In the legal industry, we have a challenge with promoting diverse talent, particularly at the senior levels of the profession. We do pretty well with diverse representation at junior levels, in part because law schools – while not graduating totally representative classes – are graduating a high percentage of women who make up more than 50% of top law school graduates and around 40% of all law school graduates. People of color are also increasingly well represented in today’s graduating law school classes. As a result, many opportunities exist to get fairly representative junior classes of lawyers into firms.
What law firms are not good at is retaining and promoting this diverse talent. If firms – or in-house legal teams – want to address this challenge and effect real change through a diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy, several things need to work in tandem.
First, the entire talent strategy needs to treat all the members of the organization as valuable people whose professional development is important. If you try to build a D&I strategy without an overarching talent strategy that takes into account the importance of all contributors, you run the risk of backlash against the D&I initiative because it is seen as supporting a subgroup while not taking care of the overall organization.
Second, there needs to be serious, focused attention on diversity in the talent acquisition model – and by that, I mean more than simply ensuring that you go through the formality of including diverse candidates in each panel of candidates. Rather, the organization needs to understand where it may be lacking in diversity. For example, in both legal organizations that I have led, we’ve had a majority female organization at the more junior levels and very low representation of people of color at all levels. As such, an explicit focus on the diversity gaps in the talent cohort is very important, and a clear understanding of the need to fill those gaps must be understood by everybody who is involved in the talent acquisition exercise.
To get a bit more granular, I think it’s very important to use techniques of interviewing that are designed to identify attributes that will help you find people with leadership competencies: people who have the ability to rise through the organization. We do that through an interview process designed to identify emotional intelligence – to put interviewees a little bit on their heels, make them understand that what we really want to find out about them is their ability to think on their feet, approach unexpected situations with confidence and exhibit authenticity and candor.
The third component of the D&I strategy is to create a diverse leadership pipeline. This involves creating a succession plan and making sure that you’re giving due regard to diversity in your talent-shaping agenda. The way that I did that at MetLife was by conducting an assessment of all of the non-officer talent – people who are below the manager level in the organization – and their leadership aptitude. To identify the leading non-officer candidates for future leadership, we assessed these individuals through a combination of survey techniques with clients, peers, managers, subordinates, and the senior leadership of the legal organization. The leading candidates – about 10% of the non-leaders – are invited to participate in a leadership academy that involves allocating stretch assignments and providing sponsors who are accountable for making sure that they get experiences, exposure and training to develop their leadership aptitude. It’s not an exercise that’s focused exclusively on diverse talent; in fact, it must be bias-blind. This is important because, in my experience, existing leaders usually tap future leaders on the shoulder, a model that allows unconscious bias to figure very significantly in the leadership development process.
In order to ensure a bias-blind approach, I stress the importance of going outside of the organization and asking the business partners who are actually receiving the advice and advocacy of lawyers to evaluate these emerging leaders on six-to-eight leadership attributes in a very simple survey instrument. In the past, we’ve tried to get at least 20 individual evaluations of each candidate so that you can measure trends about the various individuals in the organization. It’s not a precise science, but it does end up identifying some of the strongest candidates. It’s good to do it annually so the organization can continue refining and correcting its approach to identifying candidates for future leadership.
One of the things I learned at MetLife was to leave people in the leadership academy as long as they are growing and performing well. If you find that is not the case, release them from the leadership academy, have a thoughtful and constructive conversation with them about why they are being released, and discuss what they should do if they want to be readmitted. At the same time, continue to evaluate the population that wasn’t selected for the leadership academy, and consider bringing new people in.
It’s critical to make sure that this kind of initiative has a salutary effect on the organization as a whole and doesn’t end up producing the opposite effect by making individuals who have been excluded feel like their exclusion was unfair. Of course, communication is key, and you need to introduce thoughtfulness and flexibility into your strategy.
As part of the leadership development program at MetLife, I also created a stewardship initiative that involved one-on-one sponsorship relationships to cultivate future leaders. The sponsor and the protégé create a leadership development plan that includes specific objectives to achieve in a three-to-five-year timeframe, with milestones along the way. The plan could include experiences, training, exposure – any number of different things – and there is a timeline associated with each of the articulated objectives. You also measure the performance of both the protégé and the sponsor by looking at accomplishment or non-accomplishment of the stated objectives and milestones. If you are not successful, you figure out whether you have a weakness on the protégé side, on the sponsor side, or both.
At MetLife, we presented our stewardship initiative to our outside counsel. We showed them what we were doing to hold senior leadership accountable for the retention and promotion of our diverse talent and the obligation of all officers in the organization to sponsor a rising leader and be measured on their results as a sponsor.
As part of the discussion on sponsorship, we gave our outside counsel a deadline to put in place specific plans and strategies to hold their leadership team accountable for the retention and promotion of diverse talent in their organization. We promised to support them in this effort, but if we could not come to an agreement on an acceptable D&I sponsorship program within two years, we would exclude them from our approved counsel list. That proved very effective.
When we identify very strong candidates for advancement, we frequently find it difficult to hold on to those people, because they have so many opportunities put in front of them. You are often disappointed by having lost someone that you had in your mind’s eye as a key component of the future leadership of the organization. But those are just things that you have to manage – the ordinary challenges that come with running a corporate organization.
I look forward to implementing these initiatives in the legal division at Freddie Mac and I am very confident and optimistic that we’re going to have a very successful D&I strategy and execution. Freddie Mac’s human resources leadership is looking at our D&I strategy as a pilot that it’s considering implementing throughout the rest of the organization, so I’m very enthusiastic, flattered and encouraged by that.