Ethnic Minority Leadership

Corporate Leadership: Building Diversity into the Pipeline

An overview of critical strategies for building a diverse leadership pipeline including systems and practices for holding top leadership accountable, and strategies for changing organizational cultures.

By Claire McCarty Kilian, PhD

As promising as the election of Barack Obama and the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court are, barriers to the advancement of minority leaders still exist. Diversity in the lower ranks of the corporation has not translated over time into equal representation at the top.

Barriers To Leadership Diversity

Research by Catalyst (2001) and the CLC (2001) categorizes barriers to the advancement of women and people of color into several key areas:

  • Lack of mentors and role models

  • Exclusion from informal networks of communication

  • Stereotyping and preconceptions of roles and abilities

  • Lack of significant line experience, visible and/or challenging assignments

  • Commitment to personal and family responsibilities (primarily for women)

Organizations cannot afford to ignore potential future leaders. What interventions exist that enhance the chances that more women and people of color will find organizational environments inclusive, fair and be willing to stay for the strenuous trek to the top?

Senior Management Commitment

Companies who have seen the greatest increase in leader diversity have typically had active, effective support from the top. Senior executives must create the message that diversity is encouraged, and actively reinforce the message at every opportunity. At the majority of companies with successful track records, the CEO is directly involved, either formally or informally, in promoting events, holding diversity reviews with senior executives and linking the diversity strategy to the overall business strategy (CLC, 2002).

Manager Accountability

"Organizations that are most successful in achieving managerial diversity clearly have human resources systems and practices that hold managers and executives accountable for achieving diversity objectives and encourage them to actively develop women [and people of color]" (CLC, 2002, p. 12). "Measurement tools used ... range from 360-degree feedback to peer reviews, employee attitude surveys, performance reviews that incorporate diversity objectives, and periodic reviews of workforce demographics. About three-quarters of the companies [studied] report that they directly or indirectly link diversity to management bonuses and incentives" (Giscombe & Mattis, 2002). For example, Sodexo USA has developed a diversity scorecard which includes the manager's success in recruitment, retention, promotion, and development of all employees and his or her bonus reflects that expectation (Dolezalek, 2008).

Kalev, Dobbin, & Kelly (2006) found that establishing clear leadership and responsibility for change has been the most successful of all diversity initiatives.

Training and Education about Gender/Race Equity

Diversity training generally aims to increase awareness of the demographic profile of an organization and to challenge any negative preconceptions employees may have regarding minority groups. Recent research by Alexandra Kalev and colleagues (2006) has found that mandatory diversity training is the least effective method for increasing diversity in management and, in fact, can even be counterproductive.

Networks and Mentoring Programs

Networks can provide social support, professional development and access to mentors and role models of the same race/ethnicity or gender and allow people to act in concert, lessening the risk to any one individual of pointing out systemic issues, requesting resources to address equity issues or taking other proactive steps to change organizational culture (Giscombe & Mattis, 2002). Efforts to deal with social isolation through mentoring and networking appear to be moderately effective (Kalev, et al., 2006).

Identification and Development of Diverse Talent

One root cause for failure in diverse leadership development is the ineffective state of leadership development in general. Hewitt Associates surveyed CEOs and HR executives representing 240 major multi-national companies and found that while 77 percent have formal leadership development programs, only 32 percent believe their objectives are being achieved (CEO Survey, 2002). Only 42 percent use their own leadership criteria when hiring talent and only 55 percent report significant pay differential between high and average performers in leadership roles (CEO Survey, 2002). This is despite the fact that a majority of executives believe that leadership development is a major priority for their organization ( Barrington, 2002).

Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance is increasingly a priority for men as well as women of all races and ethnicities. The relationship between gender diversity in leadership and the presence of work-family programs is dramatic. In companies where women held half or more of the top jobs, 82 percent provided flextime and 19 percent provided child care, versus 56 percent and 3 percent respectively in companies where there were no female executives (Galinsky & Bond, 1998, p. XII). The same was true for companies with people of color in the executive suite (Galinsky & Bond, 1998, p. XIII).


Our current economic condition may undermine a focus on diversity and inclusion initiatives especially for organizations struggling to stay in business. Not really surprisingly, Dencker (2008) has found that underrepresentation in leadership coincides with corporate restructurings and reductions in force. Without active leadership from senior executives, the progress that has been made in developing a diverse pipeline to corporate leadership may evaporate.


Barrington, L. (2002). Despite hard times companies view leadership development as a priority. Executive action No. 34, The Conference Board, New York.

CEO Survey (2002). Leading indicators: The development of executive leadership. Chief Executive Magazine.

Catalyst (2001). The next generation: Today's professionals, tomorrow's leaders, Catalyst, New York.

Corporate Leadership Council (2001). Women and minorities in leadership development. Corporate Executive Board, Washington, DC.

Corporate Leadership Council (2002). The role of leadership in diversity efforts. Corporate Executive Board, Washington, DC.

Dencker, J.C. (2008). Corporate restructuring and sex differences in managerial promotion. American Sociological Review, 73(3), 455-476.

Dolezalek, H. (2008). The path to inclusion. Training, 45(4), 52-54.

Galinsky, E. & Bond, J. (1998). The 1998 business work-life study: A sourcebook. New York: Families and Work Institute.

Giscombe K. & Mattis, M. (2002). Leveling the playing field for women of color in corporate management: Is the business case enough? Journal of Business Ethics, 37(1), 103-119.

Kalev, A., Kelly, E., & Dobbin, F. (2006). Best practices or best guesses? Assessing the efficacy of corporate Affirmative Action and diversity policies. American Sociological Review, 71(4), 589-617.