Online Extra: Q&A with Kenan-Flagler's James Johnson

The next generation of business leaders has to be trained through the prism of the diversity of our workforce and their clientele

Diversity is an issue weighing heavily on B-school administrators and faculty alike. Many minority professors say they spend a lot of time mentoring not just students but MBA alums who find few allies in the workplace.

James H. Johnson, a professor of management at University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School, has been outspoken on minorities in business. And he knows of what he speaks -- he's one of only 642 minority professors of business. Johnson recently spoke with BusinessWeek Staff Editor Jennifer Merritt about the continued lack of minorities in MBA programs and in the business world. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: Despite the efforts of a number of nonprofits and some B-schools, the number of minorities in MBA programs today has barely budged from where it was more than a decade ago. Why is this?


You're looking at an interesting period in the evolution of business schools. In the last decade or so they were looking toward internationalizing their student bodies. More resources were probably being geared toward that effort and not so much toward minorities.

Q: Why aren't more minorities who are already in the business world going to B-school?


The reasons are anchored in [minorities'] experiences in the business world. They run into barriers, and as a function of confronting those barriers, they decide that business isn't the thing for them.

One of the issues that we must address is that when companies talk about diversifying, even if they're aggressive about recruiting, it says nothing about how they treat people once they hire them. The pipeline has a hole in it at that section, if you will. These are bright-eyed, eager, intelligent young people, but they run into concrete walls and outright discrimination. The lack of matriculation may be a function of that experience.

Q: But isn't it the same in medicine and law, two career paths that attract more minorities?


There are differences in the experiences. Far more people who go into law and medical school have people in their lives or in their communities who have been successful lawyers and doctors. Look at black business development and entrepreneurship, and you don't have a comparable pool of examples.

Another thing: You know exactly what you have to do when you finish law school -- you've got to pass the bar. Success at big firms may be difficult, but what you have to do to make it is pretty clear. In business, it's a different ballgame.

Q: Research has shown that minorities benefit tremendously from mentoring, but with minorities holding only 12% of executive and senior-management positions, not many mentors can relate to the minority experience in the work world.


You've got the Ken Chenaults of the world, but if I get a job at American Express, what are my chances of actually interacting with Ken Chenault? Pretty slim. We lack the kind of mentorship and connections with people who can help us on the fast track and up the career ladder.

My experience being an African-American senior professor is that many of our students look back to people like myself for mentorship, not to people in their companies. These are talented people. I want to see them doing well, but in the world of work, I don't think they have the kinds of people they can rely on for mentoring and guidance.

Q: Can you give me any examples?


A young guy I've been mentoring works for an insurance company. One of the guys he works closely with is at retirement age and has a Rolodex that could choke a horse. When somebody retires, companies makes a decision about who gets what from the Rolodex. The guy who is retiring wants this young man to have some of his clients, and he even volunteered to take him out to his clients for an introduction and transition.

Do you know the reason the young man called me this week? He didn't get any contacts from the Rolodex. He wasn't even invited to the meeting where the managers -- and co-workers at his same level -- split them up. It has nothing to do with his ability -- he gets great performance reviews. It's just the old boys' network, and he's outside of it. If you had that kind of experience, why would you want to go to business school?

Q: What can B-schools do to fix this?


They've got direct access to execs and senior managers in executive-education courses, in executive MBA programs, and future managers in the MBA programs themselves.

We have to dramatically transform the business of business-school education. The next generation of business leaders has to be trained through the prism of the diversity of our workforce and the clientele we'll be doing business with. Your advantage in the marketplace is not just tolerating diversity but recognizing the business rationale for diversity. This can't be a one-shot diversity course that people opt into. It's something that has to be infused throughout the curriculum.

When we're talking to MBA students about finance and accounting, diversity issues in case studies should be brought to the table. Or in operations -- what does it mean to interface with someone who is different than you? But there's no incentive to do it now. If you're in power and you can come to the table to cut the cards by yourself, you don't care.

We have to embrace this problem the same way we embraced becoming more international. If we don't, we'll be losing our shirts in the world economy. But we're going to need some innovative leadership to make it happen.

Q: Does this happen at B-school or in the workplace?


Change needs to happen in both. But B-schools have a tremendous opportunity to have an impact in the workplace through exec ed programs. This issue has to be front and center. When you have these middle managers in class -- they're at a place where rubber meets the road in companies -- that's where you've got to shape these minds. Business schools have to have diversity issues as a core part of the training we're offering, and we have to make the business case for it.

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