Who are your allies?

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Uncategorized

“The men are outperforming the women,” my executive-coaching client told me in frustration. “We’re all white men in leadership, but I’m not going to be able to promote a woman to director level.”

My client is an executive with an international organization, living and leading a team on the other side of the world. (We were video conferencing.) His organization has stated goals of promoting women into leadership.

“Do you have any women in mind whom you want to promote?” I asked him.

“Yes! Absolutely!” he replied, describing a woman excelling on another team. “She’s brilliant, but she’s made a mistake that I don’t think she can recover from.”

He described how this woman escalated an issue to HR after a male colleague consistently excluded her from meetings on a project she was responsible for. This man has a history of treating female colleagues this way. She now has a reputation at the executive level for being reactive and unable to solve her own problems.

My heart went out to this unknown woman on the other side of the world. Same crap, different country.

My client is a strong (ferocious, really) ally and advocate for diversity on his teams and throughout the firm. I shared with him a passage I’d recently read in “Farsighted, How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most,” by Steven Johnson.

In addition to social justice, there is a “factor that we often ignore when we complain about the lack of diversity at the top of any organization in the private or public sector: Diverse groups make smarter decisions,” Johnson writes.

The connection between diversity and improvements in the collective IQ of a group has been demonstrated by hundreds of experiments over the past few decades, according to Johnson.

“Nowhere is the data on this clearer than in the research on gender and decision-making,” he writes. “If you were trying to assemble a kind of ‘Springtime for Hitler’ anti-dream team, designed to fail at complex decisions, you would do well to recruit an all-male roster.”

I asked my client a question that was puzzling me: “Are the men in line for that promotion so error-free themselves?”

“No! The male candidates are not perfect. None of us are,” he said. “I know I can make a compelling case that anyone in the firm, including myself, should be fired today.

“And I can make a case that any one of us, including myself, should be promoted today,” he laughed.

“What if she didn’t make a mistake?” I asked him. “What if she were being brave?”

He looked at me thoughtfully through the video screen.

A couple of days later, my client emailed me that he had been able to change the narrative about this woman from “she is wounded and overreactive” to “she cares deeply not only about doing good work, but doing good work with the right teams.”

This woman is lucky to have an ally in the executive ranks. And I love that I have her back, on the other side of the world, and she doesn’t even know it.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.