Leadership rule #2: Diversity and inclusion are not optional

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This is the second article in a 10-part series on what it means to lead effectively in the 21st century. Read the whole series here.

There was a time when you could pay lip service to the importance of diversity, promote a token minority or two into management and otherwise ignore the issue entirely, yet still be lauded as a great and transformational leader. That time has passed.

If you want to be a great leader in the 21st century, diversity and inclusion are not optional.

I don't just mean you can't afford to ignore the ample evidence showing that diverse teams foster more innovation, make better decisions and are overall more profitable. I mean that even if you did want to ignore all the research-based arguments for diversity and inclusion (which would be a very bad idea), you don't get to ignore the moral imperative.

You don't get to occupy your position of privileged, salaried comfort and look down on people who didn't have access to the same opportunities you had. You don't get to boast about "meritocracy" when your company systematically excludes large swaths of people from advancing. You don't get to complain about a lack of diverse job candidates when you only source from Stanford and the Ivy Leagues. And you don't get to treat diversity as a matter of checking off boxes while doing nothing to address the underlying structures and privileges that got us here in the first place.

In the 21st century, this is not what it means to lead. 

Real leadership means being unafraid to tackle hard problems without obvious solutions. It means having the moral backbone to do the right thing, even when it is not the fastest or easiest or most popular thing. It means having brutally honest conversations about where we are now, how we may benefit from a system that oppresses others and how leaders in particular can use our positions of privilege to advocate for greater fairness and justice.

Above all, real leadership means recognizing that there is no rising tide unless we are that rising tide.

A management philosophy called radical candor--which author and entrepreneur Kim Scott describes as "the ability to Challenge Directly and show you Care Personally at the same time"--has been catching on in leadership circles this past year. In-the-know leaders fawn all over it as a way to build trust and collaborate more effectively. That doesn't go far enough. 21st century leaders must be willing to look in the mirror and apply some radical candor to their own organizations' roles in perpetuating exclusion and inequality.

So let's have a radically candid conversation about diversity and inclusion. Let's talk about what it would really take to remake organizational cultures so that they break down, rather than uphold, barriers of privilege.

I'll go first.

  • Eliminate the Bachelor’s degree as a blanket precondition for employment.
  • Get rid of unpaid internships.
  • Do a salary review for everyone on your team. Immediately fix unjustifiable pay inequities. Then implement pay transparency so it never happens again.
  • Offer full benefits to part-time employees.
  • Ruthlessly examine your own biases. Go beyond the obvious. For example, age, weight and class discrimination are rampant, yet far too often, they go unchallenged.
  • Radically rethink your hiring strategy. Rely less on LinkedIn and your existing network. Instead, look at job fairs, community colleges, night school programs, non-profit outreach programs and minority professional groups. I can personally recommend YearUp.
  • Actively recruit people with stigmatizing work histories, i.e. long employment gaps, criminal records, stints of homelessness, addiction struggles, you get the idea. You just might find they become some of your best employees.
  • Hold company leaders accountable for diversity and inclusion goals. Add them to the company dashboard along with sales, marketing, product and all your other business goals.
  • Implement paid family leave. Make it safe to actually take it.
  • Embrace remote work and flexible schedules. Again, make it safe to actually take advantage.
  • If you're a startup, offer your employees the same preferred stock options that you offer to investors, even if that means less financial gain for you.
  • Survey employees anonymously, and ask them three things: 1) How well does your work support your ability to live your life? 2) How often do you feel valued, respected and welcomed at work? and 3) What else could we be doing to ensure that all employees can be at their best while they're here? 
  • Take harassment seriously. Don't minimize or dismiss complaints. Do investigate them respectfully and fairly. Employees have a right to feel safe at work.
  • Thank your employees. Thank them often and genuinely. They're the ones who are keeping you in business, after all.
  • Take a leaf out of Dan Price's book and pay every employee at your company at least $70k per year.
  • As a leader, speak out against inequality and unfairness when you see it. Use your privileged position to advocate for those less fortunate than you in your company and your community.

Set the example. Whether you're a new manager or the CEO, show the rest of your team that you practice what you preach. Embrace a flexible schedule yourself. Go out of your way to source candidates from non-traditional backgrounds. Hold other leaders accountable for the standards you wish to set. In other words, be the rising tide.

If these suggestions sound hard, unpopular and politically risky, well, they are.

They will make a lot of people angry and uncomfortable. At some companies, they might even get you fired. That's why great leadership in the 21st century demands a tremendous amount of courage.

Start where you are, do what you can and trust that your actions matter.

It won't be easy, but it's the only path to lasting change. Even (especially) if your company is filled with dysfunction, one person's ability to rise even slightly above it can make a huge difference in the lives of other people.

You don't have to do it all, but do something. Doing nothing is not an option.