The Curly Hair Rebel Manifesto

A woman came up to me a couple of weeks ago after I spoke on a panel about Diversity and Inclusion in the National Security Sector. She was in her 20s, just trying to start her career. She kept applying for jobs, getting to the final round of interviews, but not getting hired, and was hoping I could give her some advice about getting over that final hurdle. She told me that she had even considered straightening her naturally curly hair in hopes of making a better impression.

"WHAT?!?"

Her university career counselor had suggested she do that because, presumably, curly hair is not consistent with a serious National Security demeanor.

I had no words...I was with another experienced veteran of the intelligence community. She had tears in her eyes.

How can this still be the case? How can completely irrelevant attributes of individuals impede their ability to contribute to organizations that badly need their help?

Let me get something off my curly hair.carmenpicture I'm not fond of the phrase "Diversity and Inclusion." Diversity has become the word we use to refer to minorities, thereby implying that only they can bring different opinions to the table. When in reality we are all diverse, curly-haired and straight, and should be heard when we have something to say.

And don't talk to be about Inclusion. I don't need to be included.

I BELONG.

Rebels at Work do not need to be included. We belong. Many organizations still don't appreciate that, but they're on notice now that the Harvard Business Review has recognized that organizations overvalue conformity.

I'm thinking many rebels have some type of "curly hair" in their background. They differ in some way from the norm in their organization: they think differently, they have an unusual academic degree, they're square pegs in round holes.

Don't let others persuade you that your DIFFERENCE is a PROBLEM.

Your DIFFERENCE is your SUPER POWER.

Own it. Wear it. Use it!

Brainstorm Better, Bring Diversity to your Team, and Let Others Change your Idea--Answers to your Rebels at Work Questions

I've been participating the last few months in a new web platform--wiselike--where people can ask questions of practitioners in other domains. I've been answering Rebels at Work questions and I thought I'd post some of the answers here, unedited.

What is the best way to get an idea across to top management in a big company without antagonizing your immediate boss or those who will be affected by it?

Well, I don't recommend going over your boss's head. It may work once in a while, but the odds are against you.

The best way to get an idea across in that situation is to demonstrate it. Is their part of your idea that you can start under your own power so that people could see how it works?

Another important step is to get others to support and in fact change your idea. People will support an idea that they have contributed to. Your idea needs to grow and develop, and it will do so when you share it with others. You need to remember that it's about improvement not necessarily about your sacred idea and certainly should never be about your ego?

Do you think a corporation could succeed if all its employees are 'Rebels at Work?'

Nope, not every employee can be a rebel at work, but it would be good if every employee felt that they could express their ideas at work, within reason, without fearing penalty. Of course, just because you have an idea doesn't mean it's good. But too many organizations have a top-down mentality and don't really want employees to do anything other than execute the plan. This is why so many American workers don't feel engaged at work. In fact, something like 50% of managers report not feeling engaged.

Even though I was a manager for several decades, I actually think that the traditional practice of leadership is broken. I never liked to think of myself as the leader who "called the shots." I much preferred to facilitate conditions that would lead everyone to provide the mission their discretionary energy. A leader can never make people give their discretionary energy; it is only ever volunteered.

What can I do in a company where all the managers are against a 360 feedback?

Geez. This is a tough one. Presumably the President is setting the culture of the organization and it is always tough to change a culture top-down. Couple of things I would suggest.

Is there a small thing that you can do under your own authority that moves you along the path you think is better? Seth Godin has a nice video about this http://www.managementexchange.com/video/seth-godin-how-do-you-change-system-when-you-dont-have-power

He notes that in organizations where you don't have the power you have to get people to copy good ideas.

Given that he suggested people go to HR, I would see if there is a good person you could talk to in HR not about whatever your issue is but how can to turn this "go to HR" into a process, option that could actually have impact. For example, does HR report to the management team the issues they hear from employees. I bet they don't. But that could really help. The problem with going to HR is that they will treat each complaint as an individual performance problem rather than as a symptom of an issue in the organization. You want the latter and not the former.

As an advocate of positive Rebels at Work.. How can we encourage diverse thinking within our teams?

It's important to have a team composed of diverse individuals. This isn't easy to do in the short term. So one way to encourage different thinking in the team, or at least implant it, is to invite guests to your team meetings. For example, someone from another office that you have to collaborate with. So they can share what will likely be their different perspective. When you do brainstorm, don't jump into group thinking right away. Give people a few minutes by themselves to come up with ideas/answers. Research shows that this helps generate better ideas. Otherwise the whole group follows lemming-like the first few ideas generated. If there are many people, have several tables work individually on their suggestions, and then have each table report one idea at a time. This forces people to come up with a different idea from the table that went before them.

The manager or leader of a discussion has to say things and ask questions that invite different ideas and disagreement. What am I missing? What are we getting wrong? What is the opposite of this point?

Have a process for deciding which ideas to pursue. For example you could brainstorm a whole bunch of ideas and then bucket them by safe ideas and dangerous ideas And then commit to pursuing one idea from each bucket.

On Diversity and Measuring Sticks

There are so many adjacencies to Rebels at Work, and certainly one of them is the problem of diversity in the work place. Recently I was asked to write a post for another blog on why the CIA--my old employer--has such problems attracting and advancing minorities. You can read the entire post here but I've excerpted some key sections below.

