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The Recurring Meritocracy Question in DEI: A Debate Unwarrantedly Rooted in Race-Consciousness

Updated: Apr 30

DEI is one of several aspects that contribute to the workforce experience.  In this context, I’m defining DEI as the way in which workers feel appreciated for the way their unique attributes add value in the workplace; the respect afforded to people when they offer different perspectives or represent differences in their backgrounds and experiences; the ways in which policies, processes, technologies, and management practices are applied and accessible and whether those applications and accessibility result in fair or disparate treatment; and, the manner in which leadership cultivates and demonstrates values that foster inclusive actions to support an environment where workers feel safe and empowered to speak up and express their concerns as well as feel confident that those concerns will be heard and addressed.

When I launched my company, TULIP Advisory Professionals LLC, I was deliberate in how I designed a service offering for DEI --- it had to be strategic and data-driven. As a lawyer with a business background and a legal background, in addition to a background in academia, I wanted to create TULIP’s DEI Strategic Advisory offering to serve as an objective discovery of an organization’s DEI maturity and then drive a phased-alignment to move the needle toward leadership’s DEI north star; however, with the objective lens, I also designed the DEI Strategic Advisory service offering to be grounded in data-driven decisioning (void of any subjective input), so that if an org was not ready for the intended shift, the data story would clearly describe why and also justify the suggested, alternative recommendations. Enter meritocracy and the concern about DEI initiatives running counter to selecting qualified workers; this has been one of the greatest resistance factors to organizations achieving buy-in for DEI. Thus, DEI maturity lags. When socio-political influences are strong externally, DEI efforts in workplaces are further disrupted and oftentimes stopped altogether. To bridge gaps between the for's and against's DEI positions, I try to create connections with clients and their workforces by reflecting on my own experiences to glean where I can empathize with both sides' perspectives, even if not through my direct experiences but maybe through an indirect experience of a co-worker or colleague.

Just recently I recalled an occurrence at one of my first jobs out of college (before I went to law school).  I was working in the Mortgage Banking industry in an Auditor role.  I learned the job pretty quickly and developed a great relationship with my Manager as well as other managers throughout the org.  My Manager knew that I’d planned to go to law school so I’d shared with her that I wanted to learn as much as possible about the legal and compliance side of the business.  My role required having some knowledge of the regulatory laws, but only shallow knowledge because there was a Compliance department that we could confer with if there were any discrepancies found during the audits. 

About 6 months after starting the job, my Manager promoted me to “Team Lead”, which allowed me to explore the banking and financial regulations in more detail.  However, being promoted to Team Lead was a somewhat awkward moment because there were other employees who had been with the company longer than I and they had been doing the same job as me.  During my performance review for the promotion, I actually inquired about those other employees, the most senior of which were two white males.  I recall that my Manager focused her explanation on the accuracy and speed I had with conducting the audits rather than saying anything negative about the two men (she did the right thing by focusing on my performance and not disclosing reasons why the other people had not been promoted to Team Lead). When the announcement was made that I would become the Team Lead, the response was indifferent as I do not recall a congratulatory atmosphere from my team but there also wasn’t any high resistance that ensued.  Well, not with that promotion.  However, a few months later there was an immediate opening in my Manager’s role due to her direct supervisor, a VP, abruptly exiting the org; there was also a Compliance role that opened. I was called into the SVP’s office along with my Manager after the VP's exit; honestly, I had no idea what was about to happen.

