selection process, and ask managers to provide evidence that their candidates meet the criteria. Communicate the criteria to all employees to reinforce a culture of fair and consistent standards in selection to high-potential programs and succession plans.

5. Introduce blind auditions. Help managers make better decisions by giving them more objective data about employees’ readiness and future potential. Similar to our case study, you can set up a simulation of a leadership role and invite trained assessors who have no prior relationship to the candidates to observe their performance. Seeing all employees in the same standardized situation and using a validated set of criteria, you will arrive at a more objective evaluation of their leadership potential and readiness.

By taking action and implementing these five steps, organizations can move toward practices that are diverse, inclusive, and fair, ensuring that the most capable and most qualified individuals are given a fair opportunity based on their qualifications, potential, and merits rather than unrelated criteria such as gender or race. These practices set standards that are objective and quantifiable, removing subjectivity and human bias. In doing so, organizations can cast out a broader net when identifying high-potential employees while minimizing talent being left on the table.

Martin Lanik is the lead author of “Repairing the Broken Rung: Overcoming Bias in the Leadership Pipeline,” as well as the author of the bestseller, “The Leader Habit.” He serves as CEO of Pinsight, a Denver-based consulting firm that helps companies bring fairness to leader selection, development, and succession. For more information, visit: www.pinsight.com or www.repairtherung.com.

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