Sheila Talton, CEO and president of Unisource Network Services Inc. in Chicago, thinks white executives tend to have more experience than blacks simply because of their predominance at the top level, but black executives can identify with other blacks better. However, she also notes the added difficulty of being a woman in a predominantly male world. "Guys learn to be buddies with guys. They haven't learned [how to be buddies] with women. The workplace still raises eyebrows if a guy and a girl play golf or go out to dinner."

Diversity Is Smart for Business

Whites can -- and should -- take action to improve the appallingly low representation of minorities in the boardroom. For white executives, it takes determined leadership and a real commitment to bettering those numbers, not just scheduling the annual diversity workshop, then going back to business as usual.

Minorities can also play a role in readying themselves for the big time. Coleman advises up-and-comers to prepare for a mentoring relationship by getting comfortable with the types of activities common in the upper echelons of business, whether it be playing golf, attending the symphony or knowing how to read a wine list. At the same time, it's important to acquire the more traditional business skills, such as learning how to work a room.

Those who empower themselves gain the best chance of climbing the corporate ladder, says Coleman, though he admits that if the someone at the top of the ladder is truly prejudiced, then playing by the rules may be futile.

Collins believes companies should tie recruitment, retention and promotion of minorities to bonus programs. "If they tied money to it, senior executives would do it," she says. Pearson thinks that companies simply need to live by their diversity commitments. A lot of companies are saying, 'This is what I want to do.' Well, do it."

And there's a lesser known -- but unmistakably tantalizing -- benefit of hiring minorities into senior-level positions. It's good for business. Coleman talks about the message a diverse senior management group sends to its minority employees. "It's the visual images [from the executive suite]: 'If I work hard, I might be able to rise to that level.' It's role modeling, identification. People of entry level can be more committed to the corporation, which can help productivity."

Carl Williams sees several reasons why diversity in the upper ranks provides business benefits. "It's clear to me that if you think you're going to be a global company, the more diverse the mix, the better off you're going to be. When you go to countries where the majority is Hispanic or non-European, bringing folks in with diverse backgrounds is important. The fact that we can take a diverse group of people into an organization that we're thinking of acquiring or partnering with shows that we take a much broader perspective of the world than the Eurocentric perspective that's predominant here in the United States."

But he notes that the advantage is not only global. "When you talk about the total domestic national product of the Hispanic and African American communities in the U.S., it's grown considerably. It's clear that companies that have those communities represented in their executive suite and their workforce have a better chance to attract business from people in those groups."

Finally, if there's a perception in a company that skin color plays a role in who gains entry to the management suite, that company risks losing talented minorities. Why beat your head against a wall when you can walk to Competitor Inc., one of the enlightened companies that is committed to improving the diversity of its management team? That scenario should especially raise a flag to CIOs who spend half their waking hours figuring out how to stem the flow of IT talent from their doors.

But maybe diversity shouldn't have to be reduced to a tangible business benefit, akin to a growing share price, a favorable ROI, an increase in third quarter revenues. Maybe it shouldn't have to appear on the agenda simply because your company recognizes the role a diverse management team can play in appealing to the growing ethnic communities in this country as well as abroad.

Maybe companies should promote hard-working, talented minority executives because it's the right thing to do.

This story, "Equity?" was originally published by CIO.

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