IBM’s Strategic Approach to Diversity

By Rob Enderle
May 11, 2020

IBM’s outgoing CEO Ginni Rometty gave a compelling talk at IBM Think last week on how the company is are fighting strategically for diversity. I know of only one other company, Cisco, that is taking a genuinely holistic, strategic view of the problem, resulting in a broad positive impact.

The reason I can name only two companies is that most are taking a tactical approach. The government also moved tactically with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is why there hasn’t been sustained progress.

I was pondering this when an excellent example of thinking tactically vs. strategically popped up in the news. The Lincoln Project, a Republican-backed effort to vote out the president, issued an ad called “Mourning In America,” and initially a few thousand people saw it. Then the president saw it and reacted with a Twitter rant.

What happened next demonstrated both the Streisand Effect and the trouble with tactical thinking, which caused the video to go viral.

This is a stark example of the inherent danger of thinking tactically vs. strategically, which in this case led the president to promote an effort to retire him. The difference isn’t always measured in negative effects, though. In the context of IBM’s diversity effort, strategic thinking has resulted in a notable positive outcome.

I’ll share my thoughts on the company’s efforts and close with my product of the week: the Microsoft Surface Book 3, or the exact antithesis of the Apple iPad Pro. 

Tactical vs. Strategic Thinking

A few decades ago, I was interviewing for a job I didn’t get, and the hiring manager — I’m sure thinking he was brilliant — started to query me on strategic thinking. That was especially important to the company. What fascinated me, other than the fact the guy was abusive as hell, was that even though he tried to present himself as an expert strategist, he likely couldn’t spell the word.

Strategic thinking is the one skill that can define an analyst. If you know chess, or better yet the board game Go, which is very popular in Asia, it’s easier to wrap your mind around what it means to think strategically. With chess and Go, you must look moves ahead and develop multiple responses for each anticipated outcome.

A tactical thinker is a counterpuncher. Tactical thinkers tend to be reactive but often do themselves harm because they don’t think through the consequences of what they plan to do. 

The President vs. The Lincoln Project

The president is fast on his feet and is known to be a strong counterpuncher, but he doesn’t think strategically. He saw the ad — which was explicitly positioned so he would see it and get upset. When he attacked the ad, he raised its visibility massively. The ad is well made, and it showcases what likely is the strongest argument to convince viewers to vote for his opponent.

The president’s goal was to discredit the ad by attacking the creators personally. Instead, more people saw it and may have concluded he was doing a lousy job. The creators of the ad aren’t running for office, so attacking them personally didn’t appear to do anything to discredit the ad. On the contrary, the president’s tweets got more people to view it.

A better approach would have been to go after the credibility of the ad, given that PolitiFact labeled one of its major claims false. Tactical thinkers tend to lack the depth to respond to problems like this well, as many ex-politicians have demonstrated.

Another example of tactical thinking in the news last week was the 5-year-old who tried to drive to California to buy a car. Kids generally can’t think strategically, or the boy would have realized he’d likely not get a Lamborghini but instead would have trouble sitting down for a week or so. (Though I must admit, the effort was impressive.)

A failure to think strategically can result in negative consequences that are the exact opposite of one’s goal. 

Strategic Thinking and Diversity

Diversity is a complex problem. It begins in grade school when girls are pushed away from STEM courses, and when minorities get substandard educations. This results in a shallow hiring pool for women and minorities, making it hard to achieve diversity, particularly in tech fields.

The tactical approach — what EEOC did — was to set quotas and force diversity without addressing the education problem. A push to fill quotas despite lack of proper training resulted in people getting jobs they weren’t qualified for, reinforcing the erroneous belief that the groups they represented couldn’t do those jobs well.

It also resulted in women and minorities viewing their peers as rivals, not brothers and sisters fighting beside them. Rather than breaking the glass ceiling, the EEOC approach tended to reinforce it. Further, it worsened salary disparity by providing justification for salary differences. Under those conditions, women and minorities often underperformed not because of their sex or race, but because they were trained and mentored inadequately.

The #MeToo movement arguably has made this worse. Some executives now are afraid to have lunch with women or mentor them effectively because of concerns they might face an unfounded sexual harassment claim that could end their careers.

In a climate that demands always believing women and that disregards due process, the right move is to avoid women, which works against fixing the diversity problem. What happened to Brett Kavanaugh was wrong. What is happening now to Joe Biden is wrong.

Neither case would hold up in a court of law, yet people were primed to believe both men guilty — not only before a trial but instead of a trial. While you can damage someone effectively with this approach, it also destroys trust in the system, which tends to make things worse for the very group you are trying to protect. It likely is now a lot harder for a woman to get a job close to a male politician. 

IBM’s Better Approach

What Ginni Rometty talked about was that rather than forcing quotas, IBM focused on providing STEM education and advanced training free for those who needed it. For many technical jobs, degrees are not necessary. You need skills, and if you can help women and minorities get those skills, it increases the pool of potentially qualified candidates.

Then you can choose on merit rather than tactically trading off skills against the sex or race of the candidate.

IBM’s programs are P-Tech (elementary STEM) and Open P-Tech (advanced skills), and they might be worth checking out for something to do with the kids at home.

With qualified hires, a firm performs better, and the dominant workforce begins to see that women and minorities can perform well, which builds trust in the process and reinforces the value of the diversity goal.

Granted, it takes longer, and it is undoubtedly more resource-intensive. Still, it is a far better solution than the force-fit that resulted in a lot of undertrained employees taking up space and preventing the advancement of minority peers who might compete for their unique position. 

Wrapping Up: Learning to Think Strategically

I once had a meeting with one of the top executives of what then was the most powerful firm in the segment. It had just received a devastating judgment from a sizable regulatory body, and the executive’s plan was to screw over anyone who tried to take advantage of the decision.

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