A strong organization is like an orchestra—individuals play different instruments and hum different tunes, but in the end all of the divergent melodies converge in a harmonious, multi-layered way. By helping all members of the group develop their particular skills, an organization creates a symphony of talented, energized people offering widely varying perspectives even as they work toward a common goal.
How do you foster such sustainable diversity in your work force? Start—and finish—with creating a "true" meritocracy, where employees are encouraged to develop as individuals, rather than strive to fit a particular mold. If employees believe that through quality hard work they can succeed in an organization, then they will be attracted to, and more likely to stay at and succeed within, that organization. At first blush, this solution may sound simple, but creating a true meritocracy takes work by management and employees.
Employers should keep in mind that what attracts diverse professionals to their organization in the first instance might not ultimately be the same thing that keeps them there. When a young diverse professional joins an organization that they know values their background and life experiences, they are empowered to focus their attention on doing good work rather than conforming to a particular mold. But when those same individuals reach a point in their career when they begin to contemplate their professional futures at that organization, they want to know that they will be awarded and respected for their hard work.
I have always been fortunate to work for companies and firms in which there was a strong culture of meritocracy. In fact, at one point in my career, I stopped asking myself what it meant to be a woman in the law or in finance. Such questions, I realized, were inconsequential. If I went to work every day and did my best, I would get the full support of my managers—they did not care if I was a woman, a man, or a Martian!
Of course, many managers may believe that their firm is already a meritocracy and wonder why they are seeing such high attrition rates from professionals with diverse backgrounds. I believe the answer lies in the way firms navigate the career development of their employees.
Obviously, individuals must have a personal stake in their careers and assume responsibility for seizing opportunities as they arise. However, senior management also has an obligation to consistently demonstrate to these young professionals that they have the full backing of the firm. Professionals—particularly those in junior to mid-level positions—need to feel that if they are talented in their field and work hard, they can be successful. They need to feel they have a meaningful opportunity to ascend to the firm’s senior management, and that the perspective they bring—whether derived from culture, gender, or otherwise—is interwoven into the fabric of the firm. These employees should get a strong message that their superiors are rooting for them and creating opportunities that will facilitate their success. After all, there are few forces more motivating than the full support of one’s boss.
Providing employees with consistent and constructive feedback is an integral part of this process. If the individual does well, the supervisor should recognize that success and seek ways to augment it while involving the individual in that discussion. At the same time, it is incumbent on managers to pay attention to the unique skills of their employees, so that those employees can be placed in the assignments that make the best use of their abilities. If a person fails to meet or barely meets expectations, a manager should first examine his or her own role in the matter. Were the expectations reasonable? Were they well-communicated? Did the individual have the resources (including access to the manager) to perform the task? Is more training needed? Is the person better suited to a different project?
Mentorship is an outstanding forum for achieving such insights. A great mentor understands that one size does not fit all, and takes the time to pinpoint what makes his or her protégé tick. The mentors that remain prominent in my mind are the ones who helped me think about my career as a whole. They had the ability to listen deeply and a keen understanding of my skills.
An organization that fails to recognize the individual strengths of its diverse employees is like an orchestra that performs only one note. If everyone in a company saw each challenge from the same vantage point, the team would not be very dynamic. But when each “player” is challenged and inspired to succeed, they will be more likely to stay and contribute to the group’s harmony.