Supplier diversity professionals stand on new ground. There is no coursework to complete, no test to take to prove they are prepared to reshape a world that gives short shrift to minority vendors. There is no industry standard, no code of conduct, oath or covenant to which they are bound. Whether they are accountable to the organizations that employ them, the communities that have given them their reason for being, or both, is still under debate. Diversity, I’ve concluded, is pretty wild ground. Some have stepped up to the plate to effect meaningful change, others have been thrust up to the plate, still others have had the plate thrust upon them.
I call those who have had the plate thrust upon them “butchers.” All of a sudden, they are named head of supplier diversity after proving themselves in one corporate field or another. They hold themselves accountable solely to their employers, who, invariably, are committed to diversity in image only—the luncheon sponsorship, the gold-page ad in the Annual Event Journal, the big check for the community. Devoid of real authority, they protect their positions—and their companies’—fiercely. They rarely return vendors’ phone calls, tend to be abrupt when they do and may harbor the notion that minority vendors really can’t perform anyway.
There are the “bakers,” those who have been thrust up to the plate. They have more authority and responsibility than butchers do. The top executives of their companies are fairly sincere about diversity, but there is no companywide edict or strategy to back up that sincerity. Here, SD professionals are charged with making something out of nothing and they do the job. They rustle up a product that looks good to and for the company and tastes okay to the vendors.
And there are “candlestick makers.” They, and the companies they work for, are so passionate about diversity that their passion permeates the workforce. Candlestick makers help turn vendors into competent and competitive suppliers that shine on their own in the wider marketplace. They have goals that they consistently strive to surpass. You may not hear their name or see their company banner at the annual luncheons, but they are effective where it matters most—putting money into the pockets of the vendors while saving their own companies money.
I ran my analysis by Louis Green, chairman of the Council of Supplier Diversity Professionals, a self-funded group of 65 to 70 supplier diversity directors that is quietly working toward a certification program for supplier diversity professionals (rollout in January). Yes, Green concedes, some companies see diversity as a “public relations, looking-good effort, as opposed to really looking for minorities and women as partners in their business.” Yes, companies set limits on their SD professionals. And, yes, some SD professionals are more interested in keeping their jobs than anything else. But it’s tough even for the candlestick makers. They have to balance “so many subtleties” in their organizations in order to “find that win-win situation that works well for the MBE and well for the company,” he says. And, it’s a two-way street. “A solid MBE can help take a butcher up to a baker and maybe help take a baker up to a candlestick maker. Sometimes, some of those on the supplier diversity side can actually learn from an MBE,” he says.
By Rosalind McLymont