Michelle Obama Shares the Key to Diverse Hiring

October 7, 2019

What was the thing Michelle Obama liked best about campus recruiting as a young lawyer? You mean, beyond the fact that it gave her a chance to visit her then boyfriend Barack Obama at law school? 

She liked that it gave her a seat at the table, she said, to talk about diversifying her firm.

She encouraged a Talent Connect 2019 audience in Dallas last week to use its voice. “You’re at the table for a reason. So, don’t waste your seat.”

Mrs. Obama has certainly made her voice heard when she’s had a seat. She has long been an in-demand speaker and has recently emerged as the hottest author on the planet. Her book Becoming ruled The New York Times best-seller list for months and stands poised to, ahem, become the No. 1 memoir of all time.

But in a conversation with LinkedIn CMO Shannon Brayton in Dallas last week, Mrs. Obama was asked about the time campus recruiting was part of her job at the white-shoe Chicago firm of Sidley & Austin.

You have to have diverse voices to get diverse hiring

Mrs. Obama said that at the time larger law firms did not have enough women and minority lawyers (she noted that this is probably still true). Partners tended to recruit young lawyers who shared their background and their worldview. Firms just kept replicating themselves.

That’s why it’s important, she emphasized, to have diverse voices around the table when anyone wants diverse hiring.

Recruiters and hiring managers have to expand their networks so they’re more than a hall of mirrors

Even early in her career, Mrs. Obama was looking to give others a hand up — she wanted talented, ambitious people to be given a chance to succeed.

Mrs. Obama suggested it was a mistake for women or members of underrepresented groups to be satisfied getting to the table when they’re the only one there. 

She turned from Shannon to the hall full of talent acquisition and HR professionals and encouraged them to expand their networks and to go beyond what they know and make sure they’re not finding talent that just looks like them but instead finding the best talent that is out there.

Diversity is the engine that drives the best answers and best outcomes

Shannon asked Mrs. Obama why diversity is so important.

She said that diversity is important to getting the best answers and the best outcomes. That’s a position buttressed by an ever-growing library of research showing that diverse teams and leadership can drive better business results, more creativity, and more innovation.

She cautioned the audience to be suspicious when they get to a room where everyone looks and thinks like they do because, at its heart, diversity is really about amplifying insights.

If you really want good ideas, she said, you have to have people around who have lived different lives, seen different things, and have had different experiences.

A legacy of helping talent flourish is a powerful legacy

At the end of their conversation, Shannon asked Mrs. Obama what she has done that her childhood self would be most proud of. In her answer, Mrs. Obama focused on one of the threads that runs through her entire career, from her first job out of law school to the present — developing the next generation of leaders. 

Good leaders, she said, know when to leave. They are investing in young leaders and giving them the benefit of their learning and knowledge, she noted. The goal, she said, is not to have one or two people in the leadership pipeline but hundreds.

Mrs. Obama has always been about paying it forward, about reaching back to pull others up. She said she was glad she understood the lesson of taking risks on people who haven’t had opportunities — in the same way that people took risks on her.

Hers is a legacy — helping people achieve their dreams — that every recruiter should aspire to.

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