What Good Looks Like


A Case Study on LinkedIn

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.

Originally published in Huffington Post here.

A Case Study On Creating Inclusive Teams

In the past decade organizations have invested significant resources to try to address the gender gap in senior management. But these efforts aren’t really working. Women account for just 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs and fewer than 15% of corporate executives at top companies worldwide. The only area where women pull ahead of men is in human resources, where they account for 71% of all HR managers. The initiatives adopted by organizations to advance women tend to include mentoring programs, networking, coaching, increased maternity leave, child care benefits, and flexible work options. These efforts, and the tens of millions of dollars spent on them, are treating symptoms. Real diversity efforts require organizations to address the social patterns that stifle women’s careers, not just the symptoms that result from them. Like many failed organizational changes, current approaches to diversity and inclusion run into the brick wall of the status quo. To change that status quo, organizations need to radically rethink their approach to diversity and focus on ways to mainstream diversity and inclusion in local team practices. Organizations can identify new ways of changing the social system surrounding how work is done by addressing three factors.

Focus on Local Practices

The ways in which people work is a local problem, as are the ways they discriminate. Despite standard operating procedures and global norms, people create local patterns everywhere they work, and these local patterns define work more strongly than centralized initiatives. The gender pay gap provides an example of localized bias. According to a 2016 study in Australia, the gender pay gap is influenced by a number of interrelated factors, including stereotypes and socialized norms about how women and men should behave in the workforce. These factors often crop up in the social system of work (e.g., the kind of work we do with our direct colleagues). Local teams define socialized norms and create their own stereotypes of who the A players are; in aggregate, these local practices significantly undermine diversity efforts. These local teams maintain and enforce ways of working that are beyond the purview of corporate policy and initiatives but are fundamental to enabling how work is really done. Local teams would never overtly describe themselves as biased against diversity, but when you look at how they approach work and what they do socially and day-to-day, they are. Edith Cooper, the global head of human capital management at Goldman Sachs, shared her experience: “People frequently assumed I was the most junior person in the room, when in fact, I was the most senior. I constantly needed to share my credentials when nobody else had to share theirs.” Because of deeply localized assumptions, teams inadvertently perpetuate the status quo and marginalize women in daily interactions. On their own, these interactions are imperceptible; in aggregate, they are exhausting to anyone of “difference” in an organization. Instead of combating these problems through mass centralization, organizations serious about diversity and inclusion need to reorient to mass localization. What are the levers you can pull to get teams to localize a focus on diversity and inclusion into their day-to-day interactions and expectations of one another? The answer is not merely a program or a set of posters on the wall; it’s an understanding of how the organization works at its most local level.

Keep Communication Open

Organizational norms are very powerful. A simple program of teaching inclusion tactics can have little hope in the face of a wall of conformity. As an example, most organizations aspire to use “flexible work” programs, including flexible hours, working from home, and the like, as a means to address diversity. But they rarely work. For flexible programs to succeed, organizations need to rethink a range of functional rhythms that are biased against them: talent processes that reward face time, structures that don’t support meaningful flexible roles, and team practices that fail to allow virtual workers to meaningfully contribute to direction. While policies and habits like these don’t intend to discriminate, in the aggregate and in their application, they do. To overcome problems like these, organizations need to create ways for local teams to talk about different experiences at work and what drives them. A single mother with two children experiences the policies and procedures of an organization fundamentally differently than a married middle-aged man. Diversity and inclusion efforts need to attack the inherent systemic biases and assumptions that come into play millions of times a day, in very localized ways, and that are inadvertently supported by legacy policies and procedures. In many ways, organizations are collections of disconnected dialogues that share a set of assumptions about what to fear and what to value. Built 26 into these dialogues are significant biases. Organizations need to enable very different types of dialogue so that local teams can change themselves and reshape how policies affect their members.

Examine Your Own Assumptions

A systemic approach to diversity and inclusion begins with leaders recognizing that they are part of the problem. Brett (not his real name) was the CFO of a major multinational. He was sensitive, smart, and thoughtful, and seemed unlikely to succumb to the biases built into the system. But he did. Brett was discussing a talented woman in his organization while reviewing questions as part of the organization’s talent process. “She doesn’t seem to dedicate the extra time that some of her peers do; she frequently needs to leave early to pick up her children,” he said. Was he right? Possibly, but the entire talent system was biased against this woman. Simply by following the protocol of the system, Brett had derailed and handicapped one of his best performers. The hard-wired bias of organizations is something that senior leaders need to become attuned to if they are going to impact their diversity performance. Senior leaders send strong messages with whom they pick for advancement and how they pick them; unless they are deeply focused on sending messages with these decisions, they will perpetuate the status quo. Leaders who are serious about driving inclusion need to audit essential hiring, evaluation, and promotion processes and actively drive out any biases. As important, they need to realize that they themselves cast big shadows on these issues, and if they are not deeply mindful of their impact, they will reinforce the status quo in a myriad of ways. Rather than creating stand-alone programs, leaders need innovative ways to embed inclusion in their social system. Until organizational leaders have the bravery to take a holistic look at diversity and inclusion and understand their true drivers, we’ll be stuck with half-day workshops. And as we all know, a half-day workshop just won’t cut it.


Originally published in Harvard Business Review here.