How to overcome bias in leadership development and DE&I

We recently asked over 1,000 U.S. professionals questions about leadership development and diversity, equity and inclusion opportunities within their organizations. The findings of our annual Vaya Vision survey pointed toward a concerning trend for women and diverse talent.

First, they revealed a significant gender gap in employee selection and participation in leadership development (LD) programs. When it comes to developing emerging leaders and high potential (HiPo) talent, the findings showed that white males appear to have significant privileges over their female counterparts.

According to our poll:

• 22% more men than women participate in LD programs - that's nearly a quarter more of the workforce.

• Women must typically ask to be included in LD opportunities, whereas men are usually selected. As many as 58% more women need to self-advocate for LD programs, with the biggest group being women in upper management (67%), followed by Asian women (50%).

• 40% more males than females are informally assessed for enrollment in LD programs, and 35% more men are selected by their managers via a subjective "looks like me" approach.

• 63% of emerging leaders are chosen based on subjective, biased and informal criteria vs. objective criteria and a professional, formal assessment.

The Impact of Inequity on your organization

As businesses struggle with the uncertainty of today's job market, these findings are troublesome. The fact that females and people of color are not given the same opportunity as men to fully develop their leadership skills has several implications:

• HiPo women and diverse emerging leaders will eventually leave and look for advancement opportunities elsewhere.

• Your executive pipeline will lack leadership diversity, putting your company at a competitive disadvantage.

• Candidates who are selected using subjective, informal criteria may not necessarily turn out to be the best future leaders.

Lack of a formal assessment process to identify and develop emerging leaders has a domino effect on the rest of the organization. When companies lack diversity in leadership, employees tend to develop skewed perceptions. This, in turn, impacts their sense of recognition, belonging and connectedness.

The Vaya Vision survey found:

• Caucasian men are nearly twice as likely as other respondents (including women and minorities) to say that their organization visibly reinforces its commitment to diversity, and that diverse representation has increased.

• Less than 1 in 4 minority respondents believe that promotions are based on objective measures. In particular, non-Caucasian women feel the most underrecognized for their work, starting with 24% of Asian females. This is followed by African-American women (19%) and Latino/Hispanic women (15%).

• 40% of white men feel connected and engaged at their company compared to 28% of white women, 24% of Asian women and 13% of Asian men.

One's sense of inclusion and belonging is important to how employees perceive their value in the workplace, as well as how committed the organization is to their career advancement. As highlighted in our survey, there's ample opportunity to create more sustainable pathways to DE & I success in leadership development.

Organizations who ignore the perceptions and needs of their people now will likely struggle with a lack of diverse representation for years to come.

How to develop emerging leaders

Why am I so passionate about this topic? For several reasons. As the founder of the Vaya Group based in suburban Chicago, I'm committed to our mission of helping organizations empower their HiPo employees to be future leaders. Also, as a business owner myself, I pride our firm on a highly talented, healthy balance of male and female executive consultants. They share my enthusiasm for equality and fairness in helping emerging leaders of all genders and races advance and succeed.

You have the power to eliminate biases and make a real difference in developing the next generation of leaders. Here are three key tips:

1. Use objective, third-party assessments. When you consider that only 37% of companies use formal, scientifically proven evaluations to select HiPo candidates for LD programs, that leaves the other ⅔ vulnerable to making the wrong choices based on subjective criteria.

2. Start early. Don't wait until it's too late and a talented emerging leader resigns due to lack of advancement opportunities. Demonstrate your commitment to the development of your HiPo employees sooner rather than later. This way, you'll have ample time to work with that individual and align their career path with your company's growth.

3. Individualize LD training. Requirements have changed with today's hybrid workforce. Just-in-time virtual development tools that give employees 24/7 online access to a personalized curriculum are a strong supplement to existing LD training methods. Platforms like Vayability are accessible, affordable and adaptable to individuals of all levels and backgrounds.

Prevention is the best approach to overcoming bias in LD selection and training. Using independent assessments, identifying leadership potential early and supporting employees with personalized training are the best ways to ensure success.

Learn more

Vaya Group helps businesses empower their HiPo employees to be future leaders with proven assessments, professional coaching and individualized virtual LD solutions.

For more information on the Vaya Vision survey, please visit:

• Paul Eccher, Ph.D., is co-founder, president and chief executive officer of Vaya Group in Warrenville.

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