Sample Issue 02

Aug 10, 2020

7 min read
No. 02       Subscribe        09/14/2020

The Filament

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and technology
Contributors: Damon Brown, Simi Shah, Erika Davies

Good morning. With the skies over Silicon Valley tinted orange by flame and the market outlook clouded by FANG stock reversals and counter-reversals, anxiety is in the air and DEI stakeholders are talking about the difficulty of setting aspirational Q4 goals in the context of atmospheric stress. But many goals are likely to remain aggressive despite the difficulties of the moment as investment in diversity and inclusion initiatives remains high.

Need To Know

Diversity Riders, AI Hiring, Space Force, and the DEI Hiring Boom

  • The Diversity Rider authored by Alejandro Guerrero of Act One Ventures will be introduced to term sheets from First Round Ventures, Greycroft, SVB Financial, Plexo Capital, and other prominent VCs going forward. Context: The push for investor diversity is more complicated than the push for board diversity because of the demographics of venture capital; an HBS study from 2018 demonstrated that 81 percent of firms don’t have a single Black investor and that 82 percent of VCs are male. A small community of BIPOC investors investors are about to have a lot of opportunities — an Airtable hosted form is circulating for underrepresented investors — and so are members of investor teams who the SEC deemed accredited investors by dint of expertise in a 3-2 vote on August 26.
  • In a paper published in the Stanford Technology Law Review, Oklahoma State Assistant Professor Kimberly Houser argues that artificial intelligence represents the only plausible solution to bias in hiring and that data sets are necessary to understanding and documenting bias. Context: In flagging Walmart vs Dukes and Ellis v. Costco, two employment discrimination cases in which groups sued based on statistical evidence of unconscious bias rather than on the legal standard of “intent” and received significant out of court settlement, Houser makes clear the potential legal hazard of available data sets and illustrates the catch-22. In documenting bias, data sets are both a critical tool for firms looking to change hiring practices and a liability.
  • Space Force has announced the American military’s first all-female space operations crew, which will operate out of Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. The announcement comes after the head of the new branch, General John Raymond, publicly committed to making diversity and inclusion part of the Space Force “cultural DNA.” Context: Most Space Force staffers are Air Force transfers. The American Homefront Project has reported that Black airmen are roughly 70 percent more likely to be court-martialed than their white colleagues. Space Force Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Carrie Baker, who is a Black woman, has said there will be a “heavy emphasis” on addressing unconscious bias among senior leaders of the the “digital only” force.
  • Andrea Lawson is now the SVP and Chief Talent and Diversity Officer at Equifax, where she previously led global talent management.
  • Michelle Duke has been named Chief Diversity Officer at NAB, where she previously served as VP of Diversity and Development.

The Hidden Stakeholder

What Should DEI Practictioners Make of Executive Coaches?

In 2013, some 30 percent of CEOs received some form of executive coaching. Thanks to reduced stigma and enthusiasm from within venture capital, there’s reason to believe that number is now well north of 50 percent in the tech sector. The increasing demand for this coaching, historically driven by leaders’ insecurities around conflict management and listening skills, should make DEI practitioners wonder whether they are messaging at cross-purposes with empowered outsiders. Though research on what the proliferation of executive coaches means for DEI practitioners is scant, working coaches and relevant data sets suggest that executive coaches may represent an obstacle to effective change management on issues of racial equity.

“Executives often select coaches from their personal networks, and personal networks are structured along racial and cultural lines in the United States,” says engineering coach and speaker Anjuan Simmons.

Simmons points out the diversity is rarely front of mind for executives or coaches -- certifications for this kind of coaching training have historically been rare -- despite the well-publicized McKinsey findings that ethnically diverse executive teams are at least 33 percent more likely than non-diverse teams to outperform their peers on profitability. “Revenue, profitability, and other business measures will almost always be more top of mind.” he says. “Leaders should have coaches that help them understand how to model a healthy appreciation for DEI and change their behavior. Most don’t.”

This does not mean that white executives are unlikely to engage with coaches who focus on diversity, but it does suggest that DEI-centric conversations are unlikely to be challenging. According to research by Ariel Finch Bernstein, now an NBA expert on talent and people analytics, executive coaches are significantly less likely to push back on Black executives than on white executives despite generally rating white executives higher on their sensitivity to diversity issues. Bernstein suggests that racial dynamics are clearly not well understood in the context of coaching.

