Why top teams (still) don’t have the best leaders

Natasha Bonnevalle
Article by: Natasha Bonnevalle
Why top teams (still) don’t have the best leaders

Ask any manager which candidate they select for a job opening or promotion and most will answer: the best candidate, of course! The reality is different: with every step in the application or promotion process, the chances of selecting the best candidate get slimmer, while chances of choosing the most stereotypical candidate increase.


It has long been proven: greater diversity in the top of organizations leads to better financial results and offers an important competitive advantage. Recently, the Boston Consultancy Group found that revenues from new products and services in companies with above average diverse management teams were 19% higher than those in companies with more homogeneous leadership.


Diversity leads to innovative strength. By now, most top executives are convinced of the business case for diversity, with 90% of organizations implementing plans to increase the number of women and ethnic minorities.


Why then is progress so agonizingly slow?

Start by defining the problem

First, because a large number of companies have suboptimal processes to select and design their diversity initiatives. Financial investments typically go hand in hand with a thorough problem identification beforehand and a solid return on investment analysis afterwards. When it comes to diversity initiatives, it often seems as if we throw a dart arrow at a wall and then happily draw the bullseye around it: full marks!

Einstein once said: “If I have an hour to save the world, I spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes on the solution.”

Diversity stands or falls with a robust diagnosis of the current company-specific situation. It makes little sense to hire more women at the front door if they continue to leave through the back door because they feel company culture is stacked against them.

So ask yourself: when does our organization lose talented women? Why are they leaving? At what stage does the career of candidates with an ethnic background stagnate? What keeps them from fully contributing?

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''If I have an hour to save the world, I spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes on the solution.'' – Albert Einstein Click To Tweet

Go behind the curtain

Throughout the selection process, everyone has unconscious preferences, which – in an equally unconscious way – inform our behaviour. Historically, those unconscious preferences repeatedly ensure that, most often, a white man gets hired for a leadership position. Our brains are programmed to quickly make judgments about people and situations. We prefer someone who looks like us.

The answer to bias seems simple: make people aware of their prejudices and their behavior will change. Unfortunately, it does not work that way. Unconscious bias trainings which have recently become popular hardly lead to behavioral change. Even with a greater awareness, humans remain irrational in our choices. According to the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, eradicating prejudice on an individual level is impossible.

If the emotions that drive our decisions are so strong, how do we hire the best people? By systematically organizing processes in such a way that prejudice cannot sneak its way in.

Years ago, famous orchestras in the US had less than ten percent female musicians. After futile attempts to hire more women, musicians were invited to audition invisibly behind a curtain. From that moment on, the proportion of female musicians began to rise to the nearly 40% it is now.

Technology allows us to create the equivalent of a curtain. For example, it is easy to rid job descriptions of language that unintentionally discourages women from applying. You can ask for CVs without age, gender, and socio-economic background. The car manufacturer OPEL experimented this year with an alternative vacancy: the job description for the car sales role was identical, but the advertisement had a lifestyle look and feel. Five times as many women responded within two weeks. For each step in the selection process, structural adjustments can be devised that filter out individual bias.

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Years ago, US orchestras had <10% female musicians. Yet, when prospects were invited to audition behind a curtain, the proportion of female musicians more than quadrupled. Click To Tweet

Inclusion is integral

However, hiring more diverse employees is not enough: without inclusion, diversity quickly becomes a story of missed opportunities. The concept of “othering” is the human tendency to believe that the group (race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, land) which they are part of, is the only “good” way to be human. This conviction ensures that we do not even understand others.

The ugly duckling from the Hans Christian ​​Andersen fairytale never felt at home among the ducks, who did not realize he was a swan. He could never be a duck and left. This way, employees who never really get heard cannot possibly contribute – and in the end they too fly away.

The most difficult barrier to diversity and inclusion often are the people at the top themselves. They must ensure that employees can share their opinions and be truly heard. They are responsible for a work environment in which it is safe to propose new ideas, for a culture in which it is possible for everyone to be themselves.

A homogeneous top team often has great difficulty in renewing itself, because whoever has power likes to believe that the world is already a fair place. This makes it difficult to appreciate the personal and institutional barriers that have to be overcome by non-stereotypical leaders.

It is not unwillingness, but ignorance which gets in the way – which is avoidable once we are prepared to include the best – and most diverse – leaders in our midst.

A Dutch version of this article originally appeared in NRC Live.

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