November 30, 2021

Leader Accountability: The Next and Long Overdue DEI Frontier

Mitchell Karp

Why do so many diversity, equity, and inclusion (“DEI”) initiatives stall or are get labeled as “ineffective”? One major reason is insufficient accountability at the top for making DEI work. But this is a solvable problem. 

The truism, “That which gets measured, gets done” is particularly apt when focusing on leadership accountability for DEI. We have found that organizations that strive for DEI success will greatly increase their chances if they measure their leaders on five important dimensions of leadership accountability. Through our work, we have seen that these five metrics can create a ripple effect of DEI success, especially when they are incorporated into the compensation and promotion processes.

Five Metrics That Increase Leadership Accountability

Success at DEI requires organizations to measure, monitor, and reward their leaders’ efforts – from mid-level managers to the partners or executives who run the organization – in five key areas.

  1. Who gets hired and promoted
  2. Who gets the high-profile work
  3. Who gets mentored and sponsored
  4. Who gets included in business development opportunities
  5. How actively leaders support DEI efforts

  1. Who gets hired and promoted

Almost every organizational leader is involved in hiring or talent selection. But very few organizations track the racial and gender demographics of the people they hire and promote during a given period of time (e.g., in the last 12 months). This is a question all too rarely asked and quantified and a missed opportunity for the organization. If leaders don’t track this information, it is extremely difficult to improve the demographic diversity of the talent pool.

While people from under-represented groups may make it through the initial round of interviews, far too often they are absent from the final slate of candidates or ultimately are not selected for the position. And all too often, those who hired may not be apprised of the organization’s unwritten rules about the culture, which are crucial for success. In addition, leaders are less likely to provide employees from under-represented groups with the candid and constructive feedback essential for career success and are more likely to highlight the missteps of such individuals in annual performance reviews.

Letting everyone know in advance that they will need to explain their talent selection decisions (for initial hirings and promotions) can positively influence the outcome. One of our clients began requiring leaders to have a diverse slate in the final candidate pool – and explain why each candidate was or wasn’t selected. The result was a 25-30% improvement in the demographic diversity of new hires and promotions within 12-18 months.

Who gets the high-profile work

When people from under-represented groups are also under-represented in an organization’s most important and lucrative work, it sends a strong signal that they are of marginal value. Changing this dynamic requires leaders to be intentional and deliberate when composing their project teams.

This can go against human tendency to gravitate toward the familiar – choosing people we have worked with before or with whom we share something in common. Such unconscious affinity or similarity biases can impede building strong relationships with employees from under-represented groups. These unconscious biases often cause leaders to interpret the same behavior differently for different people. For example, assertive white males are typically viewed as passionate and committed. But when women or people of color are assertive, they are frequently criticized for being aggressive and dogmatic thereby limiting their professional development opportunities.

Improving DEI metrics requires partners and leaders to be deliberate about expanding their networks. Requiring them to list the gender and racial identities of the people with whom they worked closely over the past year – who they selected to join or lead project or deal teams, for example – may reveal previously unacknowledged patterns. Data analytic tools that allow organizations to compile this information are increasingly available, and a number of our clients now use such tools to create scorecards that monitor and track progress on these diversity demographics. One law firm client compiled associate utilization rates by race and gender and then set up quarterly meetings with partners to review the diversity demographics of their teams. These regular check-ins heightened awareness and encouraged partners to make appropriate adjustments.

  1. Who gets mentored and sponsored

Joining a new department, team, or organization can be difficult, particularly if you lack advocates or “cultural informants.”  Formal mentoring and sponsorship programs, when well-managed and closely monitored, have been shown to help members of under-represented groups acclimate to and advance within an organization. Informal mentoring and sponsorship are important too. (In fact, they sometimes have a better track record of accelerating professional development.) What’s involved here? Effective mentoring and sponsorship are about more than providing advice and facilitating introductions. It involves assigning people to high-profile or stretch projects and offering real-time candid and constructive feedback.

Mentoring and sponsoring across difference – race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and physical ability – can be challenging but is essential to improving DEI.  But we must begin by acknowledging the natural human tendency to mentor and sponsor people who are like us – those who remind us of our younger selves – often referred to as the “mini-me” syndrome[1]. DEI workshops can help leaders get past the initial awkwardness and develop the skills needed to build authentic relationships across difference. But these, alone, may not produce the desired results unless there is significant organizational support and a real commitment to making a difference.

Asking partners and leaders to list the demographic identity of each person they have mentored or sponsored over the past year, and then checking to see if those on the list concur, provides a heightened level of scrutiny to this key aspect of talent retention and development. Incorporating this information into every leader’s annual performance review should be recognized as a best practice and become routine. One of our investment firm clients has already incorporated such a “conscious inclusion” competency into its performance review process, and we expect more will soon follow suit.

  1. Who gets included in business development opportunities

No matter the profession or type of organization, many leaders are evaluated on their ability to increase revenue or “grow the business.” Therefore, building strong relationships with key decision-makers among existing and potential clients is critical. Those relationships are always based on familiarity and trust. Leaders need to help colleagues and protégés – particularly those from under-represented groups – raise their professional profile, get to know current or potential clients, and develop new business opportunities. They can do this by inviting them to attend social or professional events, participate on panels, and be part of a pitch team. When a leader introduces a colleague or protégé to a client and endorses them as a “go to” person, or passes on a client to someone when they retire, or refers a client to an internal colleague for additional expertise, they are helping that person build their book of business and raise their professional profile.

Too often this is done informally or not tracked consistently. Here, too, asking leaders to list the gender and racial identities of the people they invite to join them at client-related events or pitch meetings (and beyond) will highlight and monitor these dynamics. If this data is incorporated into compensation and promotion decisions, it will increase the success of DEI initiatives.

How actively leaders support DEI efforts

People of color, women, and LGBTQ personnel often shoulder a disproportionate share of the responsibility for supporting DEI initiatives. Requiring leaders to specify the ways in which they have actively supported the organization’s DEI efforts over the previous 12 months is an important marker of commitment and accountability. Those DEI-related activities may consist of but are not limited to: serving as an executive sponsor of an ERG or affinity network; joining or leading a DEI committee or project; organizing or attending DEI-related events (especially when one is not a member of the demographic group hosting the event); or speaking at DEI conferences.

We encourage organizations to not only keep these metrics top of mind but to also incorporate them into their compensation and promotion decision-making processes. Increasing leadership accountability will help DEI initiatives achieve their important objectives.

[1]During a recent DEI workshop, when leaders were first asked to privately list the names of people they had recently mentored/sponsored and then invited to review the gender and racial identity of the names on their list, a number of leaders were surprised to discover their tendency to mentor people like

Mitchell is a co-founding partner of VallotKarp Consulting, LLC, a firm that assists corporations, law firms, private equity and financial institutions, and cultural organizations in designing and implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives that drive engagement, productivity, and innovation.