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Opening Doors for Others

I believe that we are here for each other, not against each other. Everything comes from

an understanding that you are a gift in my life— whoever you are, whatever our differences.

John Denver

Opening doors for Others is an essential job for any leader. Unfortunately, too often, leaders don't treat everyone equally. They have a tendency to promote people who are just like them in gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disposition. It's just plain easier to develop a common bond and kinship with people who look, talk, act, and think like you do. It's also just plain dangerous.

While gravitating toward members of one's own tribe is understandable, if leaders surround themselves with duplicates, cliques form, groupthink takes over, and the people least like the leader—called Others in this chapter— get resentful and restless. When leaders exclude Others, they
also exclude the varied perspectives and ideas that could help the leaders make better and more imaginative decisions.

Who are these Others the leaders are excluding? Anyone who doesn't fit the predominant profile of the folks at the top—people from outside the dominant tribe.

The vast majority of senior leaders across nearly all organizations in the United States and Europe are white men. That's not an indictment; it's a fact. The challenge is that it's not natural for white, male leaders to open doors for women, blacks, other non-whites, people with disabilities, or homosexuals. Excluding these Others from the top ranks likely has less to do with duplicity or racism (at least consciously), than it does with obliviousness and ignorance. Yet the impact is the same. Qualified people don't get a fair chance to succeed, which harms both them and the organization.

Them's Not Like Us

Many leadership-development programs focus on nextlevel leaders and are designed to develop the bench strength of the folks who will someday be running the organization—high-potential successors. The best of these programs involve a rigorous intake process: bosses nominate program candidates, who then complete surveys and assessments before they audition for inclusion in the program. But regardless of how objective and rigorous the intake process is, the selected candidates often resemble
the very people who nominated them in the first place— their leaders. When this happens—and it happens a lot— the most senior leaders would be wise to cast a wider net to include less obvious high-potential candidates. Otherwise they are in danger of replicating themselves and losing the advantages that a differing perspective can yield.

To be clear, most leaders are not consciously racist or bigoted. In fact, my experience working with many leaders has been largely the opposite. Most are decent, ethical people who simply default to creating duplicates at the top. They just need a lot of reminders—from shareholders, advocacy groups, outside consultants, and so on—to include Others. Including less-obvious candidates during the screening process lowers the risk of missing a talented gem who could have shined as a leader.

Open-Door Leaders Create Opportunities for Women

Without active and intentional support from leaders, especially white male leaders, the opportunity landscape for Others is much smaller and restricted. For example, according to a 2009 White House Project Report on benchmarking women's leadership, women make up roughly 52 percent of the labor market worldwide. However, they only account for about 18 percent of top leadership positions across industry sectors in the United States. This is despite the fact that almost 90 percent of the general public consistently reports being comfortable having women in
top leadership roles. What makes this disparity particularly troublesome is that according to a recent, although controversial, study of 7,280 leaders conducted by Zenger Folkman and featured in the Harvard Business Review article, “Are Women Better Leaders Than Men?,” women often outperform their male counterparts in top-level jobs. The study suggests that any organization that cares about profits and performance would be well served to include more women at the top.

To be sure, women have made great strides in cracking the proverbial glass ceiling. Twenty-three women (4.6 percent) hold CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies, including Virginia Rometty at IBM, Mary Barra at GM, and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo. But while the glass ceiling isn't as thick as it used to be, it still exists. History suggests that women will not be able to fully dismantle the ceiling by sheer force of will and talent without the active contribution and cooperation of male leaders. The reality is that men largely hold the keys to the boardroom and C-suite. So if they aren't actively creating opportunities for women—a very large group of Others—male leaders run the risk of becoming opportunity obstructionists.

One difference between men and women at work is that a man can climb the corporate ladder based on hard work, ambition, and merit, with very few obstructions. There's almost nothing stopping him if he's effective enough. Women can demonstrate all these attributes and still find diminishing opportunities as they progress, through no
fault of their own. At some point, it is likely, a woman might not get any farther without a man opening a door for her. This isn't paternalism. I am not suggesting that women are weak damsels who need men to rescue them. I am suggesting that by being overly attentive to their own tribe, male leaders routinely, and often unconsciously, obstruct opportunities for women by treating them as Others.

Being an open-door leader means giving special attention to opening doors for people who are not like you. Fortunately there are some positive role models to follow. According to the USA Today article, “Often, Men Help Women Get to the Corner Office,” Andrea Jung, the former CEO and current board chair of Avon, credits James Preston, her predecessor, with opening the C-suite door to her. During her first interview with James, she noticed that there was an interesting plaque behind his desk. It bore four footprints: an ape, a barefoot man, a wingtip shoe, and a highheeled shoe. Its title was “The Evolution of Leadership.”

Andrea is not alone in being an Other who benefitted from the progressiveness of an open-door leader. According to a survey mentioned in the same USA Today article, 33 out of 34 female CEOs mentioned a man when asked to identify the mentor who had the most influence on their career. Interestingly, most of these men have daughters. Greg Palmer—mentor of Jill Ater, founder of a company called 10 till 2—explained to USA Today that, “Having daughters, seeing fi their struggles, fears and dreams, it makes it easier to relate to other women and their struggles, fears
and dreams.” Greg has three daughters, which seems to be a factor in his efforts to make the Other less “other.”

 
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