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March 10, 2009

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Having started out with diverse leadership groups, many of the upstart e-consultancies may enjoy an advantage when it comes to building diverse workforces. But from Viant to Deloitte, all firms agree that diversity breeds diversity through positive proof of meritocracy.

"Diversity is not a 'nice to have' - it's critical," says Anthony Tjan, cofounder and executive vice president at Zefer, an e-consultancy whose founders all emanate from different countries.

"Our leadership group has lived and breathed experiences that cross geographic boundaries and disciplines. Looking through different lenses adds insight, quality, and a range of ideas. People from different ethnic groups create new experiences that wouldn't happen if you looked through one lens."

Like other relatively new entrants to the e-consultancy arena, Zefer is staunchly committed to diversity, whether in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, culture, physical ability, or skill. It currently splits 70:30 between white Americans and those from other backgrounds, but believes its diversity message - "the power of multiple perspectives" - is hugely attractive to potential recruits. "We are overwhelmed by people approaching us from different countries. I receive dozens of e-mails a month from people in France, India, China, and all around the world looking for opportunities," claims Tjan.

Tjan's enthusiasm knows no bounds, but is the quest for diversity among the young e-consultancies any more successful than that of traditional consulting firms? With few quantitative measures available and all consultancies rebutting representation and quotas as reflections of diversity, the picture has to be qualitative - and it sure is changing.

Sean Huurman, national director for recruiting at KPMG Consulting, says that staff from consultants to managing directors are dedicated to diversity in the workplace, taking part in organizations such as Women in Technology, contributing to publications including Diversity Careers, and working with search firms that focus on minority candidates. The firm is also part of a PhD project that helps minority students without sufficient funds to continue their education through master's and PhD programs.

Internally, KPMG runs a subcommittee on diversity issues under the auspices of its HR Advisory Committee. "We want diversity candidates to feel they belong and have an outlet to address their issues," says Huurman, pointing to informal mentoring arrangements and ongoing discussion about the potential of setting up groups dedicated, perhaps, to women or specific minorities. The firm also offers functional support to minorities - for example, giving language tuition to those whose first language is not English.

Huurman appears not to be threatened by the chutzpah of many new e-consultancies, preferring to take a more pragmatic approach. "Individuals don't look at organizations based on who's hiring whom in terms of diversity. They question whether it is the best place for them. Just like the start-ups, we're all focused on diversity," he says. KPMG currently reports that 22% of its staff are minorities and 34% are women. In the pursuit of diversity, Huurman does point to one problem that is shared and being tackled by many of the traditional firms - a drop-off in diversity as you look beyond the ranks of consultants and senior consultants.

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This, in great part, results from the number of years the Big Five have been around and the traditional image they have developed, factors that distort the picture when they are compared to the new kids on the block. As the partnership model breaks down, however, firms are upping the ante in the diversity stakes. At Deloitte Consulting, for example, 14% of partners are women, a figure that partner Ellen Stafford-Sigg thinks will look very different in five to 10 years' time.

Her colleague, Linda Solomon, a partner who has been leading Deloitte's diversity effort for the past two years, also believes that change is in the air as the partnership model peters out. Deloitte's interpretation of diversity is "building teams of talent." These teams include diversity of race, gender, culture, discipline, or whatever is needed to meet the needs of the firm's global clients. "This is not about differences, but about coming together as a collective mixture of people," says Solomon. "The reality is that this is a very diverse environment, but how do we leverage it positively for clients and our people - It's an issue of culture, separate from representation of particular groups of people."

Among Deloitte's efforts to maintain diversity right to the top of the firm is the extension of career development planning to partner level. A program was rolled out in April that seeks to help partners think forward as the nature of partnership changes. At a more grass roots level, last year the firm set up the Americas Diversity Advisory Council. The Council is peopled by partners and HR executives, and its brief is to monitor statistics on gender and minority groups with a view to understanding demographic trends so that career plans and support networks can be developed that will help it to sustain diversity. Those figures are not, however, open to public scrutiny.

