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Closing The Gaps To Move The Needle On Diversity

By Joe M. Ricks Jr., Ph.D., chairman, Division of Business at Xavier University, and past president, HBCU Business Deans Roundtable

Over the past few years, as chair of the Division of Business at Xavier University of Louisiana, and as a board member on the executive committee of the National HBCU Business Deans Roundtable, I’ve been highly engaged in the conversation regarding diversity and inclusion. During this time, I have observed two significant gaps that need to be addressed if we are going to move the needle. While it’s important to recognize these gaps from a diversity perspective, they’re also relevant to the overall talent issues in corporate America. The first is the lack of meaningful dialogue between business leaders and higher education faculty and administrators, and the second is the exclusive, narrow focus on “the best and the brightest.” In order to close these gaps, there has to be an increase in meaningful dialogue between higher education and industry.

During my career, with a few exceptions, the meetings I’ve attended have mostly been with business leaders and few, if any, academic faculty or administrators who work directly with students. Conversely, I’ve attended academic meetings with no business leaders in attendance. I believe this gap leads to two of the major influencers of the diversity talent pipeline talking at each other through articles and other media rather than to each other via engaging, live two-way conversations. This prevents us from getting on the same page regarding the terms and metrics that are important to onboarding and developing talent from diverse populations.

There is a clear consensus that moving the needle in diversity and inclusion requires uncomfortable conversations. Communicating through media articles provides a lot of comfort, and may have an effect regarding awareness, but this type of communication is indirect and ineffective when it comes to finding solutions. These conversations, albeit often difficult, need to happen face-to-face, so that business leaders and the academics who are directly involved in developing a diverse talent pipeline are able to have in-depth discussions. That way, each can understand one another’s needs and limitations in order to identify solutions to pipeline issues.

This gap is not difficult to close; it only requires the will to do so. Academic and industry associations need to simply add these meetings to the agendas at their national and regional conferences. At the 2018 summit, the National HBCU Business Deans Roundtable partnered with the CEO Action Network and corporate sponsors to engage in panel discussions and breakout sessions with CEOs and diversity and inclusion leaders. Academic and industry associations, accreditation bodies and corporate leadership groups could and should replicate this initiative. I think the low-hanging fruit for effective conversations is between academic leaders (deans, chairs and faculty) and business leaders (diversity leaders and hiring managers) at national and regional meetings.

Another possibility is an increase in experience-exchange programs, in which faculty members go to work for companies, and hiring managers spend some time in the classroom. There are visiting professor and executive loan programs, but not nearly enough. So much more could be learned if faculty and hiring managers immersed themselves in one another’s cultures. In fact, I believe my own approach to coaching students and teaching them professional development skills is highly influenced by my experiences as a faculty intern with the 3M Company, and my time as an intern coordinator for the McIlhenny Company (Tabasco).

The second gap is much more complex and will need some of the nation’s most talented minds to address. During my career, I have, on occasion, had the privilege of being one of few academics at meetings with business leaders. The types of conversations that take place at these meetings often inevitably result in these organizations hiring “the best and brightest students” to work for them. The complete focus on the best and the brightest (usually determined by GPA) in itself will not have much of an effect on the need for talent in general or the need for diverse talent specifically. There aren’t, in fact, many people who fit that criteria. Even in today’s “everyone gets a trophy” environment, not everyone can be a top performer. If we really want to make a significant effect on increasing the talent pool, some of the great minds in corporate America and the academy must give thought leadership on how to develop the middle where the greater numbers are.

We in the academy need to identify ways to demonstrate that our less than 3.0 students have the competencies necessary to be productive, and our corporate partners need to identify roles in which students with potential that falls under the 3.0 threshold can have the opportunity to develop. Grades measure a lot more than a student’s competency to perform in the workplace, and by not providing more opportunities to the majority of students (unless there is significant grade inflation), we are leaving a lot of talent on the table.

I know there are many factors in addressing the second gap that will require a lot of hard work. However, if we pick the low-hanging fruit in the first gap, we will have a framework to address the second, and I am confident that the expansion of visiting professor and executive loan programs would create even more meaningful dialogue to address this complex issue.

The CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion was spearheaded by PwC U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan.