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Despite a reputation for individuality, Silicon Valley companies are often mired in conformity. Tracy Cote says the path to diversity and success is marked with questioning assumptions and recognizing bias.

As an HR professional, I often have conversations where managers reject candidates for lack of an indefinable quality called “presence.” Professional presence, executive presence, personal brand — these have become the new code words for mimicking company leadership.

Do you look, speak, and match the company’s self-image? A suit in a bank, a hoodie in a high-tech company, green hair in a nonprofit, even pounding the table to get your opinion across.

Presence is one way that companies unintentionally discourage diversity. You may not want to wear the company sweatshirt or remove your nose ring. But a condition of employment becomes who the company wants you to be, rather than who you already are.

I know an HR leader who is coaching a manager on his executive presence. He is educated and performs well. But his strong accent, unruly hair, and peculiar attire make him a challenge to promote. My take: The employee doesn’t need coaching; the leadership team does.


Hiring and promotion decisions are largely focused on culture ‘fit’, rather than culture ‘add’. You might be inclined to hire people who went to the same school and like the same music. But those are qualities for friends. Business colleagues should come from many walks of life.

Diverse perspectives add value and promote innovation, growth and retention. Sixty percent of female job applicants look at leadership team diversity. This is not about lowering company standards. It’s about broadening acceptance.

Be aware of natural biases. Challenge yourself and your assumptions, as well as those of others. Focusing on dated concepts of what ‘success’ looks like will keep your company from hiring and promoting the best people. Make room for different voices. Recognize your biases. And don’t buy into the faulty concept of presence. Focus on the things that matter.

And guess what — it’s not flip-flops or a blue suit.

With a Perspective, I’m Tracy Coté.

Tracy Coté is the chief people officer for a global customer experience software company in Daly City.

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