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Leading the push for diversity

February 17, 2013
Debora Linehan

The Canadian workforce may appear diverse, but a closer look at visible minorities reveals they are not as satisfied with their careers as their colleagues and are often passed over for promotions.  

“We have very inclusive workforces with lots of diversity, but not in leadership roles,” says Royal Roads Doctor of Social Sciences student and MBA alumna Debora Linehan. “It’s one thing to celebrate diversity, but unless you deal with the power imbalances, it’s a hollow promise. If you don’t include everybody, you’re just wasting all your talent.”

Linehan is RBC regional vice-president for South Vancouver Island and the British Columbia regional champion on the bank’s national diversity council. As a woman with more than 25 years’ experience in leadership positions in the banking industry, she has long been interested in diversity in the workplace and says her experience on the council has opened her eyes to what is happening in other organizations and countries, and what is possible. The experience also led her back to Royal Roads, where she is focusing her research on Chinese-Canadians in the workforce.

“In B.C., the sheer size of the talent pool is amazing and the challenges of these folks are many,” says Linehan, a member of Royal Roads’ Board of Governors. Chinese-Canadians are very highly educated and career-driven, she adds. A study done in the States shows 64 per cent of Asian-Americans aspire to top level positions, but account for less than five per cent of senior leadership roles in the private sector. Why the wide divide? Linehan explains by way of a Chinese proverb: “The first duck gets shot.” The Chinese culture is very respectful and Chinese-Canadians can be reluctant to speak up in meetings and may not know that lack of participation can suggest lack of leadership skills, she says.

“There are such distinct differences in communication, values and what’s considered respectful,” says Linehan, adding that these differences should be embraced, not shunned. Linehan likens the workplace challenges visible minorities face today to the glass ceiling experienced by women. 

“I’ve seen how things have changed and how women were excluded in the beginning,” she says. “Many women tried to act like men and that didn’t work out because it’s not authentic, it’s not real and it’s not credible. I see the parallels and I see the same rhetoric and the same comments come up in talent management – ‘They’re just not ready yet. We just don’t have a big enough pipeline.’”

Linehan is hoping to change attitudes and help people see the many benefits of diversity in leadership, including social, business and demographic imperatives. Her research, sponsored by RBC, is exploring what Chinese-Canadians see as cultural and communications barriers and how they approach work from a bi-cultural perspective. She is speaking with Chinese-Canadian leaders and those aspiring to leadership within RBC about what they’re experiencing.

“I’m hoping that my study will help RBC and may also shed light for other organizations and create an intercultural competence model around how can we can communicate better and understand bi-cultural identity and incorporate that in our practices.”  

Once that happens, Linehan believes we will see the ripple effect. Intercultural leaders know how to work with minorities and they have a better understanding of how to be inclusive, she says.

“I am impressed by Debora’s efforts to identify the characteristics of diversity leadership, to examine the role of culture in diversity and inclusion efforts and to develop coherent and compelling programs,” says School of Communication and Culture Prof. Zhenyi Li, who is on Linehan’s doctoral committee. Li adds that the diversity leadership challenge is quite typical in many Canadian organizations. “There are many gifted people in Canada with their talents and wisdom less utilized simply because ‘they are not like us’ due to different race, gender, sexual-orientation, generation or even physical appearance.”

“Deb’s research is very important,” adds Prof. Bernard Schissel, head of the Doctor of Social Sciences program. “One of the fundamental issues of social justice in Canada is the idea of equity across races and ethnic groups. Visible minorities and women can reach a ceiling and while it may not be deliberate, it happens and it shouldn’t.”

Royal Roads offers courses and degree programs (some with overseas residencies) and supervises dissertations related to intercultural studies to help people better understand cultural challenges.

“Royal Roads has certainly helped me in many ways – build confidence, develop as a person, see more possibilities to further my education – and I love the model,” Linehan says. “It’s so inclusive by making education more accessible so professionals don’t have to quit their jobs.” She adds that the diversity of the members of her cohort – from a child rights and protection adviser, to CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, to a First Nations lawyer – has greatly enhanced her educational experience and opened her eyes to issues she may not have otherwise known much about.  

Between work and study, Linehan is helping bring Ascend, an organization dedicated to addressing the shortage of Pan-Asian leaders in corporate North America, to Western Canada. The non-profit will officially launch in September and will offer mentoring and leadership programs and help corporate partners (such as RBC) achieve their business, talent and diversity goals.

“I love working with people,” Linehan says. “I love the whole practice of leadership and building a culture, developing people and seeing the potential in people.”

Photo by Liz Rubincam