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In Search of Your Hidden Figures

by Mark Busine and Stephanie Neal

Dorothy VaughanThe book and film “Hidden Figures,” tells the remarkable story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson–brilliant African-American women working at NASA who broke through immense social and organizational barriers to make a significant contribution to the U.S. space effort in the 1960s. With NASA confronted by a whole new set of challenges, these three women were reluctantly given the opportunity to serve as the brains behind key elements of the U.S. space program, including the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, an achievement that allowed the U.S. to gain a significant advantage over the Soviet Union in the Space Race.

While the story is certainly a compelling tale of the underdogs rising to the top, the play on words within the title reveals much more. “Figures” certainly refers to the all-important coordinates that allowed John Glenn to return to earth safely but perhaps more importantly, signifies the cost and the opportunity of talent lying hidden and dormant within an organization.

In every organization there are people who get noticed and who are identified as having potential. Often these are the people who raise their hands, or who best fit a profile or past view of success. Others, meanwhile, go unnoticed, or are reluctant to step forward. Anyone who isn’t formally identified or sought out can represent the hidden figures of an organization—the talent that an organization is missing and that, if discovered, could propel future growth.

The Disruption Imperative

The business case for unleashing hidden potential or greater diversity is strong with numerous studies, including our ongoing Global Leadership Forecast research, which provides a mass of evidence underscoring the ROI of diversity and diverse thinking. But what are some of the characteristics of today’s business and leadership landscape that make it an imperative?

Digital Disruption: Nearly all industries are faced with the disruptive impact of rapidly evolving competition and digital technologies, so the risk of stagnation when it comes to innovation is severe. Eighty-four percent of C-suite executives indicate their businesses already operate in an increasingly disrupted environment (GLF 2018), and 90 percent of CEOs believe their company is facing more disruptive change driven by digital technologies (Deloitte).

While industry disruption is not new, the characteristics of disruption in today’s business environment accentuate the need for new and different perspectives. Consider some of the more high-profile companies that have disrupted industries, such as Airbnb in hospitality, Uber in transportation, and Alibaba in retail and financial services. In most cases, the individuals behind these companies emerged from outside the industry. They brought perspectives and ideas that weren’t constrained by ingrained views of their market. Furthermore, they leveraged the power of digital technology to break through historical barriers to entry.

DDI’s research of more than 2,400 organizations, found that those organizations who are better adjusted for disruption, and who were rated by their leaders in the top-third for agility, were far more likely to develop new solutions through diverse perspectives. As you can see below in the upper left section in yellow, 77 percent of more agile organizations rely on multiple and diverse perspectives to generate their new solutions and products. By comparison—half that number, only 34 percent of less agile organizations leverage diverse perspectives.

Organizational Practices that Drive Organizational Agility

The challenge and opportunity for companies today is to internalize disruption, but too often they rely on the same people with the same perspectives to do this. While companies can go outside to source new talent and perspectives, the biggest opportunity lies within; finding ways to surface and leverage new thinking and perspectives within their organization.

The Knowledge Economy: Perhaps the most significant change over the last few decades has been the transition from an economic society based on physical and tangible assets, such as plants and equipment, to one based on intangible assets, such as customer relationships, brand, ideas, and innovation. For organizations, this transition, and therefore the source of competitive advantage, is largely driven by the quality of talent.

While this shift has been in play for several years, the priority has changed. Through the first two decades of the “knowledge economy,” the focus was on capturing, managing, and sharing existing knowledge. In more recent times, the need has shifted to how organizations can rapidly create new knowledge through ideas, innovations, and new ways of working.

The shift to knowledge-based economies is the context underpinning the work of University of Michigan professor, Scott Page. In his book, The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy, Page demonstrates how diversity often trumps ability, and how a group of ordinary people who are diverse can outperform a group of like-minded experts. There’s a bonus for seeking out diverse perspectives, and likewise, a cost to continuing to rely on the same old perspectives. Page’s research shows that when you solve problems from predominantly one perspective, you build in an error rate of about 30 percent. For organizations, this means even if one type of talent has provided some moderate successes in the past, continuing to tap that same kind of talent could be detrimental.  

New research out of NC State University showed that among the 3,000 largest publicly-traded companies, those with more diverse workforces were more efficient in generating new products and patents; they demonstrated a causal link between diversity and increased innovation as well as a stronger financial position. (Do Pro‐Diversity Policies Improve Corporate Innovation? Roger C. Mayer, Richard S. Warr, Jing Zhao)

Page argues that, “as we transition to a knowledge economy and as more people work in teams on complex tasks, diversity bonuses become more relevant.”

