This LinkedIn Exec Realized He Kept Hiring White Men — and Did Something About It

January 30, 2019

Mike Gamson, head of global solutions for LinkedIn, used to look at his direct reports and see the cream of the crop. These were people who Mike could count on to make the same decisions he would make. They were driven, ambitious, well-educated, and deeply curious. Just like Mike.

They were also nearly all white males. Just like Mike.

Where Mike saw the fruits of a meritocracy, one member of his sales team saw a boys’ club.

She brought it to his attention and, after a bit of initial denial, Mike changed course and began bringing in people with different perspectives and experiences. “Talent is really distributed very evenly in the world,” he says, “and opportunity is not.”

After nearly 12 years at the company, Mike is leaving LinkedIn in February to travel the world with his family. One of his many legacies, which includes launching our wildly successful Business Leadership Program, will be how he became a vocal and effective champion for diversity.

An eye-opening experience — and one brave woman

“I became passionate about diversity, unfortunately, from a pretty shameful scenario,” Mike says. “I woke up to the fact that my team was not diverse when a courageous woman on my team came up to me after an internal event.”

“Hey, Mike,” she said, “do you realize that everyone who was on stage this morning was a man?”

Mike admitted that he hadn’t thought about it and then he pushed back against the implication that he was biased. “No,” he said, “those are just the people who run everything here.”

“That’s my point!” she responded.

Initially, Mike didn’t get it. “I was literally blind,” he says, “to the man parade that was my event.”

But after some reflection, he realized this brave woman had a point. “Inadvertently,” Mike says, “and without malice aforethought, I had chosen men who thought like me, who looked like me, who made decisions like I did.”

Hiring a team that’s all the same makes it hard to win

Aside from the obvious problems — bad optics and basic fairness — of having a look-alike leadership team, Mike saw a more profound reason to build a diverse team.

He wanted to win. And diverse teams are much more likely to succeed. According to McKinsey, gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to financially outperform their industry average, while ethnically diverse ones are 35% more likely.

That’s probably because diversity isn’t just about skin color or gender: It’s also about having a diversity of thought, life experiences, and perspectives.

“Unconsciously,” Mike says, when he hired people like himself, “what I was saying was, ‘Wow, he really thinks about these things well, and I really feel like he’s coming to the same conclusions that I would come to, and that’s good.’”  

But that’s not good, he later realized. By assembling a team of like-minded men, Mike was just reaffirming his own thoughts. Instead of adding anything to the equation, he ensured his team had the same perspective — and the same blind spots.

“The way that you win is by having your table filled with people who think differently than you,” he says, “so you can push back on each other’s ideas and collectively come to a stronger opinion.”

Diverse teams win because they cast light on each other’s blind spots, test unspoken assumptions, and gain a fuller picture together. Recruiting for diversity isn’t simply a matter of optics or fairness, it’s a clear path to a more effective, productive team.

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Related: 50+ Ideas for Cultivating Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

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Mike’s team started to look for talent in new places and took more time hiring

Once he grasped the problem, Mike took ownership. And the first step, he says, was “accepting that we are part of the problem.”

“We must wake up to our own biases,” Mike says, “so that we can open up to the amazing talent in the world.” He and his team pivoted to support and promote more women into senior positions. These women created WiN, LinkedIn’s global sales team’s women’s initiative.

WiN identified three key areas to improve: creating an inclusive culture, investing more in women, and changing the talent acquisition process. WiN recommended specific steps to recruit a more diverse team.

First, recruiters needed to broaden their sourcing to include places outside the ones that kept producing the same kind of people. “If we continue to look only in those same places everyone else does for great talent,” Mike says, “we’re going to find a very narrow slice of what the world can offer. But if we expand our aperture and look for talent in all the places talent lives, we’re going to do a much better job hiring diversely and as a result come to better decisions around the table.”

Second, recruiters needed to stop measuring results with a stopwatch. “We weren’t giving ourselves enough time,” Mike says, “to look more deeply for the best candidate anywhere.”

The presence of women among Mike’s global directors has gone from 5% when he had his lightning-bolt moment to over 40% today. His overall team is now 51% women. And more than 20% of his team’s new hires over the last two years have been Black or Latino.

The work at LinkedIn is far from over. Our most recent diversity report showed women now represent nearly 43% of our global workforce. Women also make up  39.1% of our company’s leadership, an increase of 12% in the last two years and 49% in the last four. In other areas, including efforts to increase representation of Black (3.3%) and Latino (5.7%) talent in the U.S., we have not had the same kind of increases.

So, we’re magnifying our effort. Seeing the data, a group of employees and leaders created an initiative called LEAD (LinkedIn Engagement and Development). The program focuses on attracting more Black and Latino talent, fostering their growth and development within LinkedIn, and creating an inclusive and belonging culture.

As part of LEAD, employees and people managers across the U.S. participate in a range of activities; one program we launched last spring was a Culture Workshop series for U.S. people managers to give them tools and training to develop inclusive and compassionate leadership skills with the aim of attracting, engaging, and developing Black and Latino talent. This attract, engage and develop model has also begun to be replicated across our other diversity, inclusion and belonging employee resource groups around the world.

While there’s still a lot of work to be done, Mike has moved things in the right direction. “We have a mission and a vision that we believe is worth fulfilling,” he says. “We know that the path to get there is through a diverse team that can express their opinions and thrive with those different thought processes.”

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