The meeting started off with both my Manager and the SVP being very complimentary of my work.  I was appreciative of the recognition but was still not sure why I was there.  One of my colleagues had shared with me earlier that morning that she thought I was going to be promoted again.  But in my mind, I was thinking that could not be true because my Manager is clearly aware that I’m going to law school and if anything, I needed a lateral move into something that would give me deeper expertise into the legal and compliance side of the business.  To my surprise, the SVP, who was relatively new at the organization, said she would be promoting my Manager into a VP role and that they both had discussed who would be the best person to be my Manager's successor to take over the entire audit team. They agreed that the best successor would be me. So, similar to my response to my previous promotion to Team Lead, I immediately thought about the multiple people (not just a couple of people this time) who had much more experience than me; for example, there was a contractor on the team, a white female, who had 15 years’ experience at the time. I’d gotten through the last promotion without any resistance, but as a 24-year old with barely one-year of post-closing audit experience, I didn’t think this was necessarily fair and I was concerned that the team would also have concerns.  The SVP and my Manager assured me that I was ready for this role.  They assured me that I was equipped to lead the team. The SVP even gave me a framed quote that had a picture of an eagle on it and a quote saying something to the effect “you can soar like an eagle”. That was nice and all, but I was really concerned about how this team of about 15 people (versus the prior team of approximately 6 people) were going to react when this new announcement was made. 

Well, it was a mixed reaction this time – I saw faces of indifference and faces of confusion when the announcement was made that I would be taking over the full audit team, of which I’d only worked with one segment of the audit process, both as an individual contributor and as Team Lead.  There was one other black female on my team who had started her job a couple of months after I’d joined the organization; all the other team members were white males and white females, all but 1 or 2 who had longer tenure at the organization than I’d had and most of whom had more experience in post-closing audits. What’s interesting is that I never, not once, considered that I’d been tapped for the role due to being a black female and I never, not once, thought that my team thought about my race as a decision factor (and nor did I hear any “gossip” about race or gender or the intersection of both playing a role in the SVP’s or my Manager’s decision to put me in the role). Now, I am not so naïve to believe that race may not have been a topic of discussion (or perhaps even an issue for some team members), but there was no talk of it to my knowledge. Nonetheless, I wanted to ensure that I started my new role from a good place, relationship wise, with my newly expanded team, so I scheduled one-on-one meetings; in those meetings, I told the more experienced people that I was keenly aware that I had less experience (and for some audit segments, no experience) doing the job. I emphasized that I was being charged with leading the team, so I would be looking to my team members to shine in their expertise in doing the work because that was their strengths.  Yes, back then, as a very young Manager, I utilized one-on-one meetings to establish an early rapport with each individual team member – I’ve always had a preference for small group connections over large groups and maybe it is because of the deeper connection that can be created in smaller settings (I’d learn later that this was one of my professional strengths).  I recall there was one employee who was brand new to the team, a white female and recent college grad; she cried during the one-on-one and at that time, I did not respond empathetically or sympathetically to crying at work or in public generally (motherhood changed that for me so I’m open to a public cry fest today 😀). I recall admonishing that employee for crying and encouraging her to believe that she could be successful (her crying was more about her not yet fully understanding the audit process and having a lot of errors in her work at that time; I worked with her to develop her skills in designated training sessions through one-on-one time in the mornings and she got better after about a month or so --- I made a big deal of her eventual success in the role because she was really struggling with doing the job).

I tell this story mainly to say, communication and trust, along with a dose of empathy, can go a long way in leadership and particularly when leading diverse teams.  I did not necessarily know that what I was doing was a formula for successfully managing a diverse team – diverse in age, experience, backgrounds, cultural exposure, race, gender, sexual orientation and abilities.  I simply did what I thought was the right thing to do and things that reflected my character, qualities and personal values, as well as the organization’s values.  I’d later learn that a Gallup Strengths Finder Assessment would reveal that my top 5 strengths are Achiever, Learner, Intellection, Analytical and Relator. While strengths like Achiever, Learner, Intellection and Analytical likely positioned me to succeed and grow so quickly in developing my skills and capabilities in the auditor role, the Relator quality is what I’ve come to learn is actually the most powerful quality of my Top 5 strengths. Gallup notes that transparency and trust are at the center of the Relator strength, and for me it’s been a particularly helpful quality and has guided how I’ve blended all of my diverse career portfolio experience into TULIP’s services; in addition, Gallup describes Relators as people who enjoy working hard to achieve a goal.  That’s me!  However, it’s also me to be challenged when I cannot effectively navigate relating to people and even moreso when people are not making a genuine effort to relate to me (it’s a 2-way street, and I don’t have to necessarily like you to work with you, but I do need to understand and trust you and vice versa). Still, there are times when alignment is simply not possible, but those, I believe, are very rare times.  I’m happy to say that my entire team of 15 (plus a few more people I hired later on to join the audit team) stayed with me, not having a single resignation; and together, we were a high-performing team.  The SVP and my Manager (who became a VP with my promotion to her role) took me a baseball game to celebrate the successful transition. 

