August 10, 2020

Leadership and Diversity: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

Sheila Talton

Leadership and Diversity: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

These uncertain times we live in have given rise to many conversations about diversity and leadership. What do these words really mean? Depending on who you speak to, you’re sure to receive many different definitions. For me, these words signify ideals that I continue to strive for and work toward.

As an African American woman, I have faced many challenges in my professional life. I built my career in industries that were slow to welcome and accept Black Americans, but this did not deter me. I persevered and leveraged every opportunity I found to make myself heard and demonstrate my skills and abilities. I made it a point to absorb as much knowledge as I could and find mentors and sponsors. And, I always made a conscious effort to pay it forward.

I’ve led teams of various sizes, domestically and internationally, with one goal in mind – to manage my team with focus on transparency, hard work and achievement. I also consciously promoted diversity – whether it was in gender, ethnicity or experience. I firmly believe that teams benefit from a melding of different skills, cultures and talents. I have brought this approach with me through all my professional endeavors and most especially to the startup I currently manage.

When it comes to hiring, being a good leader entails identifying raw, promising talent. It’s not always as important to focus on whether or not a candidate has done the job before. More importantly, what I have learned is the candidate’s ability to learn and adapt is a far greater bellwether for future success in role or position. If you start with good ‘raw material,’ and provide supportive mentors and sponsors, the chance for success is almost inevitable.

You might ask, “What’s the difference between a mentor and a sponsor? Do you need both in your career?” The quick answer is yes you need both. A mentor is someone who provides you with guidance on how to best exceed expectations as you perform your job responsibilities. He or she will also work with you to determine the best path for your professional development. A sponsor, on the other hand, acts as an advocate – a representative that will speak for you, whether or not you are present in the room. From experience, I can tell you that success and advancement are not possible without these two types of champions in your corner.

I strongly believe that leadership and diversity are not mutually exclusive. To be successful, one needs to balance and manage these two factors for success. Having a diverse team promotes leadership development. How? When you bring together a diverse team, you are enabling evolving leaders to demonstrate their abilities and aptitude for success. Without promoting diversity, you run the risk of falling into the old, traditional way of defining a leader – did this person go to an Ivy League school, work at companies that are household names or have connections that landed him or her the job? This is in stark contrast with how today’s leaders are defined.

My personal leadership style is one of service. I believe my job as a leader is to move obstacles that can inhibit and limit the performance of my team.  I hire capable, agile, smart people – they know how to do their job. But they will run up against obstacles, and I can move these impediments to help them get their job done. I work for my team. I also believe that transparency is important. By sharing both challenges and successes with my team, they know that I value their efforts and contributions. Once I have earned their trust, I can put it in a bank, so to speak, and then call on it when situations come up. This approach enables me to make the right decisions for the company, for everyone. “The people are the company.”

Leadership and diversity are two sides of a coin. One without the other does not result in a resounding success. These two are interdependent, key components of culture rich, inclusive and progressive companies that are built to last. Business today is different, and tomorrow it will be different as well. However, I am confident that my current team shares in this vision and that we are all in this together. Our diversity makes us stronger, and our leaders are committed to modeling behaviors that empower their teams to succeed. What more could a company ask for?