Want diversity? Teach people to shape their online reputation.

When it comes to management diversity - gender, ethnic, or other dimensions - most firms are missing the most important tool they have: helping employees to shape their own reputation. While other methods are helping (e.g., new recruiting practices and support networks), some systemic issues still keep management from being as diverse as firms might like.

Here’s one way to fix that.

Who are the gatekeepers to opportunity?

In most companies, the first and most important step towards getting promoted is having your manager sponsor you. Within a hierarchy, your direct manager is the most important arbiter of your performance and the one who provides access to opportunities. If your manager supports you, then a group of other managers will review you and the stack of other candidates.

Those managers are the gatekeepers.


The promotion calculus

Comparing individual performance, particularly for most knowledge workers, has always been problematic. And, as employee-manager ratios have increased over the years, it’s become even more difficult. Now, the most common question in promotion committees tends to be:

“Does anybody know this person?”

And so, even in the most meritocratic companies, even in firms where candidates are neatly reduced to sets of numbers and standard forms, the promotion process involves a complex set of very human calculations by committee members:

  • Who’s the candidate’s manager?
  • Do I know and like them?
  • Am I dependent on them for support of my own candidate?
  • Do they work in an important area?
  • Do they have important sponsors?

The candidate’s contributions will be presented, but through the filter of their manager (or his manager). And to a room that very likely has little knowledge of the candidate or what they do.

It’s no surprise then that, even without malice, such a system tends to promote sameness. The same gatekeepers with the same set of relationships tend to make the same kinds of decisions.

A better way

Hierarchies aren’t going away anytime soon. But individuals can take more control over their visibility - and their access to opportunities - by shaping their online reputations.

“...social business platforms enable everyone at work to have more control over their reputation and greater access to opportunities...the roles of a manager as patron, arbiter, and gatekeeper are gradually coming to an end."

The reason for this is that modern tools and practices make it easier to contribute in a public way and to have those contributions valued by others. That kind of transparency and open access to an audience is much easier to achieve with the advent of social platforms. And they can give employees control over the perception of who they are, what they do, and how well they do it.

A simple experiment

For an individual, “contributing in a public way” means writing about what you do. Speaking about it. Finding and connecting people like you and driving change.

When you do these kinds of things, you create a body of work that more and more people can see. Evidence of accomplishments, business relevance, and impact. Opinions, debates, and thought leadership. All independent of your manager.

Here’s a simple experiment: imagine there’s an opportunity you’d like within a certain group, and they know your boss but they don’t know you.

Now Google yourself and see what you get.

Who are you? When someone is looking to form an opinion of you, have you made it easy to find your ideas, your work, and the feedback from your peers? Or are you just an email from your manager describing you and your accomplishments?

Are you shaping your own reputation or relying on gatekeepers to do it for you?

Teaching reputation

The good news is that you can learn all the skills you need to shape your own reputation. Some are basic life skills like writing, speaking, and building relationships. Others are relatively new, like using social tools and practices to engage an audience. The combination of all of these can be extremely powerful.

But you’ll only learn them by doing. And not in a 2-hour corporate diversity workshop.

If you’re serious about taking more control over your career, then you’ll need to actively do more to shape your online reputation. (A topic for future posts.) And if firms are serious about diversity - about really hearing from the many different voices in our firms and promoting the most effective - then they’ll help people develop the necessary skills.