April 17, 2018; Becker’s Hospital Review
It’s no longer much of a surprise to check our newsfeeds or open the daily paper and be confronted by another powerful man being accused of sexual harassment or worse. Behind the headlines, their actions and the pain they cause often mask the story of businesses and organizations that looked the other way and tolerated behavior that is fundamentally intolerable. For example, when NPQ looked at the recent downfall of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s preeminent former artistic director, James Levine, it found that his behavior, which caused his firing, was known but ignored over the long term.
In the wake of such downfalls, the major problem to manage involves looking inward to see to what degree the organization itself was part of the problem and needs to change. Even organizations that have not yet directly faced misconduct accusations would be wise to consider whether they need an organizational and cultural reboot. As R. Edward Howell, professor of public health sciences at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, explains to Becker’s Hospital Review, “A board ought to look at itself on an ongoing basis.…‘How are we doing? How are we setting the tone? Is it possible that the board had some failing that led to this misconduct or harassment?’”
But this conversation, as critical as it may be, is very hard to have. It asks board members to discuss a topic that is emotion-laden and challenge their values and behaviors. According to Antoinette Hardy-Waller, founder and CEO of the Leverage Network, “People don’t have these conversations because they are not comfortable having them. In light of what’s happened with the #MeToo movement and all the claims that have occurred, in order for organizations to reduce their risk and effectively take care of their organizations, they need to begin to have those conversations.”
Introspection will raise questions about more than individual behavior. What in the organizational structure and culture allowed abuse to occur and flourish? Often, the composition and lack of diversity in both staff and board leadership serve as red flags. If women are not significantly represented in leadership and do not wield organizational power, it will be hard to bring lasting change. From Hardy-Waller’s perspective, the impact of the headlines has led leaders to “think more deliberately about including women in the process. It clearly raises awareness around gender diversity on boards and also around the fact that we’ve been experiencing this systemic sexism for way, way too long.”
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Once a board realizes it must create a more inclusive organization, the action that follows cannot be reflexive and merely symbolic. Boards trying to demonstrate responsiveness and sensitivity can sometimes jump to hire women to fill their next senior staff positions. In seeking a quick answer to their problems, they ignore what they may know about making good hires. As a consequence, they set their new leader up for failure and do little to solve any organizational problem.
If a female candidate is promoted after an executive is dismissed for sexual misconduct, the board needs to carefully manage that transition so the executive and organization understand she was chosen for her talents and experiences, not as a patch for a sticky PR situation.
This distinction is critical because organizations often promote women or minorities to lead in difficult times. So often, in fact, the phenomenon has a name: the “glass cliff.”
Faced with the dual challenges of filling a leadership gap and demonstrating that they can change the destructive culture of their organization, a board needs to not see the two problems as one and the same. The kind of cultural change that might decrease sexual harassment and the abuse of male power needs work that goes deeper. From Hardy-Waller’s vantage point, the internal work needs to be about much more than who fills the top leadership chairs and their personal failings: “It goes beyond sexual harassment. It’s pay equity, lack of job promotion, and it’s limited board opportunities. Beyond that, how do we take it to the next level and begin to hold organizations accountable for allowing [systemic sexism] to happen in their organizations?”
The boardroom conversation becomes more difficult—but so much more valuable.—Martin Levine