Poor, Weak and Nonexistent

Despite decades of focus and aspiration, companies still struggle to drive diversity. According to MIT Sloan Review, 71 percent of organizations in North America aspire toward having a diverse culture, yet only 11 percent report having one.

Similarly, our Global Leadership Forecast research demonstrates that little progress has been made in tapping diversity, and leaders recognize the problem. Fewer than one-third of leaders we polled (32 percent) claim their organization recruits and promotes from a diverse pool. Only 28 percent said their organization accelerate leaders from all functions and parts of the organization; a sign that they continue to rely on the same people with the same perspectives. And even fewer (15 percent) say that they successfully identify and raise the profile of employees from underrepresented groups. And when asked to describe their organization’s ability to unleash hidden potential, leaders overall were mostly negative with words like “poor,” “weak,” and “nonexistent” most commonly used.

What We Can Learn from David Bowie, Elton John, and the BBC

In the 1960s the BBC set up an internal group called the Talent Selection Group to identify emerging talent for the relatively new but rapidly evolving pop music industry. Through an audition process, artists like Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, and David Bowie were given the opportunity to demonstrate their talents and secure much needed national radio exposure. According to documents released a few years back and presented in a documentary, “Auditioning for Auntie,” many of these artists failed to impress their ‘civil service style’ talent spotters. Elton John’s audition was described as “pretentious material, self-written, sung in an extremely dull fashion without any feeling and precious little musical ability.” David Bowie was an “amateur sounding vocalist who sings wrong notes and out of tune.”

While many artists including Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles did make it through the audition process, many other future superstars including the Rolling Stones were dismissed by the BBC talent spotters.

So, what went wrong?

While there is the possibility that the artists failed to shine on the day of the audition, this example points to some common mistakes associated with identifying hidden potential.

What Are We Looking For?

Given a very different and rapidly changing context through the ‘60s and ‘70s when many of these artists ultimately shot to fame, did the BBC talent spotters really know what they were looking for or were their views and criteria for success shaped by what had made artists successful in the past?

Whether identifying future potential or selecting for a role, one of the most common mistakes organizations make is not being clear about what they are looking for and ensuring that it reflects the context for both now and the future.

A clear definition of success, like DDI’s Success Profiles, informed by a company’s unique strategic and cultural priorities, not only guides better decisions, but also helps to level the playing field for those who might otherwise be missed.

When Subjectivity Rules

The BBC’s head of popular music during the 1960s, Donald McLean, said of the talent spotters, “They were nice people, but very old fashioned.”

It’s reasonable to conclude that the individuals involved in the talent selection process did not intentionally set out to exclude artists like Bowie or the Rolling Stones. That would have been foolish. But when decisions are based on individual perceptions and reinforced by like-minded individuals, anyone is prone to errors of judgement. As this example highlights, this not only leads to poor decisions, it also increases the risk of missing key talent.

The key to breaking this bias and opening ourselves to new possibilities is to bring multiple perspectives and objectivity to the decisions that are made. This can be done by:

  • Better preparing leaders to be talent scouts; ensuring they have the skills and mindsets to spot talent and manage their own biases
  • Using objective assessment and data to enhance the quality and efficacy of people decisions across an organization.
  • Leverage systems and tools, such as behavioral interviewing, to circuit break individual preferences and subjectivity

Hidden Potential Needs an Astronaut

While the heroes of the “Hidden Figures” story are undoubtedly the three African American women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the astronaut at the center of the story, John Glenn, played a profound role confronting the conscious and unconscious biases that were holding NASA back. His support and advocacy for Johnson sent a powerful message to others inside and outside the project. He understood the personal implication of the task and in that context was prepared to challenge prevailing views and assumptions that were limiting opportunities for these individuals.

Every company needs astronauts like John Glenn. While we would all like to think that extraordinary talent will find its way to the surface or that everyone will have the same opportunity to shine, the fact remains that certain groups are underrepresented in various programs, initiatives, and roles across organizations. And this represents a significant risk. With a rapidly changing business landscape characterized by digital disruption, business transformation, and an increasingly competitive business landscape, hidden talent within an organization represents a competitor’s greatest advantage. Fortunately, it is also a company’s greatest opportunity.

To find out more, check out DDI’s eBook, Unleash Hidden Potential: Build Your Competitive Edge Through Diversity and Inclusion.

Mark Busine is General Manager, Go To Market. Passionate and curious about the field of leadership, Mark is always looking for creative ways to solve client problems. This creative orientation extends outside work where he dabbles in the fine art of song writing convinced that a worldwide number one hit is just around the corner.

Stephanie Neal is a research consultant for the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER). She conducts evaluation studies and research on leadership and talent in the workplace, and is a co-author of DDI's Global Leadership Forecast.

Posted: 11 Jul, 2018,
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