This story is essentially a case study that I use to talk about meritocracy in what could have been viewed as a race-conscious decision because I had fewer years’ experience than others, in the organization and in my same team, as an Auditor, but my performance track record was viewed as a successful one in a short amount of time.  However, the decision to promote me on both occasions was not solely driven by the hard skills I possessed, but my then Manager and the SVP saw something in 24-year old me that was reflected in my soft skills like people interaction and the ability to connect, a natural affinity for being transparent and a "mature beyond my years way of" connecting with people beyond the “desk work” and in a collaborative way that put my vulnerability on display without compromising my ability to effectively lead teams --- I took this same approach in another role where I’d not had any experience whatsoever and it, too, became one of my most successful professional endeavors to date with real and tangible results that are benefitting communities and mass numbers of people and will continue to do so for many years to come. In both instances, the meritocracy I demonstrated was based on a totality of qualifications - mainly education, hard and soft skills, abilities, capabilities, and high performance potential. Sadly, I'm not so sure reactions to a promotion under similar circumstances today would end the same way. Based on the perceptions of DEI today, I think resistance would be high (likely very high) and outcries of a race-conscious decision-making process would be prevalent about a promotion of the only black female in the office with the least experience, regardless of being viewed by leadership as the most qualified. I'm doubtful that I would be given the opportunity to ultimately prove that I could be successful because the scrutiny would probably be so high and the focus would more than likely be on perfection rather than performance, which should inevitably accommodate errors with an expectation that a leader will be accountable, fix the error and learn from the mistake to decrease the likelihood of it occurring again. Today, the issue of race is more often debated first with allegations that meritocracy is not a part of the decision analysis even when qualifications have been clearly established.

It is unfortunate that the meritocracy question in DEI is one that has been unwarrantedly rooted in a race-conscious debate and oftentimes not taking into account the comparative qualifications and needs required to be effective, at least not taken into account as a starting point in the debate.  If you lead the DEI debate with race, then you will always focus on race and never evaluate situations like candidate selection based on a totality of qualifications and needs.  And you will also see that particular candidate’s flaws, even the least of them, through a race lens, making it easy to fall back on the argument that the decision analysis led to a race-driven outcome rather than one based on qualifications.  In simplest terms, meritocracy means being selected based on abilities; therefore, if we lead with the abilities and skills assessment we can have a more relevant debate about qualifications; when people are equally qualified, then we can talk about other needs “beyond the desk” (however, I believe people are uniquely different with attributes that can be distinguished in a qualification analysis such that “equally qualified” will tend to be a rare occurrence in a well-defined, race-neutral evaluation rubric). 

By no means do I want to make overcoming the meritocracy debate seem straightforward.  Similar to a change management approach, it will require meeting your audience where they are as a starting point, actively listening to understand the drivers for pain points and then targeting the pain points appropriately --- even if you do not achieve transformational acceptance that meritocracy and DEI are not mutually exclusive, there should be an incremental goal for achieving understanding that DEI is not devoid of meritocracy at a minimum. If we're going to create workforce experiences that work, the thought of DEI as the antithesis of meritocracy has to dismissed. The myth must be debunked. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), as described above in the first paragraph, makes sense and numerous statistics have been shared on why it makes business sense to advance these concepts in the workplace. More importantly, the lack of DEI in workplaces is a high risk due to workers valuing diverse workforces, equitable work environments and inclusive cultures --- a variety of data-driven statistics also support this perspective. TULIP Advisory Professionals can help support your DEI efforts through our data-driven and objective DEI Strategic Advisory services.  To inquire further, feel free to contact us by email at or by phone at (678) 990-0910.  We look forward to hearing from you!

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