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Black History Month - SAP's diversity chief busts the talent pipeline myth

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett February 2, 2021
In the second of our Black History Month series, a candid conversation with Judith Michelle Williams on SAP's efforts to boost the African-American hiring pipeline.

(SAP )

One of the challenges that often crops up in the diversity and inclusion debate is the talent pipeline – or lack of it. Employers often argue that there just aren’t the skilled workers out there available from minority groups, and that's why they keep having to hire people who just happen to look like them.

Not so, says Judith Michelle Williams, Head of People Sustainability and Chief Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) officer at SAP – and she has the stats to prove it.

African-Americans make up around 13% of the US population; based on rates of college attendance, there are plenty of educated people across this group. With regard to African-American representation in the tech sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data produced by the US government, it's roughly about five or six percent of the US labor population. Williams explains:

I'm a data person, I always look at the numbers. If we are at three percent [of Black employees] - which we are - it means that we have not exhausted the pipeline. If we were sitting at six percent, I might say it's going to be a challenge to double that, but we're not. So any of those pipeline discussions, you have to make sure that you're actually getting the representation of the existing pipeline.

Past lack of investment in the talent pipeline means no significant change has taken place, Williams adds:

“I've been working in this field for about 15 years, and you know what we were talking about 15 years ago? We were talking about the pipeline and its lack of diversity when it came to gender or ethnicity. Imagine if 15 years ago, instead of admiring the problem we had said, 'How do we partner with universities and NGOs to ensure that the pipeline looks very different?'. Then we would have a different conversation.

One example of the work SAP is doing at the pipeline level is its Project Propel. Since 2015, SAP has been working with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to extend its certifications to these college students, explains Williams:

What Project Propel does with those certifications, it gives that talent opportunities to work not only for SAP but to work for our partners and also work for customers that might be implementing SAP. So that is a positive for our ecosystem. So we're trying to think beyond saying there's a pipeline problem. The question needs to be, how do we solve it, how do we work with non-profits, governments, educational institutions to make sure that we're contributing to changing those pipeline numbers.

In practice at SAP 

Williams joined SAP in 2018, where the global health and wellbeing team, as well as the global diversity and inclusion office report into her. SAP has long been a D&I champion across a broad range of areas. While many organizations run similar programs to those seen at the firm to support women in tech, for example, SAP also has a long-running Autism at Work Program, aiming to bring the neurodiverse into the business.

However, the events of 2020 – the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor – precipitated a shift at SAP. Williams explains:

Within our view of diversity and inclusion, we've always had a pretty broad view, but what became clear this summer is that we needed to be more explicit about our commitment to racial justice. We made some external commitments around racial justice, but we know that we have to look inside at our own house.

As noted above, three percent of the SAP workforce is Black, behind that five to six percent tech sector average quoted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The firm has made a public commitment to increase its African-American representation by one percent a year, and to do the same with its African-descendant population in Brazil:

We're looking as we learn from those two countries, how do we expand that. So we know that that's going to be a full-force recruiting effort to say, where is the talent and how do we make sure that they're aware of us.

Finding talent

Awareness is an issue. Unlike a Google or a Facebook, SAP is not a consumer-facing brand that the general public – AKA potential employees - are accustomed to using. Hence, the company has to take additional steps to make itself visible and attract talent from diverse pools. Williams has worked closely with the talent attraction team to consider how the firm is going to source differently and ensure that talent from diverse backgrounds is aware of the firm, and that it is a great place for them to work and grow:

But at the same time we're looking at bringing in that new talent, that doesn't do anything for us if we have a leaky talent pipeline and we're losing some of the great underrepresented talent. And so we have what we call our triple double initiative where we're looking to double our representation and that's the commitment to increase one percent a year, but we also want to double down on our investment in our current employees.

For this, SAP is participating in some specific targeted development programs. One is the McKinsey Black Leadership Academy Management Accelerator, designed for high-performing early- to mid-career managers. These will be non-executive managers anywhere from three to five levels below the C-suite, looking to take on new challenges and move into senior management roles. SAP identified its top 20 performers across all its board areas, and they started a six-month program in November.

Five SAP executives are also enrolled on a McKinsey executive program aimed at black leaders in the C-suite or just one or two levels below, looking to get to that next level.

SAP also sends staff on the Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT) Career Advancement Program (CAP), designed for people from underrepresented communities - African American, Latinx and Native American - wanting to advance to C-Suite roles. The firm had its first  cohort of three MLT CAPs two years ago. There are many more people SAP would be willing and able to put forward, but MLT caps the intake at five people in a cohort, as it wants to build a broader network of underrepresented talent across industries and companies.

The firm also offers wide-scale career development programs open to everyone, of course, and through those broader schemes the company is getting some of the underrepresented talent into more senior roles, says Williams:

But if we really want to accelerate the representation and accelerate them to leadership, we have to have some special targeted programming. That's why we partnered with these organizations to provide that type of programming. And that's something that our employees were telling us, is that we needed to pay specific attention to these demographics.

Turning point? 

So with the internal focus on increasing underrepresented employees at SAP, coupled with the growing momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement and the arrival of a new political administration, does Williams feel we’re now at a real turning point for racial equality? Sadly not:

My short answer is, no. I just have a realistic frame of mind. The issues that we're confronting today are issues that have been a part of the challenge for corporate America for a generation, maybe two. We have these moments where suddenly there's a lot of attention, and everybody's going to make a difference.

Again, I always begin and end with the data - I haven't seen data that actually convinces me that this will be a different moment. It would be great for me to be wrong. But the reality is we're giving a lot of investment, we're continuing to admire the problem, there's a lot of attention, but I feel like we've been in this moment before, it seems more cyclical than progressive.

My take

That last comment shouldn't be taken to read that Williams doesn’t have optimism about what SAP can achieve and what goals lie ahead. I spoke to her on 19th January, the day before the US inaugurated its 46th President, alongside its first Black female Vice-President, both welcomed with a poem from a 22-year old ‘skinny black girl’. Perhaps if I had asked the turning point question on Inauguration Day, she may have answered a cautious yes, buoyed by the joy and hope of that moment.

But actually being honest and realistic is more useful, as it prevents companies from having an excuse to sit back and believe the hard work has already been done, when actually if anything, it’s more like the end of the beginning.



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