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Diversity in IT channel for 2020: It's time we take action

Dave Sobel looks to move beyond just discussing becoming more diverse in the workplace, with IT channel companies championing change and hiring more diverse leaders.

Dave Sobel is host of the podcast "The Business of Tech" and co-host of the podcast "Killing IT." In addition, he wrote Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business.

This week, Dave Sobel examines the current discussions around diversity and whether or not IT channel companies' leadership teams are reflective of their customer base or not. He also offers some initial solutions companies could consider to jumpstart action and see more than just talk from leadership teams.

Transcript follows below.

When I started doing this effort, one of the desires I had was to talk about harder problems. To ask much more difficult questions. Talking about sales and marketing, or talking about pricing models, or yet another talking heads conversation about some product and the value the vendor thinks it serves? This is not breaking new ground, nor a bolder editorial voice.

Instead, I want to have new conversations. Regulation, or the effect of private equity on innovation or real discussions of risk management and security -- not just selling a product.

And then the pandemic hit, and we had a summer of reckoning around racial justice. These are real problems. These have difficult questions and no clear answer, and not something that can be waved away with the usual channel value conversation about solution providers. It just can't.

Why am I discussing diversity right now?

In my interview with Todd Thibedeaux, he brought up his focus on diversity for CompTIA as it related to the workforce. He's not alone -- I'm sure many of you have also been thinking about what to do that's actionable.

Let's start by addressing something. I'm a white man talking about this problem. That's not to get a badge of honor or virtue signal, but instead to recognize that racism is a white person's problem to solve. It's caused by white people's actions and influence, and there's no prize or absolution at the end. It's just the work that's required to live in a just society.

For me, thinking about how to address a concern always starts with trying to understand the current state of play, and data is how I approach that understanding.

We love metrics in our industry. Everything is a metric. We have data and statistics and performance numbers and best in class performance… but when it comes to looking at diversity, we don't. In an industry that measures everything, there aren't actually a lot of metrics here to measure.

You can't manage what you don't measure. We say that all the time. Here, however, it's lacking. Who is leading us? How can we change if we don't know where we are -- or who are the leaders and what do they look like.

So, I set out to measure IT diversity

Here's my methodology. It's imperfect, but something is better than nothing, so let's start there, and iterate over time. I identified 100 companies that are known channel companies and looked at who they present to the world as their leaders from their webpages.

This being the people that the company itself has identified as the individuals leading their company. That's self-selecting.

I then started counting. First, I count how many faces are put up. Next, I identify how many identify as men or women, and I'm using pronouns or pictures. I will now acknowledge the flaw here that views gender as entirely binary and based on appearance. This is a starting point, so let's acknowledge how it was tracked.

From there, I look at the pictures and identify race. I'm using terms from the U.S. census.

Three categories, White, Black and Non-White. Non-White includes Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and the like, as well as including Black. Again, I will acknowledge the flaw of this and imperfection.

Getting the sample size large enough would mean we have something of a perspective so that these identification issues would not be massive.

Here's what I found. Across 100 channel companies, there are 876 individuals that these companies have identified as leaders: 82.31% are white, 19.29% are women and 1.83% are Black. I broke out the public companies, which are 40 of those, with 506 leaders: 79.64% are white, 21.74% are women and only 1.58% are Black.

In my sample set, 14 are Fortune 1000 companies, with 191 leaders: 70.16% are white, 21.47% are women and only 1.57% are Black.

For reference, the U.S. population breakdown per July 1, 2019 data is 60.1% white, 50.8% female and 13.4% Black.

I'm not going to name companies or publish a report today. This isn't about shame. This isn't about "calling people out" nor is this about trying to create clickbait. This is about trying to baseline where we are.

It's likely something you have known intuitively. It's likely something you have thought about and considered.

Why should channel companies care?

I ask on the podcast each day, "Why do we care?" The obvious first reason is that it's the right thing to do. Leadership teams should reflect the people working at the company, and they should look and sound like those people.

There's a commercial set of reasons, too. Research shows that diversity increases profit for businesses of all sizes. To understand your customers, you want to look more and more like them to understand them … and if we're "white" and "male," there are huge swaths of potential customers we're not in touch with.

Here are my observations.

First, we can't do what we've done before and expect better results. There have been conversations about "women of the channel" for over a decade, and from my basic research here, we've only outperformed race by about 3% ... and notably, women are more than 50% of the population.

We have to acknowledge that the efforts have failed. They have not resulted in change, and this is frankly too important to take the same speed to market. To make real change, we are going to have to do something a lot more bold.

I've always believed you come with a problem and you propose solutions. I'm not claiming this is a comprehensive list, nor all the ideas, nor is it perfect. It's the start of the thinking.

Easiest is to look at the leadership teams themselves. Are you profiling all the actual leaders? Think of the methodology -- I went to your website and you showed me your leaders. Is that actually the whole list? Did you put everyone who you really want to profile as the leaders? It seems silly to say, but you get to pick that list. No one tells you how big a leadership team has to be -- and I can tell you from looking, everyone is different. Make sure you're actually putting your leadership team forward, because part of the empowerment and transformation we are talking about is ensuring you are giving all the leaders power.

This is the obvious piece -- make sure you are accurately representing your leaders to the public.

Next, you can actually expand the leadership team. This isn't pie. You don't only get a sliver. You actually can make the table bigger and put more seats around it. I looked at massive companies … who put five people on their webpage as their leaders. Really? A small group is the leadership? Empowering more leaders is often a very good thing.

Those two you can look at doing immediately. For many of you, have you looked at your website lately? Does it send the message that best represents you into the world?

Now, we can look to bring more companies into the IT channel. Just like creating more seats at the table, we can collectively bring new companies into the IT channel -- and they don't have to always look the same.

Many of the companies that serve this space have big R&D budgets -- or M&A budgets. Are you using them to create these kinds of opportunities too?

Invest in new startups and companies that have a diversity of looks and ideas. One of the reasons to expand is the diversity of ideas and the diversity of customers -- do you have reach into all potential customers by being relatable to them?

This is intended to be a call to a harder conversation

Tech wants to be disruptive. So, take on something big. Tech wants to innovate. So, take on something big. Move with purpose. We can do this.

But doing the same discussion about diversity and inclusion with race that we did for gender is not going to work.

About the author
Dave Sobel is the host of the podcast "The Business of Tech," co-host of the podcast "Killing IT" and author of the book Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business. He owned and operated an IT solution provider and MSP for more than a decade, and has worked for vendors such as Level Platforms, GFI, LOGICnow and SolarWinds, leading community, event, marketing and product strategies, as well as M&A activities. Sobel has received multiple industry recognitions, including CRN Channel Chief, CRN UK A-List, Channel Futures Circle of Excellence winner, Channel Pro's 20/20 Visionaries and MSPmentor 250.

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