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A recent headline stated, US Businesses are Going Through the Greatest Change Since the Industrial Revolution. Add to that the social upheaval resulting from the death of George Floyd and its aftermath that blurred into voting rights and the 2020 Presidential election. The global Covid pandemic which led to huge job loss, potentially impacting women and people of color disparately. The “post-pandemic” economy has thousands, if not millions, of open and unfilled entry level jobs across all industries. What are the implications for companies trying to respond to DE&I initiatives? A June 2021 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article entitled, “Research: What Inclusive Companies Have in Common” gives us part of the solution. One of the most significant findings was that they are organizations that emphasize learning. Looking at the selection side of this, what are the implications for companies attempting to fill open positions and still use pre-employment testing to find the “most competent” candidates? What are the implications for companies attempting to use assessments for both selection and development? Could assessments like the Burke Learning Agility Inventory® help companies surface more qualified candidates who may not have had certain specific past experiences but show a strong capability to learn what they don’t currently know, in fact expand the talent pool? Cheng and Groysberg in their HBR article would say resoundingly, yes. This article and the other articles in the November, 2021 edition of the E.A.S.I-Consult® Newsletter will explore the complex issues of DE&I from the perspective of pre-employment testing, individual assessment for selection and development, and how the Burke Learning Agility can provide additional data to enhance the effectiveness of these initiatives.

Several years ago, I was working for a large consumer products company. It was a very successful family-started organization where interpersonal relationships were seen as more important than data. The information age exploded and even this organization could not avoid participating. Based on how far behind they were in this area, they realized that they would need to recruit a senior expert from a Fortune 100 company and a leader in technology to help them catch up. A search was conducted and a Vice President of Information Technology was hired and relocated to our company headquarters. The vision that was described during his interview process was the plan he attempted to implement. For an organization that had used personal interactions and written correspondence to communicate for the last 100 years, the changes this “outsider” was proposing made many senior people very uncomfortable. We all know that discomfort typically leads to resistance or a way to eliminate that discomfort. It was less than a year later that I encountered this person in the company parking garage. He was holding a box of his personal effects. The press release said he had “gone on to pursue other interests.” Everyone knew that the discomfort was such that the company exercised “organ rejection.” The Cheng and Groysberg article would say that this was likely a culture that did not put a premium on learning and resisted differing perspectives, and those voices were silenced, ignored, or neglected.  I have to say that was an accurate depiction of the organization’s culture. The company did eventually enter the digital age. The cost of the “mis-hire” is easy enough to calculate. It would be difficult to quantify the “missed opportunity” cost not to have this capability for several more years. It was known that a competitor of one of our other business units (who was cutting edge technology savvy) knew more about the data in our business than we did.

What is the point of that story, and what does it have to do with DEI initiatives and learning agility? According to Warner Burke, Learning Agility is finding yourself in a situation where you have never been before, not knowing what to do and figuring it out. People who are more learning agile are better able to draw on a greater number of capabilities that allow them to succeed in more situations. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are big issues that many people have been trying to address in companies for several years. Shown in our example of organ rejection, when you are dealing with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, you are talking about changing the status quo. You are talking about winners and losers. You are talking about power and influence. You are talking about giving voice to people who have not had a voice previously. You are talking about putting people in positions of authority who may not share the prevailing point of view. Those are things that come out in sessions on the Burke Learning Agility Inventory. In addition, you are addressing things like Flexibility, Collaborating, Interpersonal, and Performance Risk-Taking.

Equity appears the most easily remedied of the three social challenges (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) that we face in corporate America today. You collect data to determine if you have an issue, the issue’s size, and develop a plan to address that issue. Salesforce realized five years ago that they had a potential equity problem. The VP of HR brought this to the attention of the CEO. He committed to addressing the problem, if one existed. Data were collected. It was determined that they had a $10MM issue. A plan was created to address that issue. The VP HR chose to raise this to the CEO. The CEO was receptive to addressing it, if one existed. The data determined the magnitude of the problem. A plan was created to “fix” the equity issue. Using the dimension of learning agility to describe what happened in this situation, the VP of HR took an Interpersonal Risk and raised this issue with the CEO. They used Information Gathering to determine if a problem existed. The VP of HR and CEO Collaborated on the solution and its implementation. The VP of HR and the CEO demonstrated Performance Risk-Taking by accepting the challenge of this problem and implementing its solution.

Diversity and Inclusion could be seen as different sides of the same coin. Inclusion is the ability to participate in the determination of the priorities, solutions, and process to address issues. Diversity requires the question be asked (measured) as to whether the internal population (company) reflects the external population (society). If you have no women or people of color to choose from, your choices will not ultimately be equitable and inclusive.  How do you address this? Someone once told me you inspect what you expect. The Cheng and Groysberg article talked about Boards of Directors at companies trying to become more diverse, tying executive compensation to diversity goals. I saw this in action when the company I was working for had exponential worker’s compensation costs. This became priority #1. This was the issue that was reviewed at the beginning of every meeting before production and profit. Part of the solution could be something like the Rooney Rule. Rooney was the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers Football Team. He would attempt to address diversity and inclusion at the coaching level for the Pittsburgh Steelers by requiring that any slate for a coaching position include at least one minority. This practice has been adopted by most of the other teams. Over time, that one act has made a significant difference in the number of coaches of color in the National Football League. This was a wise decision considering that people of color represent 75% of the players in the National Football League. That says that there is a pool of candidates to draw from for coaching positions.

The pool is much less bountiful in Corporate America. Twenty percent of senior leaders are women who are 50% of the overall population. The number of people of color, male or female, is infinitesimal. In a study by McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity were 35% more likely to outperform others on profitability. That would indicate that it is not only that diversity equity and inclusion are the right things to do, it also makes good business sense. My good friend Harvey Floyd III who works at Wharton and consults to companies about diversity and inclusion says that if this were easy, companies would already have fixed it. It will likely take at least a generation before most organizations make this their culture. Although Harvey didn’t say this explicitly, it will take that long for current management to retire and people creating this type of culture (Flexibility and Experimenting, Collaborating and a commitment to learning and all that involves) to move into leadership roles.

The problem is currently, the talent to achieve these equity targets does not exist. There will have to be programs created at the collegiate and secondary levels to cultivate that talent. From a learning agility standpoint, it is going to necessitate the drivers of Speed and Flexibility. Flexibility in that we need new frameworks to think about and describe these challenges. Speed in that we need to accomplish what would take generations in 5 years or less. This will require Collaborating, Experimenting, Information Gathering, Interpersonal and Performance Risk-Taking, Feedback Seeking and Reflecting. These are the nine dimensions measured on the Burke Learning Agility Inventory. These are not the solution. They are the means and the framework by which organizations can start discussing and solving these societal imperatives and creating a culture that supports Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

About the Author  

David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for E.A.S.I-Consult®E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.