Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Diversity Box

Earlier this week a colleague was kind enough to share some very insightful feedback on a selection process in which few have meaningful visibility. Within his feedback, I was struck by a statement regarding the role of diversity in the selection process. Though he was very careful to clarify diversity had no meaningful impact in the selection, when it came to checking a box in the application regarding the self-reporting of one's race/ethnicity, he did "Recommend against "Declined to Respond" option." The reason why I gave that statement so much consideration is because I see it as yet another disconnect between our actions and the desired effect. We acknowledge that the diversity we seek is diversity of thought, but the process through which we are choosing to get there is based on a rather significant assumption. That assumption is people who look different, think different.

Over the years, I have met people who look nothing like me, yet think much like me. At the same time, I have met many people who looked a lot like me (poor souls), yet thought very differently. Three weeks ago I had the privilege of addressing our most recent Information Warfare Basic Course graduates. Not surprisingly the audience was predominately white males with a few women and otherwise diverse students sprinkled throughout...all there on their own merit. As part of my talk I spoke on this very subject...Diversity of Thought. While doing so, I acknowledged that we by and large looked the same and began canvassing the group. Raise your hands if you are...

A liberal arts major?
An engineer?
A product of USNA? OCS? STA-21?
A Lateral Transfer?
Prior enlisted? Information Dominance Corps Rate? Other Rate?

There were a few other categories, but I think you get the point. Turns out the audience was pretty diverse after all, but by a completely different set of metrics. That said, there is no way to measure "Diversity of Thought" given any of our selection processes (everything is selection by proxy with no personal interface between the selection authority and the candidate). In fact, over time we appear to do our best to promote a cookie cutter mindset where over time we funnel our best and brightest through similar carer paths where we "benefit" from similar experiences, grow similar knowledge, skills and abilities and make our way towards a singular mindset. So yes, we can ensure we have diverse physical characteristics, but clearly don't seem to be overly interested in ensuring diversity of thought. Despite the fact that the diversity measures I used when addressing the class were deliberate upon their selection to our wardroom (that was my last job, so I had a good idea about the educational/experiential diversity before I asked for a show if hands), so will be the migration towards a singular mindset as their careers progress. It appears that regardless of what you bring to the table, as you near the head of the table the variance in individual thought will diminish. We will make sure of that!

We continue to say we are blind to race, ethnicity and gender but we want people to check a voluntary box? I respect the opinions of my colleagues and this person in particular. Even so, I will never advise a Sailor as to how or whether to check a diversity box.


  1. The subject of diversity is fraught with chances to create divisiveness and label someone a bigot. Having said that, I’ll dive in headfirst.

    You’re right on the mark when you say we’re making a significant assumption that people who look different think differently. Equating physical attributes that are determined by Monte Carlo genetics to diversity of thought is quite a leap. And while we strive for diversity of thought, our Navy is NOT blind to race, ethnicity and sex. According to the CNO, “If we agree that diversity of thought yields better solutions, then our Navy must reflect the face of our nation.” (Remarks at the Black Data Processing Associates Annual Awards Banquet in Philadelphia on July 31st)

    I applaud the CNO’s efforts to expose to young people of all backgrounds the opportunites our Navy has to offer and his efforts to ensure we’re retaining the best people. However, to make statements such as, “diversity is the number one priority at the Naval Academy”and to send messages directing the creation of a list of diversity officers to be singled out for special monitoring and assignments could be interpreted as patently unfair as well as potentially illegal and discriminatory.

    In my opinon, it’s far more sensible to recruit, retain, and promote the “best and fully qualified” people by focusing on their specific strengths and weaknesses than to worry about physical characteristics. Everyone should have the equal opportunity to achieve and succeed based on their abilities, unhindered by any bias of race, sex, etc., period.

    BTW, I’m an “other.”

  2. Well said, Kevin! Conversations on the topic of diversity are scarce for the very reason you outlined. Heck, the most meaningful conversations we should be having require us to accept some risk before opening our mouths. Thanks for always being willing to communicate what needs to be heard, while others either choose to say nothing at all or state what they think others want to hear.

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  4. Well, you and Mr. Clean may look alike but....

    Being in the majority provides us little opportunity to experience life as a "1 in 10" type of person. Even when we are faced with the realization and uncomfortable feeling of being a minority, like being the only man at a bridal shower, we can never say "I know what it's like..." because in the end we know we will return to our majority status.

    I was taken aback by the bombardment of diversity information that came flowing at us this last year from the CNO on down. I am still unsure of the catalyst; did diversity have its own tail-hook? Doesn't seem to be prevalent to me, but I direct you to my opening thought. It is out there. The corporate game of "diversity of thought" is bologna. They have no concern about diversity of thought beyond the most recent strategy book that is being touted.

    You identified one of the great truths in life Sean when you wrote,

    “It appears that regardless of what you bring to the table, as you near the head of the table the variance in individual thought will diminish. We will make sure of that!”

    Robert Bly, an American poet, wrote in a poem about the dialog between a father and son in which there is the usual strife which happens at some point in many young men’s lives, where he becomes disappointed in his father for not being “more”. The son is warned by his weary but understanding father to not drag him any farther across the floor than “that” line, for he didn’t drag his own father any farther.

    It’s not the variance that is beaten out of us, it’s the realization that we have more than ourselves to think of, we become fathers and mothers ourselves, we are placed in charge of a growing number of sailors in our profession, and we have to become the “grown-up”. As such we begin to take a more holistic approach in making decisions.

    Perhaps I am being contrary now but, if we truly value diversity of thought then we must find ways to promote, foster and reward such thought. Life is very unfair, but it is a great teacher. Few will achieve greatness for their visionary approach because true visionaries usually fail a more often than they win. Most will simply give up and accept the world as it is, only the few will keep trying. How many light bulbs did Edison go through before he found the right filament?

    Be brave, do what is right, and do not lie – these qualities alone, if preserved, are all the diversity we should ever expect from our Sailors and all our Navy will ever need.

  5. Here is the essence of what we want. Great job 11 Steps to LCDR.

    "Be brave, do what is right, and do not lie – these qualities alone, if preserved, are all the diversity we should ever expect from our Sailors and all our Navy will ever need."

  6. 11 Steps to LCDR - Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I know who you are, which makes your point even more meaningful. As far as "growing up" goes, I am of the mind that too many of us who achieve rank or other career milestones see our "success" as somehow validating the very system and thoughts we once questioned. For that reason, I hope we continue to constructively question the status quo...

  7. Excellent post on a sensitive subject, and excellent follow-up comments as well.