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Diversity's Driver

When Kathy Johnson became a member of the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications (NAMIC) a few years after the organization was founded in 1980, the group's primary mission was to assist minorities seeking to purchase local cable systems.

But in the past several years, NAMIC has been focusing on helping minorities find jobs in cable television and providing people of color with the skills needed to rise to upper management. NAMIC's fourth employee survey this week coincides with Cable Diversity Week and its own 20th Annual Conference in New York.

Arranged around the NAMIC confab is the Walter Kaitz Foundation dinner Sept. 13, and the cable industry has forged a series of formal and informal events, dubbed “hell week” for the sheer volume of activities. NAMIC and The Emma L. Bowen Foundation for Minority Interests in Media shared most of the $1.5 million raised at last year's Kaitz dinner.

Johnson defends the cable industry's record hiring of minorities. She estimates that the percentage of minorities employed by cable companies is comparable to that of the overall population.

The problem is that a disproportionate number of these employees hold low-level positions. “When it comes to decision-making levels, that is where there is room for improvement,” she admits.

Anthony W. Simmons, president and COO of Simmons Associates, a consulting firm specializing in human-resources management, says that's a common pattern.

“In many organizations, the culture is such that people of color come into the organization and face challenges that many white men don't face,” he says. “In general, the further you go up in an organization, typically the less diversity you tend to see. There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is that, historically, white men have been in those positions.”

Advancement doesn't happen quickly enough, and minority workers often find jobs elsewhere. “At some point, people get frustrated within a company,” Johnson says. “If I'm a Stanford graduate and I have a Harvard MBA, with lots of experience, and I'm not getting anywhere, at some point I'm going to another industry where I can get ahead.”

NAMIC has launched several initiatives over the past few years to help minorities develop the skills required for top management positions.

Last year, NAMIC launched its Leadership Seminars, two-day events it created with UCLA. At these sessions, minorities in supervisory and management positions are taught skills they'll need in upper management. This year's seminars, sponsored by the Kaitz Foundation, were held in Los Angeles and Chicago, while another is scheduled for Nov. 2-3 in New York.

In 1993, NAMIC began an initiative called the L. Patrick Mellon Mentorship Program, where some of its members spend a few hours each month, for nine months, receiving career advice from top-level executives.

Perhaps most significant, NAMIC in 2001 partnered with UCLA's Anderson Graduate School of Management for a yearly, four-part, 10-day event called the Executive Leadership Development Program, where a select group of minorities working in cable is taught various business and networking skills.

That's only half the battle, says Simmons. “The other half is the receptiveness of the work environment to those efforts,” he says. “If I'm not in an environment that encourages me to utilize these capacities, then it adds to a feeling of frustration.”

Each year, NAMIC selects about three dozen midlevel employees for this program from a list of nominees submitted by its members. Johnson says about a third of the program's former students have been promoted to upper management.

“What has happened since we've launched our Executive Leadership Program is that it has made companies, through the nomination process, focus on whether or not they have people of color at senior level positions,” says Johnson. “It makes them assess the talent pool.”