A new McKinsey report suggests that while tracking and analyzing diversity metrics is important for success in gender parity, we should not downplay the importance of personal experience. Leaders should be encouraged to engage in storytelling, McKinsey suggests, making their connection to diversity personal.
Lareina Yee, a Principal in McKinsey’s San Francisco office, explained that while, in the past, she and her team had researched into problem areas that companies experience when it comes to diversity, for this research they decided to delve into the things that companies are doing right. “Instead of framing all of the things companies were not doing, we decided to ask ‘what are things that companies are doing that make them better?’ Who are the positive deviants?”
She continued, “That’s how we got to the storytelling piece. It’s about commitment, and we believe that intensity of commitment is critical for the success of the program.”
Yee, who wrote the report with Joanna Barsh and Sandra Nudelman, says that when leaders are genuinely committed to improving workforce diversity, they put their passion and their resources behind numbers-based corporate initiatives in a combination that yields success.
Benefits of Storytelling
“Storytelling is linked with authenticity in leaders,” Yee explained. “In storytelling, they can personalize diversity and make it their own, and talk about their experiences; for example they could describe a time when they created an opportunity for a woman on their team and how it benefited the company. The value of the stories they tell is about inspiration, not only in that they believe diversity can happen, but that they can prove, with their own experience, that it worked.”
Beyond authenticity, storytelling is simply a way that successful business leaders communicate about change, and model how to approach it successfully. Yee explained, “When we think about huge things that rock a company – like changing a business model or a restructuring or merger – when we think about change management, it’s essential that the leader is role modeling. If we think about gender diversity as a business imperative, then it is not surprising that storytelling and role modeling is such an important piece of the success model.”
Talking frankly about diversity is also important in building credibility around a diversity program. Yee’s team studied organizations that had prioritized gender diversity – yet, when surveyed, less than half of their workforces recognized diversity as an actual priority. When actions do not match words, gender diversity programs can be met with skepticism that can ultimately be harmful to the organization. “It’s almost seen as lip service in some companies,” she said.
Storytelling can be a step forward in turning around those perceptions. “We have to say that we’ve made modest at best improvement and that we have work to do,” she suggested. “We have to match perceptions with fact, to look at the evidence but provide a glimmer of hope.”
Finally, storytelling can also provide avenues for discussion that lead to new tactics. “When we share stories, we can work together to make success cases more systematic,” she explained. “Together, the data and the personalization can be pretty powerful.”
Linking Data and Passion
In the past, McKinsey’s gender research has focused largely on the business-case for diversity, and the importance of setting goals and tracking metrics. The new suggestions take a decidedly qualitative turn.
Yee said, “You have to have both – the quantitative and the qualitative. The numbers are very grounding for some people, especially in a business context where people are concerned with cold, hard facts. But when you look at the stalled level of progress over the past five or six years, at the end of the day, the results aren’t happening.” Something else is missing, and, McKinsey’s research suggests, that something is passion.
She explained, “The quantitative side provides transparency and accountability that is very important. Especially in the business sector, it’s what people relate to. But even our highest performing companies are nowhere near population parity. We have so much farther to go.”
That gap can be bridged by ensuring leaders are living up to their values and communicating about them regularly. That includes setting companies up for success by ensuring diversity programs have the backing and resources they need to make a difference.
“Diversity starts with a deep commitment at the top. You ultimately have to have your values in check first, and a level of commitment that is connected to the topic. Then the rest flows,” Yee said.