SBJ/May 6-12, 2013/Opinion

An opportunity to shine: Diversity comes from the top

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The recent release of the movie “42” brings the issue of diversity to the forefront once again. It is remarkable to see how far we’ve come in sports and in life on inclusion, yet challenging and sad to know that we still have a long way to go.
 
I was fortunate to have worked in Major League Baseball for nearly 25 years, the last 11 as the president of business operations for the Houston Astros. I was raised in a small Wisconsin town and introduced to the game of baseball by my mother, who listened to the Milwaukee Braves on the radio while she ironed clothes. I never could have imagined that one day I would have the opportunity that was a seemingly impossible dream in the 1960s: a woman in a senior role for a major league team. Jackie Robinson’s story stirred many emotions for me, both positive and negative. Diversity at the highest levels — race, religion and gender — is still a challenge in the sports industry.

Jackie Robinson’s story illustrates how far sports has come in diversity, and reminds us that the journey has not ended.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
There is no question that baseball, as America’s favorite pastime, has been a leader in diversity, as is evidenced by the tough and noble fight to integrate the game. Robinson and many others endured extraordinary hardships to be able to play the game we all love. These sacrifices and challenges were not dismissed, in that MLB today has an aggressive diversity program for the recruitment and placement of on-field personnel, ensuring that the interview and hiring processes are thoughtful and intentional in including those of color. It’s not only the smart thing to do; it’s also the right thing to do.

While we have progressed tremendously with on-field efforts, it’s time we dig deeper
and transfer those intentions to our front-office personnel on both the baseball and business sides. In a game where some 40 percent of the players are Latino and nearly 50 percent of the fans are women, it’s time we extend our reach in an intentional way to include more people of color and women into the hallowed halls of the front office.

How do we move toward inclusion? By instituting programs that train, mentor and teach these under-represented sectors. I have spoken to dozens of groups on leadership, diversity and corporate culture, and I am always asked, “How did you weave your way into a senior role?” The answer is simple: Someone gave me the opportunity. It wasn’t without sacrifice and hard work, but the opportunity comes from the top. I will be forever grateful that Drayton McLane took a chance and invited me to have a seat at the table. At the Astros, we developed an internship program to help develop young talent to go into the pipeline. Our management group was represented by all races and was half male, half female. The business operations team was built to resemble our constituents, our fans and our sponsors, who opened their pocketbooks to support our efforts.

When the Astros changed ownership in 2012, the new owner attended his first owner’s meeting and said, “You’re the only woman at the table. You need to stay there.” He constructed his ownership group built around diversity. It reflects the community that supports the team. While I elected to change my career course and leave baseball, it brought home the obvious question: Why aren’t there more women at the table?

This is no criticism of the many owners who work hard to develop a diverse senior leadership team. Many in the game recognize the gap in minority participation in the front office and work diligently to improve their efforts. Major League Baseball’s central office instituted a program several years ago to develop minority candidates through a comprehensive internship program. And, there are several women who have paid their dues and serve in meaningful roles — Kim Ng, Marla Miller and Jacqueline Parkes to name a few — and Wendy Selig, former president of the Brewers, was a wonderful mentor to me. Still, the progression of women doesn’t seem to be moving fast enough.

The group that leads Major League Baseball owners meetings is made up of executives from within the Office of the Commissioner, and each member serves a role in steering the business workings of the game. Wouldn’t it be great if MLB were to appoint a woman to the group? That would definitely send a message.

In a game steeped in tradition, it’s time to look forward and take the lessons learned from Jackie Robinson more than 60 years ago. It’s not enough to have the intention. Actions to increase minority participation in the front office need to be intentional. It’s time we move in gigantic steps and open the door to greater diversity. The next generations know no other way. The expectation of inclusion is there, and those eager minds deserve to have greater opportunity than we did.
Diversity brings creativity, power, fresh ideas and a stronger business model. Here’s hoping that baseball once again leads the charge mindfully and steps up to the plate in a major league way.

Pam Gardner (pam@yourmindatwork.com) is the CEO of Your Mind at Work, which provides leadership development, diversity training and culture alignment programs for corporations. She is writing a book on her experiences working in baseball.

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