How Businesses Break The Glass Ceiling

Organizations are failing to move the needle on diversity and inclusion. According to LinkedIn research, despite an increase in the number of women hired into leadership positions there is still a significant gap in senior ranks. Women make up just an average of 25% of all leadership positions, globally and account for 18% of CEO positions.

Despite this lagging performance, LinkedIn’s findings indicate that organizations are increasingly talking about the strategic imperative of diversity and inclusion. More than 37% of talent acquisition leaders believe that diversity will be the number one trend defining the future of hiring. These research findings represent an all too familiar tale: the more organizations commit to diversity and inclusion, the further behind they seem to fall.

LinkedIn started like most other companies on the diversity and inclusion trajectory: with functional initiatives, communication and training activities, as well as other efforts that alone did not lead to strong results. But then something changed.

Today, LinkedIn is a story of how quickly impact can be gained in the diversity and inclusion space, if the right levers are pulled. In two years, the Global Solutions team at LinkedIn increased the number of women in Senior Director roles by 44%. LinkedIn’s overall representation of women in leadership roles has jumped from 25% in 2014, to 35% in 2016.

How did they do it? Here are three lessons that every organization can take from LinkedIn’s progress.

Lesson One: To Shift The Status Quo, Leaders Matter

Mike Gamson is the Senior Vice President for LinkedIn Global Solutions. Like most white, male, senior executives, he believed in diversity and inclusion, but in 2014, something shifted.

“If you stopped me five years ago and said, ‘Mike do you think you are doing everything you can to help the company be more successful?’ I would have told you unequivocally, ‘Yes I am doing everything I can’. I was blind to what I was not yet doing. I became one of those guys who unconsciously hired people who looked and spoke and sounded and acted a lot like me”.

Hierarchy matters when it comes to shifting the status quo. LinkedIn’s entire strategy hangs off the moment when Gamson realized how his bias and actions were creating a cycle of gender inequality. Mike’s moment came when a woman on his team decided to confront him during a leadership meeting.

“She said, ‘Hey Mike, do you realize that all the presenters are men?’. And I said, ‘No I am not aware. I chose those people because those are all the people running our departments and it is about the department heads being on stage.’ And she said, ‘That’s my point. That is the problem’”, says Gamson.

It was in this moment that Gamson became acutely aware that he was just ‘one of those guys’ - the white, male, majority leader, who is blind of how they perpetuate the status quo. Most leaders pay lip service to diversity and inclusion. In that moment, Gamson decided to make it a core part of his job.

For Gamson, the first part of solving this was to test awareness of the issue with other white males on his leadership team. This meant sitting down with his leadership team and having a business-centered conversation about how their bias was costing LinkedIn market share. Mike shared his shortcomings on this front, and how he had paid “lip service” to it, without doing anything brave.

The leadership team took Mike’s lead, and started to convene broader conversations with their own teams. This vulnerability began to create a culture that supported employees to share their own first-hand accounts and admissions of error.

Raising awareness is a critical first step, but that is just the beginning. Unlike unconscious bias training, which raises awareness without providing tangible ways to embed insights, Gamson focused on how to use this awareness to drive business ownership of the solutions. The goal at LinkedIn was to disrupt the status quo and break the cycle of individual habits.

One of the leaders of this transformational work is Joanna Pomykala, Vice President of Sales Productivity. She says in order to scale change you have to make it a part of everyday language. “The personal part of this was so real, the authenticity of the dialogue helped people open up, to make the business better rather than sending people off to a training program,” she says.

Lesson Two: Make it A Part Of Everyday Work

This first tranche of work led Gamson’s team to define the end goal, which he says was, “to have a significant number of female leaders at Director level and above.” Once this end goal was clearly defined, leaders partnered with women across the sales organization to develop local tactics.

“I think we were wearing ourselves out patting ourselves on the back for being such enlightened men trying harder. As we looked around, nothing had changed. This is not working. Trying harder is not how you solve a business problem. We engaged the strong women on our team to help architect a solution. That was the birth of WIN (Women’s Initiative) as a leader-driven movement and a program,” says Gamson.

WIN was a business focused initiative with tight metrics and local ownership. There were three pillars identified by these emerging female leaders, as the keys to unlock the benefits of diversity and inclusion. These included hiring practices, investing in women to make them more likely to thrive in senior roles, and developing strategies to affect the ‘culture of men’ in local teams. Each area had tight metrics associated with it.

From a cultural perspective, WIN allowed LinkedIn to create local champions to shift the real dialogues that happen, day-to-day. Hierarchical “support” is necessary, but insufficient, in the battle to shift the status quo. Inclusion happens, or doesn’t happen, in millions of moments every day.

LinkedIn highlighted very specific instances where women experience the culture differently. These everyday moments are where leadership and inclusion really matter. Teams used these experiences to target diversity and inclusion in terms of how people executed their day to day jobs.

For some, this was the revelation. “You have to understand how to demonstrate ‘acts of inclusion’ to make sure when you talk in a room, facilitate a meeting or have one-on-one conversation you are engaging people in ways that doesn’t assume everyone is an extroverted white male. For a sales organization, that can often be a large part of the population” says Pomykala. By focusing on moments of inclusion, local teams materially shifted their day-to-day behaviors.

Lesson Three: Fix Your Plumbing

In pursuit of shifting their status quo, LinkedIn had strong ownership from leaders, and locally embedded tactics, but that wasn’t enough. To realize tangible outcomes, LinkedIn had to face another daunting challenge: Their plumbing was broken. A number of systems and processes had significant bias built into them.

“For many people it feels like you are running uphill in your career, not downhill.” The talent process had a number of unintended biases built into it. Leaders often knew male candidates better, they liked how they acted and thought, and the process often exacerbated these biases.

In every organization, functional processes grow like barnacles on the bottom of a ship. They create their own version of corporate inevitability: budgeting processes, talent processes, procurement processes, and so on. Unwittingly, all of these processes have built-in bias. Businesses have to align their systems to their diversity and inclusion objectives.

As LinkedIn looks to scale their approach across other business units the lesson learnt is that each part of their organization is unique. This is the essence of the LinkedIn approach - to break the glass ceiling businesses need to treat each ceiling as unique and own the solutions at a grass roots level.