Deloitte is also designing a diversity education program under the "building teams of talent" banner. It is being reviewed and is expected to be launched on a global basis this summer. "The program is targeted at every individual in the firm. The key is to create a culture that will make our organization the absolute best at leveraging diverse talent," says Solomon. "We could significantly ramp up the recruitment of diverse individuals, but without the culture to nurture and progress them, we would end up with revolving door syndrome."

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While the traditional firms' legacy adds to the challenges of building a diverse environment and calls for the creation of jobs dedicated to the task, Solomon's theses are little different from those of HR managers within e-consultancies. Besides racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, all insist that to succeed in the "e"-space, teams must have diverse skills.

At Viant, Chief People Officer Diane Hall says, "Our business model includes three disciplines - creativity, technology, and strategy. All are unique and have their own ways of working. Putting people from all three on a team is a challenge, but we make it work so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. An individual can't make half the contribution that is made when working with others who are different."

Hall believes that Viant's skills diversity - "We're the only company that puts in so much effort," she says - makes the company attractive to minorities because they can see how hard it tries to achieve diversity of all kinds. A "friends and family program" has led to numerous minority hires, while Viant also targets schools and companies with high ratios of minorities and recruits on an international scale, bringing overseas hires into the U.S. on visas.

According to Hall, ethnic minorities make up 40% to 45% of the total U.S. employee roster, while 30% of staff are female. The proportions of women and African Americans employed by Viant are its weak spots, she adds, but she does point to proactive efforts to strengthen representation in these groups.

In many ways, the e-consultancies' advantage is having started out with diverse leadership groups. But from Viant's African English cofounder, Robbie Vann-Adib, to Deloitte's Asian American managing director of the Americas, Manoj Singh (see panel, right), all are agreed that diversity breeds diversity through positive proof of meritocracy. As Hall says of Vann-Adib, who is now general manager of Viant's U.K. office, "Wherever Robbie shows up, you will see a very diverse office. When he set up the Viant office in San Francisco, a predominantly white American area, he attracted people from many ethnic groups."

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Starting from scratch is clearly part of the e-consultancies' success, not only in terms of racial diversity but also in being able to field diverse skills from day one. But they are not resting easy, and believe that the big firms will break the mold. "Larger firms have the right intentions. They understand globality and the need to make a shift, but it will take time," says Hall. "They need to overhire minorities. If I were running a big firm, I would hire 70% to 80% minorities. Viant would have to compete, making it harder for us to achieve diversity."

This is not about to happen, but champions of the diversity cause in traditional consultancies are certainly pulling out the stops to recruit and retain minorities. Andersen Consulting's diversity effort focuses on three specific groups: women, minorities, and experienced hires who are older than average new hires. The consultancy's Asian American population is pretty strong, says Director of Diversity in the U.S. Nellie Gonzalez, but it is keen to attract more African Americans and Hispanic Americans. To this end, it runs a number of programs with business schools and, once minorities have joined the firm, supports them through local diversity committees and larger community-of-interest groups.

While many e-consultancies will divulge diversity statistics, most of the large firms are less confident. Gonzalez is trying to open the book at Andersen to attract more minorities. Her own experiences after she joined the firm 13 years ago, however, reflect the change that traditional consultancies are trying to effect under the covers.

"My parents are Puerto Rican, and I was born and bred in New York City," she says. "On my first day at Andersen, I wore a bright orange satin suit with gold buttons. I felt very challenged, as I was one of the few minorities in the New York office. After three very hard and lonely months, I told a partner that I would have to leave because I would never make it in the firm. I had real problems just with the things people chatted about, they were so different from the things I knew - they'd talk about skiing and it wouldn't mean anything to me. The partner said that if I left I would face the same challenges elsewhere, and if I stayed he would commit to helping to change the culture. I cried and I stayed. Now, no one can shut me out."

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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