Earlier this year, I challenged a room full of female financial advisers to consider stepping up into a leadership role. If ever the idea of leading crossed their minds, or if they were the least bit curious, I encouraged them to talk to me about it.
Four women took me up on my offer. I was excited that something I said sparked an interest in them and that these four women stepped up. Still, I was discouraged there weren't more. In a room full of capable women how was that possible?
In the financial services industry, study after study have shown the majority of leadership positions are held by white men. This challenge isn't unique to finance.
While women make up 44% of the overall S&P 500 labor force, they represent only 25% of executive- and senior-level officials and managers in those companies. The representation of women of color in corporate leadership roles is worse still, with only 3.9% in executive- or senior-level positions.
White men account for 72% of corporate leadership at 16 of the Fortune 500 companies examined and only 7% of partners at law firms are black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American.
Savvy business leaders know that diverse teams are an important component of the innovation cycle required to thrive in today's fast-evolving, increasingly global environment. Diversity has emerged as a business-critical factor in the ability to innovate, attract clients and partners, and retain and cultivate the best talent amidst a changing population and often unpredictable business conditions.
More than simply reflecting our customers and the markets in which our businesses operate, inclusive leadership integrates a wide range of viewpoints to stimulate the creative thinking that generates better ideas, better products and dynamic problem-solving. Plainly stated, diverse and inclusive teams make stronger teams, and strong teams make better business sense.
Hands in the air?
Study after study has tried to get at why women and minorities are so underrepresented in leadership roles. I don't know that any of them have truly solved the mystery, so I'm not going to rehash those findings here. Instead, I will offer my own unscientific observation on the subject: these individuals simply aren't raising their hands.
I realize this may sound familiar. It's essentially the point Sheryl Sandberg made in her book "Lean In." But that book was written almost five years ago and this problem persists today.
Too often women and minorities wait to be asked. And when they are finally called to leadership, they tend to say no, without really giving the idea serious thought. Why say no? Out of fear? Out of a belief that we're not ready today, but will be in the future?
To shed a little light on the subject, I asked one of my colleagues, Amy Sturtevant, who leads our Washington DC branch, to share her path to leadership with me. Amy is one of the most dynamic and engaging leaders I know. But that's not why I wanted to share her story. You see, Amy is a leader who almost never was. That's because when Amy was first approached seven and a half years ago with what she describes as the crazy idea that she should run a branch, she said no.
"I had never done it before and it scared me to death," Amy recalls. "But the more I thought about it and about the fact they thought I could, the more interesting the idea became to me. They saw something in me that I didn't initially see."
As I look back at my career and how I became a leader, I can remember a few of those same sort of pivotal moments.
When I was asked to move from RBC Capital Markets to RBC Wealth Management to head up finance and compensation, my immediate reaction was, "I don't know anything about wealth management!" Not long after I made that move, I was asked to lead the firm's technology group. "Yikes!" I thought, "Now I am really out of my element." I mean, I was the person who had to have my kids help me with the TV remote and my iPhone most of the time.
In each instance, I hesitated because of my own fears and doubts. Nobody told me I couldn't do it. The only person standing in my way was me. I needed to believe that I could do it and take a chance on myself.
Leaders of firms and organizations should ask themselves the following questions to make sure they are giving women and minorities a chance to succeed:
• Do I typically hire the same type of person, or personality type?
• When I say a candidate is not the right fit, what do I mean?
• What does my slate of candidates look like? Do I speak up if it is not sufficiently diverse?
• Which of my past hires were successful, and what can I learn from those choices that didn't work out as well?
• Who do I like to assign to work on project teams? Who do I tap for the lead role? Do I have the same go-to people all or most of the time?
• Who do I take to important client or cross-team meetings?
• Who do I encourage to lead or speak out at meetings? Am I creating opportunities for those less extroverted to demonstrate their capabilities equally to clients or other colleagues?
• How do I identify candidates for promotion and succession?
Ms. Sturtevant offers this sage advice: "The thought of leadership may not occur to you, but if someone approaches you, they are approaching you for a reason. Don't take it lightly. Just think about it before you say no."
In other words, we need to get out of our own way.
Kristen Kimmell is chief of staff at RBC Wealth Management-U.S.
This story is part of an ongoing initiative by InvestmentNews to provide inspiration, education and awareness around workplace diversity and inclusion. The project aims to cultivate a financial advice profession where diverse perspectives and experiences are welcomed and respected, and where industry best practices can be shared across organizations.