Token Leaders

This story describes a good example of a widespread phenomenon:

Rep. Barbara Lee will be joining the House Democratic leadership team, filling a key void for the caucus after its elections earlier this week left the group without a woman of color in the top ranks.

Lee is expected to fill a new position being created by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to oversee the Steering and Policy Committee, the panel that determines committee assignments for Democrats.

The decision to elevate Lee comes as a group of House Democrats, disappointed by both Lee’s narrow loss in the race for caucus chair earlier this week and that lack of a woman of color in leadership, was planning to ask Pelosi to do just that.

Don’t have a minority in a position of leadership in your organisation? Well, just invent a new position, have a minority fill it, and pretend they are now a leader.

This phenomenon was discussed in yesterday’s podcast with William of Ockham, after he spoke of a highly-competent woman who found herself holding down a position which appeared to have been created just for her. When local content legislation started gaining traction in the various oil patches around the world, organisations ballooned as positions were invented to fill with locals allowing quotas to be met. I knew an Azeri who’d previously worked for BP in Baku who told me his department went from about 5 people to 15 even though its function and workload remained the same. He got out of there pronto.

If a functioning, profitable organisation is told to put more people of X in position Y, they are less likely to replace the Y incumbent with X than create new positions with the Y-label attached and fill them with X. So rather than prominent companies hiring female CEOs, they demonstrated their commitment to diverse leadership by elevating the HR function to director level. Some years back I attended a town hall meeting where the senior management of an oil major took questions from the drones on how they intended to deal with an extended period of low oil prices. The assembled big cheeses were all men, except for the HR representative. In the three hours that followed nobody asked her a single question, because unless there is a headcount reduction in the pipeline nobody cares what HR has to say. But as the session was drawing to a close the HR director seized the microphone and delivered a five minute monologue answering questions nobody asked. One must always justify one’s existence in an organisation.

This is probably why some people are agitating for diversity to be separated from HR into its own function: it will open up another female position in the (shudder) C-suite. A few weeks back, as part of my course, I was asked to read this article regarding the high turnover of Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs). It contained this gem of a line:

Let’s start with a simple question: What does a CMO actually do? Surprisingly, there is no clear, widely accepted answer.

Followed by:

In our research we’ve interviewed more than 300 executive recruiters, CEOs, and CMOs; conducted multiple CMO surveys; performed an analysis of 170 CMO job descriptions at large firms; and reviewed over 500 LinkedIn profiles of CMOs. We’ve discovered extreme variations in the responsibilities CMOs are given and in the skills, training, and experience of the people who occupy the role.

The article’s main thrust is that the CMO role is ill-defined and CEOs have no idea what to do with them. So how did we end up here? Well, just ask Nancy Pelosi.

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9 thoughts on “Token Leaders

  1. I was listening in the car this morning, and that segment reminded me of something I read about companies tendering for I think it was Chicago / Cook County public contracts, which had been reserved for minority-owned companies.

    To cut a long story short, and if I’ve recalled it correctly some enterprising Persons of Pallor effectively set up minority-owned front companies as strawmen to bid for the contracts, who then indeed subcontracted it to the real company. It seemed to run along the lines of “we’ll pay you handsomely to front for us and own this company for us, to go and have pictures taken with you shaking hands with local politicians and so on, provided you keep your mouth shut as to how the deal is structured”.

    As you said, people react to incentives… Particularly in corrupt jurisdictions like Chicago…

  2. I imagine in Chicago they were also told not to think of ‘grabbing the mike’ or causing trouble in any way – or else something unfortunate might befall their grandmother.

    On a sort of related topic there’s a whole doodah in today’s Guardian about how racist we all are. One of the stats they bemoan is the high dropout rate of BAME students at uni. This, of course, has precisely zero to do with positive discrimination at the entry phase and loads BAME students not really being up to their course. Oh no. It’s all because of something. Something racist like expecting them to complete their assignments and pass tests and shit. Monsters!

  3. @abacab

    Not just in corrupt jurisdictions – many years ago changes in Federal mandates required pensions funds to do a certain percentage of their transactions via minority owned businesses, leading to some enterprising BAMEs working for big securities firms to set up fronts and contract out all the work to their former employers. A nice earner – and utterly stupid – it enriched people who were already well off and encouraged them into a parasitic role rather than pursue productive roles.

  4. some enterprising Persons of Pallor effectively set up minority-owned front companies as strawmen to bid for the contracts, who then indeed subcontracted it to the real company.

    This happens in Nigeria. If you want to buy valves from company X in Europe you have to go through their “local vendor”. He will often be a single individual working from a hotmail address without an office, and he will take a 20% cut right there. He will know nothing about valves, but all correspondence will have to go through him. Quite often he will be a relative of someone in the purchasing department of a major client or someone in the authority that ensures local content legislation is adhered to.

  5. The article’s main thrust is that the CMO role is ill-defined and CEOs have no idea what to do with them

    You missed off ‘so its conclusion was that the position was unneccessary and should be phased out’, right?

  6. You missed off ‘so its conclusion was that the position was unneccessary and should be phased out’, right?

    That was the conclusion I reached. Sadly I didn’t get the opportunity to share it with the class.

  7. Hi Tim
    Actually the problem is more interesting than that. A big part of the disconnect in that article is driven by the fact that “commercialisation” or old style marketing (back in the days of I know 50% of my advertising spend is wasted I just dont know which 50%) is what marketing was expected to be, so lots of CEOs assume that is all CMOs should do. In fact thanks to the internet and social media marketing, CMOs actually have far better market insights than was previously the case (lots of feedback), which means there are clashes of expectations – the CMOs should in many cases be doing more strategic roles.

    Role creation is a problem, but this article isn’t quite as bad as you make out methinks.

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