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Beyond Allyship to Universal Advocacy

We get to choose for whom we serve as allies, but creating equitable and inclusive cultures requires us to be so for everyone.

Women’s History Month is over so we can stop talking about allyship now, right? Nope.

Allyship isn’t something to do on occasion: It’s the essence of what effective executive leadership truly is if we continue to claim, truthfully, that our people are our greatest asset.

In virtually every firm, no matter its size, people are its greatest expense. Or, alternatively conceived, people are its greatest investment … which means that we executive leaders are charged with achieving the greatest long-term return on this greatest investment. Do our leadership activities and calendars reflect this?

If we’re to optimize our "human capital," it’s incumbent upon us to seek an ever greater diversity in this talent, to ensure that it’s fully included in the life of our organizations and has equitable access to the opportunities therein and to confirm that it’s recognized and rewarded justly for the contribution that it makes to our success.

One of the most important aspects of this leadership by example is cultivating all of the talent in our organizations. At present, we refer to this sponsorship function as allyship and conceive of it as being a leadership action that needs to be more broadly directed to include "the other" within our organizations. To be blunt, it seems to happen naturally between and among white, heterosexual men, but far less so with anyone else.

So in March we remind ourselves to be allies to the women in our organizations, as if this shouldn’t be at the forefront of our leadership responsibilities and activities every single day of every year. Yet even this poor frame is insufficient, because we need to move beyond the concept of allyship to universal advocacy.

What’s the difference?

Simply put, it’s that we get to choose for whom we serve as allies, but creating equitable and inclusive cultures requires us to be so for everyone, from the straight white males who’re the dominant cohort in virtually all of the firms within our industry to women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, the differently abled, etc.

This may seem like semantics, to an extent, but it’s not: in speaking with an expert in human capital management and executive leadership recently, she shared that she didn’t like the term ''ally'' because it implied a sort of internal organizational balkanization. Most of our dialogue is about serving as allies for certain people, as if we’re choosing teams like the judges on the television show The Voice: Part of our influence within the organization can be measured by who our protégés are.

Not only does this create the likelihood that some will be chosen and others will not—the textbook definition of exclusion and the exact opposite of what we’re trying to achieve—but we invariably end up with an unhelpful internal competition (read = organizational politics) that creates friction and further distracts from our equitable and inclusive ultimate objective.

Therefore, it’s better that we task executive leaders with being universal advocates responsible for making sure that every member of our organizations is fully supported in her professional development and her preferred (yet evolving) career path, is given access to stretch assignments that enable her to make contributions that mark her for advancement and is recognized and rewarded fully and fairly (which, sadly, in too many organizations still means as if she were male).

Universal advocacy is intersectional and appreciates that different kinds of difference require different kinds of thoughtful, responsibly engaged leadership. It’s important to remember that practicing diversity and inclusion successfully doesn’t mean denying real-world differences—when you tell me that you don’t even notice my color or gender, I know you’re either delusional or lying or both—but it does mean accepting everyone for who they are and celebrating them for this while ensuring that his or her difference has no bearing on the opportunities assigned or the credit for success apportioned or the compensation and other rewards earned for outstanding performance.

Understanding that universal advocacy isn’t an additional burden but the core deliverable of exceptional, inclusive leadership—and represents the greatest opportunity for us as executive leaders—and then acting accordingly is a paradigm shift that can lead to transformational change within our organizations as well as to a new trajectory of unprecedented performance and profitability … but only if we embrace this reality.

So, move beyond championing some—allyship is a good thing but insufficient—to all—universal advocacy is a great thing/the best way for us to lead—and you’ll find that you’ll unleash a tide of commitment and capability from the whole of your team that’ll lead not only to exceptional performance but also to far greater enjoyment of the journey of achieving it.

Walter K. Booker is the chief operating officer of MarketCounsel, a business and regulatory compliance consultancy for investment advisors.

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