Isn’t funny how all of Silicon Valley is investing tons of money into learning about unconscious bias and yet, when the thing is staring them in the face, they can’t see it?
With Twitter’s recent pledge to diversify its workforce, one would think an open CEO slot would be seen as a prime opportunity to introduce someone from a different background. But when faced with a decision between hiring someone new or returning Dorsey to the helm, Twitter inevitably chose Dorsey. Or more precisely, Jack—Twitter’s inventor who was exiled and has been fighting his way back ever since.
On the road to the Dorsey decision, Twitter’s board may have looked at some diverse candidates. The company’s head hunting firm is said to have reached out to former Cisco CTO, Padmasree Warrior, as well as General Electric vice chair, Beth Comstock. But apparently neither of them (or any of the other choices available) were quite right for the job.
While neither Warrior nor Comstock can purport to know Twitter the way Dorsey does, surely they are — with their awards, accolades, and years of experience — at least as capable of running Twitter as he is. But, Dorsey has something that neither of these women have: a backstory worth rooting for. This makes Dorsey exceptional.
His compelling backstory, the Dorsey Myth, is unconscious bias at work. It is a tool that allows us to overlook qualified female and minority candidates in favor of a white male who is somehow extraordinary. What’s worse is that this myth helps perpetuate the number of white men in CEO roles, giving them more opportunities to become mythologized.
Best man for the job
The popular refrain endorsing Jack Dorsey is that ‘no one gets Twitter like Dorsey.’ He is simply the best man for the job.
Jack Dorsey is the only person who could actually fix #Twitter's longing user base issues. Nobody knows Twitter better than him.
— Ayesha Ambreen (@AyeshaAmbreen) October 12, 2015
This statement is baffling when you consider not only the very real hurdles (as I’ve identified before) that Dorsey will have to overcome to successfully lead both Twitter and Square, but also his track record at Twitter. During his first stint as CEO, Dorsey helped garner funding for Twitter, but racked up a ton of text-messaging bills and was often unavailable to the company. He was reportedly spending more time on extracurricular activities than on managing Twitter. After a year, Dorsey was fired as CEO, though he stayed on as a silent board member.
After leaving Twitter, Dorsey built Square, a company with a $6 billion valuation and a strong team of executive leaders, including CFO Jessica Friar (former VP of finance and strategy at Salesforce), business lead Francoise Brougher (former sales and operations VP at Google), product lead Jesse Dorogusker (former director of engineering on Apple’s iPhone), seller lead Alyssa Henry (formerly VP of Amazon Web Services), Caviar lead Gokul Rajaram (former product director of ads at Facebook and Google), people lead Aditya Roy (formerly head of Google’s APAC business operations), general counsel Dana Wager (former lead counsel on antitrust issues for Google), and most recently Jacqueline Rese, a former Yahoo exec who will head up Square Capital. It’s likely Dorsey has learned a lot from building a company from the ground up — like how to delegate responsibility rather than micromanage a team.
However, Square’s success is up for debate. The company has come under scrutiny not least of all for losing $100 million in 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal. Though a recent S-1 filing indicates Square has promise, it isn’t yet profitable and continues to operate in a highly competitive space.
Genius or no, it’s hard to look at Jack Dorsey’s track record and feel certain that he is the most qualified person to run Twitter. His biggest asset is that he knows the product better than anyone else, but there’s no concrete evidence that familiarity with a product, in and of itself, makes for a good executive leader. (Look at Rob Kalin, Etsy’s founder and the individual who, undoubtedly, knows Etsy best. He fumbled as CEO twice. It took a totally new person to lead Etsy to its IPO and beyond.)
However, if you put an underdog filter on Dorsey’s history and fill it out with Jobsian narrative, Dorsey suddenly becomes a much more attractive candidate. He becomes a person who has trained for this moment. Dorsey’s work history isn’t what sells him as a CEO, it’s his reputation as a visionary that’s his most salient quality.
But it’s also possible that this idolization of Dorsey may be causing board members to overestimate his impact on Twitter’s staff and underestimate the very tangible factors working against him.
By contrast, Indian-born former Cisco executive Padmasree Warrior has a much cleaner work history. She served Cisco for eight years as both chief technology officer and chief strategy officer. At Cisco, she was responsible for corporate strategy and led several important acquisitions. That kind of experience could have been a boon to Twitter as it eagerly reassesses its direction.
