The “best” person for the job

In today’s news feeds, there was a story which caught my eye about Michelle Guthrie, the head of Australia’s national broadcaster and the focus that was being given by the ABC to the diversity of the people across the organisation, and especially in leadership roles.

What was most interesting about these articles was not so much that the ABC recognises the importance of reflecting the diverse nature of their viewing public, but the number of comments below the story, seemingly discounting the benefits of diversity in favour of “hiring the best person for the job”. The inherent message in these comments seemed to be that diversity and individual differences should be ignored and only merit should be considered when filling roles.

And with that, we are back to the age-old debate where diversity and merit are considered by some, as being mutually exclusive.

Having worked in the diversity and inclusion space for well over a decade now, this line of commentary is nothing new. The merit argument is one that repeats itself ad nauseam and seemingly only when people feel uncomfortable with efforts to level the playing field.

When diversity in leadership positions is being discussed and short-term, extraordinary measures are being considered to ensure a more diverse and robust workforce, it should never be at the expense of experience and know-how. Competence to perform any role well should always be non-negotiable – irrespective of someone’s eye or skin colour, gender or working style. No diversity advocate would ever argue otherwise. It is what comes next that is crucial. Once competence is established, what then? Why do the majority of appointed leaders share so many traits? Why, by current standards, does competence equate to only white, able-bodied, heterosexual men of a certain age? Are we saying that this is the only measure of merit? Certainly, in many cases, white, able-bodied, heterosexual men of a certain age are very well qualified to hold positions of leadership, but are they the only truly competent people that organisations have to choose their leadership team from? And why is it so difficult to equate competence with anything that looks different to this traditional stereotype?

The answer lies in the human condition of preferring to surround ourselves with people who are most like us. Difference in backgrounds, working styles and personalities, make all of us inherently uncomfortable. And although in and of itself this is not a problem in our day to day lives, the question needs to be asked, what impact is this fear of difference having on many organisations?

To overcome this preference for “sameness”, it is crucial that organisations put in checks and balances to ensure that they are selecting competent candidates from as broad a talent pool as possible. Ensuring a bias free recruitment and promotion process, and a review of all key people processes as well as considering the diversity of decision makers, are all steps that organisations can take to ensure that true merit is recognised.

Now, more than ever, organisations will need to innovate in order to thrive in an ever-changing global business environment. The way to do this is not through uniformity, but rather through leveraging the skills and competence of many.