Bill Proudman was working as a leadership development consultant in the 1990s when he realised something that white men were not participating in discussions about diversity and that diversity work was often left to women and minorities.
It’s not an uncommon phenomenon for anyone who has attended diversity events in the UK, even today.
Proudman decided there was a need to target white men and bring them into the diversity conversation. He set about developing a model for doing so and gave his approach a deliberately provocative name, White Men as Full Diversity Partners, linking up with Michael Welp who had been working on interracial team-building with over a dozen South African corporations through the organisation Outward Bound.
“People often focus on the white men bit of the title, but the real message is in the diversity partners part,” says Henry Moreno, WMFDP’s marketing and business development director.
He says the organisation is unique in its focus on senior leaders and deep experiential learning. One of its main programmes is the White Men’s Caucus which aims to tackle racism, sexism and homophobia through 3.5 days of in-depth interactive workshops focusing on unconscious bias and privilege. The idea is to create courageous leaders who can transform workplace cultures, acting as diversity champions in their organisations. There are a series of follow-up and other programmes.
Henry says three and a half days is necessary to give people the space to do something meaningful. “It’s not just a tick the box thing,” says Henry. “It’s very dynamic. We have seen quite mature senior executives really caught totally unawares and begin to question themselves and how they are perceived. Some who have been forced to come by their organisation can be quite negative or cautious at the beginning. By the end of the process they are hugging each other because they have been through a profound experience which they then carry back home.”
The programme is very much not about blaming and shaming white men. It’s more about raising awareness and shifting mindsets so participants can go back to their organisation and act as passionate champions of change.
“These programmes don’t just affect the workplace, but also participants’ home lives,” says Henry. In Michael Welp’s recent book on WMFP’s work, “Four Days to Change”, he cites one participant talking about the impact on his family life. He talks about the improvement in his relationship with his wife. The man says: “I think the radical habits and leadership skills are going to be great tools to make my marriage work. I do listen much more. [My wife] has really noticed I am willing to be in my heart and share what’s real to me. Once in a while I digress into problem solving or not listening, but the bar is set higher and she holds me accountable.”
Henry adds that one of the challenges the organisation faces is showing how the programme affects businesses’ bottom line. “It takes time for lasting change to take place,” he states. WMFDP has a lot of anecdotal data and some companies have stayed with them for over five years. They have started by sending their senior executives and WMFDP now works with their mid-level managers. They are partnering with the research firm Catalyst.org to measure what changes the programme has brought.
They have some success stories on their website. Global aerospace company Lockheed Martin, for instance, has substantially increased the percentages of women in leadership roles – up from 13% to 33% at board level – and engaged men. Henry adds, though, that it is not just about head count, but about lasting cultural change.
Henry says there has been a big change in the US in the last few years, driven by media attention on diversity issues and research showing diversity is good for business. “I would love to say we are at a tipping point, but there is always slippage. We see this as a process to get everyone involved in creating good business and more effective teams.”
Henry says that WMFDP’s surveys show successful diversity programmes require senior leadership buy-in. “That shows it was smart to start with the C-suite,” he states.
Many of the organisations WMFDP works with are global firms, such as Dell, and it has done sessions with their UK and Asian operations. It is also exploring potential international partnerships, for instance, in South Africa. However, it is keen not to overstretch itself and to ensure it has the right people with the right skills to cater to the demand. “A year ago we were at a crossroads. It was that point where you ask what do you want to be when you grow up. We concluded that we need to keep our eye on the ball and refine our work, ensuring quality with growth,” says Henry.
In his introduction to “Four Days to Change”, Bill Proudman says: “Our 20 years of experience have shown us that leaders steer clear of tough conversations [around inclusion and equity] because they have never been taught how to have such conversations. Furthermore, the burden to raise these issues usually falls to those who are most impacted by them: people of colour, women, LGBT individuals and other victims of discrimination. Meanwhile, white men, who often feel defensive and attacked, avoid the conversations at all costs.”
He adds that organisations often struggle to find ways to grow the tough leadership skills needed in today’s business world. He says: “Yet these messy diversity issues provide an ideal arena to grow leadership skills in every employee, including courage, integrating head and heart, and the ability to have difficult conversations.”
It’s not just about creating more diverse organisations therefore, but about something much broader and more enduring.