She’s also on the board of Box and Gap. Before Cisco, she was at Motorola for over 20 years, four of them as chief technology officer. Warrior is widely recognized in the tech industry. Among other accolades, Warrior received the National Medal of Technology from the President of the United States in 2004. She’s also one of the most-followed female technologists on Twitter, with 1.64 million followers. An avid Twitter user, Warrior would seemingly have been a great addition to the company’s team, though some may argue she lacked the requisite consumer software background.
Still, she’s a known entity in the tech world and a person who could have helped Twitter develop a forward-moving strategy — something that Dorsey has failed to do in the past.
It’s possible that Twitter couldn’t afford Warrior or that she didn’t want the job. Then again, according to Recode, supposedly no female candidate inside or outside the company was ever seriously considered.
Steve Jobs as a stereotype
The U.S. bureau of labor and statistics reports that 91.4 percent of chief executives in 2013 were white. Women have a slightly brighter outlook: 14.6 percent of women hold a single executive title in the U.S. But that number gets smaller among Forbes 500 companies, where women make up a mere 4.8 percent of executives. At Twitter, women occupy 22 percent of leadership roles. Dorsey himself has not only acknowledged the lack of diversity in the tech industry, but has also lamented the loss posed by its absence.
“Anytime you have a monotone culture, nothing shifts and nothing changes. You end up building for an audience that can risk being detached from the rest of the world and how the world is moving,” said Dorsey in an interview with Fortune.
Yet even with all this awareness about the state of diversity in tech, Twitter still opted for Dorsey. That’s perhaps because the company wasn’t thinking about diversity when they decided on Dorsey. They were looking for the right person, and the person who felt right was Jack. But the reason Jack felt like the best choice may have to do with bias.
“Researchers have demonstrated that individuals tend to process incoming information by relying on cognitive shortcuts—in essence, stereotypes,” notes Audrey J. Lee in a Harvard law paper on unconscious bias in employment discrimination litigation. We use stereotypes to help us make decisions about how to operate in the world. If you’ve ever taken an unconscious bias class, you have learned this much.
Myth and unconscious bias
So let’s take this idea a step further, following the same article, which argues that “stereotypes cause discrimination by influencing how individuals process and recall information about other people. Thus, once a person has stored information in this manner, the memory distorted by stereotype is the retained memory, as opposed to the ‘raw’ incoming information.” What this means is that as we categorize and define people around us, we inevitably reduce them to ideas we have about other people who are like them. In Dorsey’s case, the tech industry has invested a great deal of energy in his supposed likeness to Steve Jobs.
Because Steve Jobs’ legacy has been so compelling, we’ve built a stereotype around him, one that we liberally apply to others (and one that we chastise people for trying too hard to appropriate). Dorsey has actively fostered an image of himself as Jobs-like since he first left Twitter and has done such a good job of it that many are convinced.
On a smaller scale, the tendency to mythologize works its way into hiring when those in the position to hire find some likeness in a candidate, either to themselves or to other people they know. That feeling of recognition might materialize as a “gut instinct” about a person that simply reads as “This is the right person for the job.”
Unconscious bias presents a particular difficulty for non-caucasian candidates, because often their stories don’t resonate with the white people hiring them. For women, unconscious bias can be troublesome because we, as women, are notorious for underselling ourselves, effectively failing to tell our own myths. Making executive teams more diverse can help stem some of these issues, but it is by no means a panacea.
“[Diversity hiring] definitely can be a spearheading effort,” said Brian Sorge, vice president of client solutions at Braidio, a company that makes talent development software and helps companies implement diversity initiatives. “You have to put a business strategy to it as anything else. You have to measure behavioral change, cultural change, and hold executives accountable.”
Implementing diversity in leadership roles can, if nothing else, give minority and female staff members a visual to aspire to. It also creates the potential to foster an emotional connection around diversity, which is perhaps the biggest hurdle in getting diversity measures to stick. If no one in leadership understands what it’s like to come from a background perceived as different, no amount of unconscious bias training will change company diversity.
“Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, it’s difficult when you haven’t had [a similar] experience,” said Sorge.
Again, Dorsey could still lead Twitter to success. There may be enough momentum internally and enough good feeling to pull the company over the threshold into stability. Throwing a person into adversity also has a way of testing their might, leading to the execution of extraordinary feats. But that wouldn’t mean that the Dorsey Myth was any less influential in the appointment of a capable white guy, who may not be as exceptional as he seems.
Some people might say that Twitter had to choose Dorsey, because of the enormous pressure the company was under to find new leadership. In hard situations, most people want to throw diversity off the table, because there are theoretically more important tasks at hand. But searching for a CEO was never going to be a lazy task. If diversity is as important to Twitter as it purports, then opening up its hiring practices should be a major part of its next evolution.