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Beyond the Superficial to the Substantive

Diversity and inclusion encourages us to appreciate and celebrate difference and create environments that do so, which opens up the possibility for creating the highest possible organizational performance.

How different are you? How unique? In truth, how weird?

Ironically, this is the one thing—other than our humanity—that we have in common: We’re all different. So why is it so hard for us to seek and celebrate this in ourselves and others? Or, if you prefer, why do we seek out people whom we think are like us?

It’s this human paradox that’s created the dreadful lack of diversity in our profession. Even though every one of them is unique in meaningful ways, the disproportionately white, male and older professionals who exercise the most influence in our space clearly prefer their own company. Many suggest that this should and is changing.

Part of our challenge is that we’re superficial by nature. Think about the description that I just gave: You have a pretty clear image in your mind of who I’m talking about, don’t you? And that’s the point; we tend to focus on the visual, one of the reasons that difference can be so hard to overcome.

But if we look deeper into ourselves, we find that despite the mask that we present to the world, and especially that subset of it that’s our professional realm, we’re actually not so much a single personality as an aggregation of separate and distinct aspects of personality.

For example, if you see me, you’ll notice that I’m African American, male, balding but with a goatee, possessed of that middle-age paunch against which I (and so many) struggle constantly, etc. But will you really know anything meaningful about who I am? Not at all, it turns out.

This is why diversity and inclusion (D&I) is such an opportunity: It encourages us to appreciate and celebrate difference—the uniqueness that we have in common—and to create environments that do so, which, according to the research, opens up the possibility for creating the highest possible organizational performance. In other words, the secret to leadership and organizational excellence is moving beyond the superficial to the substantive.

Of course, what matters most in an advisor is a combination of technical proficiency and relational skill that when demonstrated consistently builds trust in service-based relationships. Relative to the development of sufficient technical proficiency and relational skill, what is the relevance of an advisor’s gender or race/ethnicity or sexual orientation or national origin or religious affiliation or what have you?

To this point, being white and male have been primary though clearly irrelevant criteria in determining who has the opportunity to become an advisor.

Intellectually, we all can appreciate the concept of moving beyond the superficial, but when we look at the reality of our relationships, our actual behavior tells us something different: Clearly, we value superficial sameness. The challenge is how to move beyond this.

So I return to my original questions: What’s unique, different or weird about you? And if you were going to create an environment where people with similar idiosyncrasies felt comfortable, how would that look different from the culture of your organization today? You see, even if you were going to try and find more people who are actually substantively like you, you’d be compelled to create a more diverse environment than exists in your firm at present.

Realizing that focusing on the substantive opens up many more avenues to identify both (more diverse) future talent and prospective clients to be served, how could and should this change your organization’s approach to whom it invites to join? My surmise is that superficial markers—like gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, national origin, religious affiliation, etc.—will fall away quickly. What’ll matter is how capable an individual is to develop the necessary technical expertise as well as to be able to share it in ways that are especially and uniquely resonant with the clients your firm serves. And, of course, focusing on the substantive also enables you to cast a wider net with respect to the latter.

Shifting our paradigm from the superficial to the substantive not only enables us to broaden whom we invite to serve in an advisory capacity but also who is served. In other words, D&I is a two-fer opportunity: It dramatically expands both the potential servers and those served. And couldn’t your organization’s growth plans benefit from an even broader/deeper pool of positively inclined prospects as well as an even broader/deeper pool of positively inclined advisor candidates?

My suggestion is that you revisit your firm’s values. Not just the ones you proclaim to the world, but the ones that you actually live into and that are demonstrated through your behavior as opposed to what you say. These are your real values. Now what has to change to enable your organization to open itself fully to the diversity and inclusion opportunity?

If technical competence and relational capability are two of the primary requirements for advisor success, then, conceptually, our search for a more diverse set of candidates would lead us to look for the demonstrated capacity to learn the financial and planning concepts that are the tools of the trade as well as the ability to relate well to others while also sharing information at an appropriate level of complexity. Again, what does a candidate’s gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, national origin, religious affiliation, etc., have to do with either of these?

Accordingly, in order to increase the diversity in our profession over time, let’s broaden the focus of our outreach efforts to include institutions and organizations that will give us access to these currently under-accessed communities. If you need help with this, reach out to organizations like the AAAA Foundation or the CFP Board’s Women’s Initiative or the FPA Externship Program or any of the several others whose constituents are members of these more diverse communities.

When you invite them into your firm, remember to focus on the substantive and celebrate what’s unique/different/weird about them so that they, too, feel encouraged to bring their whole selves to work in service of your organization’s clients. And while you’re at it, encourage them to invite ever more people who’re similarly unique/different/weird to be served by your firm. This is the real win-win D&I opportunity.

One final thought: Technically speaking, isn’t the above really about enlightened, holistic leadership? You don’t so much need to learn how to lead diversity and inclusion successfully as to practice holistic leadership well. When you do, you’ll naturally open yourself to opportunities that less expansive leaders miss, like D&I. So, yes, commit to practicing D&I leadership successfully, but do so in the expanded context of being a holistic leader. Therein lies the greatest opportunity with your greatest asset, your people, and therefore the greatest opportunity for your firm.

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

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