Clients of color are likely robbed of developmental opportunities needed for professional growth and advancement. They may also hesitate to highlight the impact of workplace race dynamics when their coach appears to sidestep or ignore the issue…. The coaching community should heed these warnings, mandating supervision and incorporating diversity intelligence as a core competency.

This has not happened.

What this seems to suggest, given surveyed CEOs’ outsized confidence in their “soft skills,” including motivation, compassion, and persuasion, is that many coaches may speak to executives about the value of diversity, but will likely avoid more difficult elements of those conversation or, most relevantly for DEI practitioners, introducing the voices of BIPOC stakeholders. Executive coach Nilofer Merchant suspects this may be more of a feature than a bug. “If CEOs did want to change, they would have already done it,” says the former Apple executive.

Merchant recalls a recent conversation with a well-known white thought leader who spoke about the profound effect the death of George Floyd had on his understanding or racism. To illustrate the profundity of his experience, he offered quotes from white men. “The reason I share this story is that I believe he wants to change,” Merchant says. “But he also doesn’t.”

Because CEO-level coaching engagements are largely driven by CEOs, not corporate boards, it stands to reason that most coaches aren’t fundamentally in the business of unwanted change. Executive coaches may offer welcome challenges, but they also, by design, serve up comfort or support -- something that may be specifically true in the context of conversations about historical inequities.

“Most people seek to be coached by people who challenge them just a wee bit to make iterative change,” Merchant explains. “On this topic of inclusion, though? Tectonic changes are needed. One has to be far more courageous to seek that out.”

For DEI practitioners working in the technology sector, the proliferation of executive coaches often represents the introduction of another known unknown, but it could also represent an opportunity. At the CEO level, HBR surveys suggest coaches are most frequently recruited and directed by the executive in cooperation with the most senior people ops professional in the organization. For many DEI practitioners, that means influence is already being exerted from within the business unit and more specific influence can be exerted around diversity communications and coaching via fairly immediate channels.

What’s clear to many coaches of color and scholars in the space is that coaches are a meaningful but little understood variable in the DEI conversation. As such, it behooves DEI leaders to be aware if not wary of those engagements..

Perfecting the Structured Digital Check-In

Remote work, ongoing conflicts around the social justice movement, and mounting stress have placed increased importance on the art of the emotional check-in, particularly for DEI practitioners. But check-ins are hard — specifically for professionals struggling under the weight of their own concerns.

Tactics can provide a level of relief so we requested guidance from two professionals known for effective and powerful check-ins: Tedi Parsons, CEO of The Professional Forum, and Liva R.J., a leadership coach specializing in emotional intelligence.

“I think we have entered a new era in many respects,” says R.J. of DEI-oriented check-ins after the death of George Floyd. “I think a level of thoughtfulness will remain.”

Parsons and R.J. posited that while not all approaches to check-ins need to be the same, leaders who excel at digital check-ins all tend to follow the four following pieces of advice:

  1. Schedule emotional checks or explicitly use them to bookend appointments using a “check-in” and “check-out” system. Assume that it’s going to take a second for people to articulate their feelings and make sure they don’t feel rushed. “When working with individuals and clients in the DEI arena, I always make sure everyone has time to ‘unpack,’” says Parson.
  2. Play extremely close attention to body language — both your colleague’s and your own. “Someone can say things in a nonchalant way, but their body is strained,” says R.J. “When I spot such signs of hidden or unconscious distress, I slow down my breathing, thereby inviting the person I’m speaking with to do the same. And I ask if there is something else, related or non-related, that they’d like to talk about.” Take note of what seems to usettle employees so you can observe trends over time.
  3. Don’t leave on a sour note. This is specifically important because the check-in might be the last interaction a colleague has for the day. “Before we say our goodbyes, I make sure nobody is leaving in a bad place or space,” says Parsons. It’s important to focus on this because social behaviors that emerge in person — lingering with someone who seems rattled — may not naturally emerge in virtual spaces. Leaders cannot, in a sense, trust their instincts.
  4. Build habits and check-in with colleagues at a regular cadence while revisiting previous conversations. Remember that check-ins, as Simon Sinek has memorably argued, represent an extended dialogue about well-being, not a series of dialogues. Picking up where you left off and calling back to previous points demonstrates thoughtfulness, which is critical to helping workers who likely feel isolated.

The Filament is a daily publication for the technology sector's leading D&I practitioners.

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