Lauren Tucker is throwing down a gauntlet.
As an African-American woman who built a 25-year career in the (mostly white) world of advertising, she’s skeptical of diversity initiatives like the much publicized $300 million investment that Intel is making to promote ethnic and gender diversity among its ranks. Ditto for quotas and mandates.
“It is not that I am not appreciative of those efforts,” says Tucker, the cofounder and CEO of Cooler Heads Intelligence, a data analytics marketing agency. Indeed, she admits that her early career benefited from such well-meaning programs. But, she argues, they do no good in mid-career when “everyone abandons you.”
Her challenge to every industry in which women and minorities are underrepresented: Stop being a diversity cheerleader, and become a champion. “Cheerleaders stay on the sidelines and hope you win. Champions get in the game and help you win,” she explains.
Tucker believes that it’s too easy to throw money at diversity initiatives and bask in the glow of the ensuing publicity. She also believes that quotas or mandates take the pressure off executives and hiring managers, but not in a productive way. “It makes management look like diversity champions when they are only cheerleaders,” she maintains.
Tucker says it’s going to take the effort of diversity champions to invest the kind of social, cultural, and political capital required for businesses to start grooming female and minority candidates for executive positions that no longer require basic mentoring and on-the-job skills training.
As she’s observed many female, African-American, and Hispanic colleagues leave companies while at the top of their game–but not quite able to crack the glass ceiling of the C-suite–Tucker says their moves were always prefaced by the same refrain: “I need to go where I see people like me being successful at the top.”
A recent study by Weber Shandwick indicates that both men and women believe it’s important to have female leadership to create role models and mentors, while 70% of women executives who report to a female CEO say their chief’s reputation influences their decision to remain at the company.
Tucker contends that while there is plenty of evidence that diversity is good for business, efforts start to falter higher up the chain. “It’s hard [for executives] to put social, political, and cultural capital behind someone who doesn’t come from where you come from or look like you,” she says.
Between lamenting that there are no “good” candidates or that they can’t retain the qualified ones, Tucker says they are failing to act as champions to offer more women and minorities the opportunity to rise up the ranks. Board chairmen, board members, founders, and other top brass “need to put their own reputation on the line and have the guts to back the play of these folks who don’t look like them,” she underscores. “I am on a mission to get people to understand that.”
In addition to understanding, Tucker suggests there are other ways to get companies to approach diversity in a more sustainable way.
Tucker says the inspiration for changing the game and becoming a (loud) voice for diversity came during a conversation with one of her bosses. A C-suite position was open, and Tucker suggested hiring a woman to fill the role. The usual pushback ensued, including the reasoning that a woman had been approached but her husband was reluctant to relocate because of his job. “We don’t have that problem with men,” the executive retorted.
Tucker was flabbergasted, especially because in another role, a man was being regularly flown to the U.S. from Europe because management believed he was just that valuable to the team. “Why couldn’t they have a woman do the super-commute?” Tucker remembers asking. “People should not have to make the Sophie’s choice between parenting the way they need to and having the powerful career,” Tucker says, “when so much can be empowered by technology.”
Then she witnessed some “amazing analysts and consultants” take themselves out of contention for higher positions because they couldn’t figure out the child-care piece of the equation. At Cooler Heads, Tucker and her cofounder vowed not to put anyone in that position. “I said, ‘We don’t have to have an office, you can sit at home and we can get together once a week,’” Tucker points out. “So far, she says, I haven’t seen a problem.”
In addition to that, Tucker says she is living the business diversity model she espouses by making sure her cofounder, Neeraj Kulkarni, leads projects as well. “I want him to feel he is a face of this company,” she says, in order to tackle the often overlooked Asian glass ceiling. Tucker says that Indians and Asians may fill out tech’s engineering staffs, but their presence in the executive suite is negligible.
Another way to coax executives to champion diversity is to incentivize them, says Tucker. “Money does talk, but in a different way,” she says. Tucker suggests schooling senior executives to make them understand that their compensation includes more than just the performance of the company and its revenue.
“Diversity has to be part of it,” she recommends. She has seen some agencies do this, but not to great effect–yet. “They let people off the hook when it comes to actual promotions,” she observes, especially when no one is motivated to argue against a person who theoretically is so unlike them that they can’t agree on strategy.
Tucker says it also behooves the media to expose these imbalances. When she started her career as a journalist, Tucker, a self-professed idealistic boomer, believed that the news could raise consciousness. Today, she points to the trial of Ellen Pao and says that reporters often failed to ask the right questions. In her mind, it was not so much about the bravery of this minority woman going up against an established Silicon Valley firm, but about exposing bad business practices.
“All this VC money obscures the fact that this is bad business,” she argues. Seeing major news outlets solely focus on the gender issue revealed a missed opportunity to Tucker. “How much better could these companies be if they behaved like professionals instead of fostering this toxic culture?” she muses.
That’s why she believes many women and minorities leave before they hit the glass ceiling. “They don’t want to work for other companies, they want to work for themselves,” she says, “to show people what diversity can actually do.”
“That’s my answer to Intel,” Tucker says again. “Give us a million dollars, and we can do some really great things.” Starting with learning how to become a true champion.