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The Brain Drain

Rather than watch high-performing women and minorities leave, some companies are putting their energies and dollars where their rhetoric is when it comes to diversity.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006
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Early on, Melissa Mans was pegged as a rising star and sent to leadership school -- not just any program, but one designed specifically for women at media giant Time Warner Inc.

"I was at the point where I was contemplating what I wanted to do next to expand my role at the company," says Mans, a telecommunications industry veteran in her mid-40s who joined Time Warner Cable in September 2003 as vice president and general manager of its Portland, Maine, division.

The one-week "Breakthrough Leadership Program" at Simmons College in Boston honed Mans' negotiation, career management and other skills and gave her a chance to meet other female leaders from across Time Warner. "It gave me a little ego boost," she says.

Mans credits the program and the networking strength she gained as factors in her promotion in February to senior vice president of customer service for Time Warner Cable's New York division.

Time Warner is in the vanguard of employers that help women and minorities climb the corporate ladder with leadership development programs, flexible work arrangements and other practices that recognize their unique talents and needs.

The company is one of 34 U.S. and European firms on the Center for Work-Life Policy's "Hidden Brain Drain Task Force," a two-year-old group that's researched why many talented women and minority professionals leave their jobs or stay but languish on the sidelines. Its goal is to develop second-generation programs to retain and promote these potential corporate leaders.

"No one feels like they've quite cracked the code yet, but progress is being made," says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, task force director and president of the Center, a New York-based nonprofit.

Many companies give lip service to diversity, but task-force members take the cause seriously. Their basic mission is to "re-imagine inclusion" -- that is, to rethink how they approach recruitment, retention and talent management.

"You have to align the work with the talent," not the other way around, says Carolyn Buck Luce, a senior partner at New York-based Ernst & Young LLP who chairs the task force. "The business model around people needs to reflect what people do," which is juggle demanding jobs with commitments to family, volunteering and other outside pursuits.

"There needs to be a new paradigm," one that equalizes career opportunities for employees in nontraditional circumstances, says Walter Cleaver, president of the New York-based Human Resource Planning Society.

Unworkable Situations

Right now, those opportunities elude many women and minority professionals, the task force says. In two studies published in 2005, it found that many "highly qualified" women and minorities -- defined as those with graduate, professional or high-honors undergraduate degrees -- quit their jobs or get stuck at a certain level. Their reasons include hidden bias and inadequately flexible working arrangements (see sidebar).

In the first study, 37 percent of the 2,443 women surveyed had left work at some point, often because of a high degree of work/life conflict. Most of them, 93 percent, wanted to go back to work, but only 74 percent did, and only 40 percent returned to full-time jobs, often because they couldn't find flexible enough arrangements. "It's difficult to get back. There are no road maps, no sign posts," Luce says.

The second survey found many minorities feel stuck at work because of subtle discrimination, such as exclusions from "old-white-boys" networks and work/life conflicts involving obligations to extended family, churches and charities.

Ironically, many minorities develop leadership skills in their volunteer work but hide this experience from their bosses for fear of reinforcing negative racial stereotypes, according to the study. They worry that revealing their involvement with churches, homeless shelters or HIV clinics, for example, will emphasize their race or religion over their talents, according to the Center.

The research has led to new policies and programs that address women's and minorities' needs, task force leaders say. The business case goes way beyond affirmative action to the global war for talent and, ultimately, a company's ability to grow and profit.

"We're past, 'It's the right thing to do.' There's got to be a business benefit," says Quinetta M. Roberson, an associate professor of HR studies at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Ithaca, N.Y.

A key benefit of diversity is an employer's ability to hire the best employees as the labor market tightens and to hang on to the ones it has. Only 17 percent of the global talent pipeline consists of white men, so employers must learn to tap into other talent pools, Hewlett says.

"If GE is to remain a leading company, we've got to get the best leaders and the best potential leaders. In a global population, that workforce is diverse," says Deborah A. Elam, chief diversity officer and a task force co-chair for Fairfield, Conn.-based General Electric Co.

Changing recruiting and retention practices is hard, but necessary, says Horacio Rozanski, chief HR officer at McLean, Va.-based Booz Allen Hamilton, also a task force co-chair: "It requires different thinking. It requires customization of programs, not one-size-fits-all."

