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15 Apr. 2013 | Comments (0)

While helping an executive team initiate succession planning, I asked the group to identify the leadership competencies they would use to select top talent for future roles in senior leadership. Almost immediately, this team agreed that self-confidence was paramount. When I asked them to describe self-confidence, this group of North American, white, male executives said that they knew self-confidence when they saw it, and they were certain it was critical for the future leadership of their global organization. 

I had concerns about how their interpretation of the competency “self-confidence” might disparately impact the opportunities of different members of their diverse, global talent to be selected and developed as successors. So, I began posing questions to the group aimed at challenging and reshaping their perspectives.

If you consider national cultural norms, might self-confidence generally look different between a U.S. employee and a Chinese employee?

These leaders said that U.S. employees generally would demonstrate self-confidence by making assertive, direct statements about individual accomplishments. In contrast, Chinese employees generally would demonstrate self-confidence in a humble, indirect way that focused on team achievements. After some discussion, the executives understood that they would have to expand their perception of what self-confidence looks like to make sure they would not overlook talent from all parts of the world. 

Generally, might self-confidence look different between Baby Boomer talent and Gen Y talent?

Among the several differences noted were that Baby Boomer employees generally demonstrated confidence with more formal attire, a ‘power suit’ that conveyed their status and confidence. On the other hand, Gen Y employees, confident in the substance of their work and the quality of their capabilities, were comfortable in more casual attire at work. After discussing other typical generational differences, the executives decided again to expand their understanding of the ways self-confidence could be demonstrated so that they would include top talent from all generations. 

Generally, might self-confidence look different between men and women? 

These leaders came to the conclusion that generally, men would be more proactive and more comfortable promoting themselves than women. The leaders also discussed their observations of how men tend to oversell their abilities compared to women, and are more likely to demonstrate body language predominantly associated with confidence in Western societies. They noted that women spend less time promoting themselves and their accomplishments, and more often needed to be asked to share self-promotional information. The leaders also had observed that women tend to be less likely to demonstrate power poses associated with confidence, and so on. Women, they observed, tend to demonstrate self-confidence in less explicit ways that often focused on the accomplishments of their direct reports or colleagues. Once again, the discussion led to an expanded sense of the different ways that people demonstrate self-confidence. 

These executives did not change their minds about including self-confidence as a criterion for leadership potential. However, by broadening their understanding of how diverse segments of employees might demonstrate leadership competencies differently, the executives altered how they defined self-confidence (and all the other criteria ultimately selected). They also broadened their capacity to recognize different ways the criteria were demonstrated.  In making these shifts, these leaders changed the underlying structure of how talent was selected for future leadership in a way that interrupted the pattern of selecting a more homogenous group just like themselves. The result of this more inclusive approach was broader diversity selected for leadership development, and broader diversity actually promoted into senior leadership over the following 3 years.

This was not the typical programmatic approach to D&I to ‘fix’ Chinese employees or Gen Y employees or female employees to fit into the way the mainstream leaders behaved. Instead, this integrated approach was based on fixing the criteria and the way that the succession process worked to naturally enable more inclusion.

Integrating inclusion into the system meant that inclusion was not dependent upon individual awareness, skills, and motivations, and it wasn’t subject to the typical backlash associated with broadening diversity in leadership succession. By naturally blending inclusion into the succession planning system, D&I was not seen as an add-on, or a time-consuming distraction. In contrast to more traditional approaches to diversifying succession plans, this approach also avoided perceptions of quotas and realities of token representation.  

This approach led to more inclusive and diverse succession plans resulting in more balanced leadership representation and a blend of more complementary leadership styles making the most of diversity and inclusion. Moreover, these inclusive competencies spread to impact all major systems within larger Human Resources systems because the company also began to use the more inclusive competencies in their recruitment processes, performance management, learning and development, rewards and recognition, and more. 

What questions are you asking your leaders to help make your systems more naturally inclusive?


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  • About the Author: Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele is a senior fellow providing diversity & inclusion (D&I) expertise for The Conference Board. She serves as program director for both the Diversity & Inclusion Executives and…

    Full Bio | More from Rebekah Steele


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