The law is unequivocal, the moral imperative is even clearer. With our country’s history, we need to reflect the broader society we are operating in and yet far too many senior executives pay lip service to it.
Their argument is that there is no one competent of colour to do the job. When that fails, they’ll say they don’t have time to create an environment for people who don’t look like them, talk like them, or even watch different sport than them, fit in. When forced, they’ll appoint people of colour but do nothing to ease their onboarding into the organisation’s culture.
It’s particularly difficult walking into a boardroom when everyone else looks the same – but different from you. It’s exhausting trying to fit in – or be heard. It’s totally demoralising trying to juggle the different roles of C-Suite executive, mother, wife and caregiver in an environment where the only off duty challenge for everyone else is deciding on your tee-off time at the golf course.
What those companies are doing is setting these candidates up to fail – or leave as soon as they get a better offer. The heads of these kinds of companies don’t care, they didn’t want them there in the first place. But it’s not just one-way traffic, I’ve seen black CEOs refuse to consider black candidates because they thought they were just too inexperienced, little remembering that once they were in exactly the same position before someone gave them a chance.
I’ve seen the pendulum swing to the other side too, with other black CEOs refusing to appoint white candidates, because they were too white and too old, even though they were streets ahead of all the other candidates on the shortlist – and could be a critically important mentor for young black professionals. Instead, those CEOs dig their heels in and opt for the candidate of their choice, who will be black and have less experience, even if that decision comes at a cost to their companies.
And that’s precisely the point. There’s a benefit to diversity and equity that goes so far beyond simply ticking statutory boxes, it’s about CEOs being brave enough to test themselves, to shatter their echo chambers and, even, get out of their comfort zone by employing people who will be good for their companies rather than coddle their egos.
It starts by being brave enough to admit that you’ve got a problem with diversity and then finding a way to address that. Simply saying there isn’t a good enough candidate doesn’t cut it. There are plenty of good enough candidates if they are given the chance. Twenty-five years ago, there were no women in front line roles in the SANDF; today there are fighter pilots, submarine officers, paratroopers and combat infantry battalion commanders in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are there because they were given the opportunity to grow into those roles.
South African rugby has a black African Springbok captain who has won a Rugby World Cup and an even rarer British and Irish Lions series. Rassie Erasmus had the foresight to choose Siya Kolisi and then to surround him with the necessary structures to enable his natural leadership skills to come to the fore. Today, no one thinks anything of it.
As the father of our nation Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela famously said, “It always looks impossible until it is done”. But, by the same token, it has to get done; the process has to begin. By allowing ourselves to be stretched and to be challenged makes us better leaders, but it also creates better teams. If we have learnt anything from Covid-19 crisis, it is that there is no playbook for what we have experienced and especially not a road map to navigate us safely out of it.
On the contrary, we have seen that the old normal is gone – forever. This is an era of collaboration, literally of two – or more – heads being better than one. It’s a time when things that worked for us in the past are no guarantee of saving us now, in fact they might be the reason we crash and burn even faster and more catastrophically. So why don’t we cast our nets wider and start looking for people who can actually take our companies to the next, post-pandemic, level?
It doesn’t have to be at the very top either, although it helps the process incredibly to have strong ambassadors of your commitment to transformation and equity. The real process of diversity management starts much lower down and takes time and commitment, not lip service. When it’s done properly, companies really do, like Siya’s Springboks, become world beaters, with a tangible impact on the bottom line, a happy and loyal staff and a satisfied client base. It’s difficult to argue against that rationally but fear, like blind prejudice, is irrational.
As we replace the blind fear of the greatest public health crisis in living memory with the knowledge that we can overcome this successfully, it’s long overdue that we do the same with equity and diversity. When we do that and unlock the true potential that lies within this country, the sky is the limit to what we can achieve.