Finally, the case for diversity goes to the very core of business -- making money. To sell their products and services in the United States and around the world, companies must understand the needs of increasingly diverse customers by welcoming diverse ideas and viewpoints in their own ranks, Hewlett says.

"I think CEOs are very receptive to that logic," she adds.

Walking the Walk

It's one thing to talk up diversity; it's another to put it into practice. The task force highlighted 22 best practices at a members' summit meeting in June. Some programs predate the task force. Others were created in response to its research.

One program that supports women is the leadership school that Mans attended, begun in 2003 because "we didn't have as many women in senior management as we thought we should have," says Patricia Fili-Krushel, Time Warner's executive vice president of administration. The school targets high-potential women who are vice presidents and senior vice presidents.

"We customized a program that focused on the skills you need to move ahead in the organization," Fili-Krushel says. Many women think it's enough to work hard and do well to get ahead, but they also need to build relationships, a skill the course emphasizes.

"I'm a big believer in networking. It's not just to find a new job. It's to learn more about the company," Fili-Krushel says. The program's 180 alumni stay in touch through a listserv and luncheons and helped launch Time Warner's women's network two years ago.

Other programs address the nonlinearity of women's careers. Among them are Booz Allen Hamilton's Adjunct Program and Lehman Brothers' Encore.

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Booz Allen breaks some of its demanding consulting work into part-time "chunks" -- a piece of research, for example -- done by former full-timers, an arrangement that allows the firm to handle extra work while keeping alumni connected. In two years, the program has resulted in two full-time rehires and nearly 100 adjunct employment contracts.

"We want to think of them as employees of the firm who are coming back," Rozanski says. "We're trying to create a special category of temporary employee. We want to offer a special package of benefits."

Meanwhile, investment banking firm Lehman Brothers last year introduced Encore to draw "off-ramped" women back to work, a program spurred by task force research and its own executives' complaints that, "I just can't find women at this [senior] level," says Anne Erni, Lehman's chief diversity officer and a task force co-chair.

"Encore says we value women who've left the workforce as a talent pool," she says. "We're also saying to young women that the landscape isn't always going to be the same," that they will be able to flex in and out of jobs in a profession known for long hours.

Lehman last year held one-day meetings in New York and London, attended by 115 women who'd left Lehman or other financial-services companies no more than three years earlier. The events featured an update on financial-world trends by Lehman executives and a workshop "to help women remarket who they are without having to apologize for taking time off," Erni says.

The results? Lehman has hired 16 or so women, half of them in telecommuting or other flexible arrangements, and built a new candidate pool. It plans to repeat the New York and London events this fall and hold one in Tokyo in early 2007.

For minorities, task force members' programs range from mandatory diversity training for top executives (Ernst & Young) to employee affinity groups (GE) and paid sabbaticals to work at nonprofits (American Express).

Pitney Bowes Inc., the Stamford, Conn.-based mail and document management company, uses an "internal resume" to learn about the skills employees gain outside work. Internal applicants can list volunteer work in addition to formal job experience on the document to give hiring managers a full picture of who they are, says Susan L. Johnson, vice president of strategic talent management and diversity leadership.

"Employees feel more open to bringing up external leadership experience, and hiring managers are more receptive to the data," she says. The internal resume is also a tool to identify potential executives for succession-planning purposes.

The internal resume and another program that matches rising leaders with board positions at nonprofits show that Pitney Bowes values the many minorities and other employees who are active volunteers in their communities, Johnson says. The example starts at the top: Pitney Bowes Chairman and CEO Michael J. Critelli is chairman of the National Urban League, in addition to other volunteer posts.

The expanded resume provides a more rounded view of employees' skills -- skills that managers might not know of otherwise and that could be transferable at work. Johnson, for example, has honed strategic planning and communication skills in volunteer positions at her church, reinforcing some of the skills she uses on the job.

As the task force shows, there's no one right way to promote diversity. All it takes is a dedicated HR executive to lead the charge: to benchmark the progress of women and minorities, come up with creative programs, sell them to the CEO and train line managers to implement them successfully.

"It has to start with a recognition that it's a strategic issue. ... This is aligning human capital to win in the marketplace," Luce says. "HR needs to get in the game and come up with solutions."

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