As a Puerto Rican woman who spent 32 years at CIA and nine of those years as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, you might think my experience revealed a few secrets for advancing as a minority at the Agency. But during my career, I was struck much more by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) barriers to entry and advancement that the Agency presented to people who did not come from a Western European background. Not all of the affected were members of officially recognized minority groups—you can be a different thinker regardless of your heritage or experiences. But the information CIA released on minority representation suggests ethnic and racial minorities have had the most difficulty adapting to existing cultural norms, both when they seek Agency employment and when they attempt to advance in the bureaucracy.

My hunch is that any effort to increase both minority presence and influence at CIA will falter as long as the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural barriers to entry and advancement exist. As the recently published Diversity Leadership Study concluded, the CIA does not consistently promote an inclusive culture. In my view, constructing a more inclusive culture requires the Agency to reset some of its cultural precepts, including some long-held, treasured beliefs.

One cultural precept at CIA I think harms diversity efforts is an American/northern European-centric view of the world. This perspective expressed itself in many ways, most of them quite subtle. For example, I often heard the phrase “American Exceptionalism” at CIA. Senior leaders would use it frequently, never imagining, I would think, how that might come across as patronizing to a sizeable percentage of the workforce. Even now, I feel compelled to add—lest my patriotism be challenged—that I am a proud American who believes the United States contributes in a positive way to the planet.

But I think that’s generally true of all cultures—they make positive and negative contributions to the world. It is perhaps inescapable that an American intelligence agency would default to the West as its model and icon of goodness. But Agency leadership could usefully audit their common phrases and mental shortcuts to remove ones that are egregiously Euro-centric.

Another example is a phrase I heard with some regularity from CIA officers that went something like this: “Everything in country X has fallen apart since the [pick your colonial power] left.” Although I shared my discomfort with friends, I’m ashamed to say I never pointed out directly to a colleague how such a remark might come across to members of a minority group – especially one from that particular nation.

It’s probably not obvious how such under- and overtones might relate to the lack of minority representation among CIA leaders. What I think happens is many officers struggle with being true to their own beliefs and cultural heritage even as they seek career success at the Agency. I know I did. The Diversity Leadership Study acknowledges the subtle ways in which this culture can impede the advancement of people who are different:

The Agency does not recognize the value of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, nor consistently promote an inclusive, “speak-up” culture where all opinions are heard, valued, and taken into account. Some officers disengage because when they share their thoughts and perspectives on mission or workforce issues they are not considered. [emphasis mine]

In its survey of Agency employees, the Diversity Leadership Study found that 25% of minority respondents agreed there were aspects of their identity they needed to hide to be successful at CIA, compared to 15.5% of non-minority respondents. (The percentages for LGBT and disabled individuals are even higher, at 34 and 29 percent respectively.)

So many Rebels at Work face the same difficult choice: being true to what they believe or playing the game by the rules established by the status quo. Speaking of rules, this blog post on the male measurement stick that dominates performance appraisals is well worth reading. Here's a sample quote.

We use a standard that is completely blind to almost half the talent, and gifts in the world. And then we work very hard to get everyone to fit that standard. And everyone works very hard to fit that standard, ‘speak up’, ‘be seen’, ‘don’t hide your success’, ‘negotiate better’, ‘be more confident’.

Happy Reading!!

Am I a "minority" or am I a "rebel"? Both!

As most of you know, I served for 32 years at the Central Intelligence Agency. During my last ten years there, I would attend recruiting and outreach events where I would answer questions about my career at the Agency. Given who I am, I was often asked this question: "Could you talk about what it was like being a woman and a minority at the Agency?" And I always gave the same answer: "Actually, neither of those was as much of an issue for me as just being a different thinker. Somehow I often saw things differently from everyone else." I was recalling this last week when I was thinking about what I might say at a couple of events I've been invited to speak at associated with Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts this coming week. (It's actually not a month, but a 30-day period from 15 September to 15 October.) And as I said out loud the previous paragraph, it came to me like the most gigantic "DUH" moment you can imagine. POW! A giant fist bopped me on the  head.

I had gotten it exactly backwards. It wasn't that being a different thinker was more of a career issue than being a woman or a minority. I was a different thinker in large part BECAUSE I was a woman and a Latina.

Q. You mean that it took you until one month before your 58th Birthday to figure that out!!

A. Sadly, yes.

Many sincere attempts to diversify organizations fail because the organization's leadership does not appreciate that any significant diversity effort is in fact an organizational change effort. It could very well end up being transformational for the company.

When different types of people enter the workforce--women, minorities--many actually become default Rebels at Work, although they often are not aware of their dual identities. People with different backgrounds should bring different perspectives and ideas with them. (Although truth be told, many learn as early as high school to stop volunteering their different ideas when they realize they are not welcomed.) And yet  you often hear leaders say: "It's a shame about so-and-so. Some interesting ideas but he doesn't quite know how to fit in." or "You have great potential but you need to learn to be more corporate."

And that's how diversity initiatives degrade and become more about the Appearance of Diversity than about the Impact of Diversity. The organization has made space for people who are different but no space for their different ideas. Helping Rebels be more effective at work is in fact a diversity initiative. And increasing the Impact of Diversity on an organization is in fact a Rebel initiative.