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On December 30, 2020, late in the first half of an NBA game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers, Gregg Popovich, the Spurs’ head coach, was ejected for arguing with the referees. As Popovich walked toward the tunnel to the locker room, he looked at the Spurs bench and pointed to assistant coach Becky Hammon, and said, “You got ’em.” And with that, Hammon became the first woman to act as head coach during an NBA regular-season game.
Six weeks earlier, on November 13, Derek Jeter, CEO of the Miami Marlins major league baseball team, announced that Kim Ng would be the team’s new General Manager. With this move, Ng became the first woman head of a team in U.S. men’s baseball, basketball, football, or hockey leagues.
In 2020, there was a lot of noise about diversity, equity, and inclusion. The May 25th death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer catalyzed protests across the nation. In turn, business and organizations across the country—the vast majority led by white males—denounced racial injustice and launched or redoubled diversity programs. As 2020 closed, these efforts led to many organizations establishing principles, creating structures and processes for action, and raising awareness. All of these are necessary steps, but are only preliminary steps, not true advancement.
2021 is the time to move from planning to accomplishment in the area of diversity. To that end, a closer examination of the situations surrounding Becky Hammon in the NBA and Kim Ng in the MLB yields crucial insights into how such advancement can occur in large organizations.
Insight #1: Real advancement requires action by those with the most power.
Gregg Popovich has been head coach of the San Antonio Spurs for 25 years. He is the longest tenured coach of any NBA team, and he has spent his entire head coaching career with San Antonio.
Derek Jeter, who has been part-owner and CEO of the Miami Marlins since 2017, is one of baseball’s most revered players. He led the New York Yankees to five World Series championships and was elected to the Hall of Fame with the highest percentage of votes of any position player.
Gregg Popovich does not have to worry about his status in San Antonio or as a basketball legend. If he says a woman is going to take over as head coach for a game, then that’s what’s going to happen. If there is any push-back, it means nothing to him.
Similarly, nothing is going to hurt the status of Derek Jeter. If Jeter wants an Asian-American woman to be General Manager, then that’s what’s going to happen. If there is any push-back, it means nothing to him.
In these two instances, a White man and a Black man of considerable power and respect used their positions not to talk about diversity but to advance diversity. Hammon and Ng are extraordinarily well qualified for their recent opportunities. Hammon has been an assistant coach for the Spurs since 2014. Ng has been a baseball executive for 23 years. Yet it took two revered, established male leaders to make the decisions that gave these women the opportunities they had earned.
Leaders of all types of organizations can take a lesson from Popovich and Jeter. If we want to see real action in diversity, inclusion, and equity, that action needs to come from our most powerful incumbent leaders—from people who have the stature to make bold moves and withstand any criticism.
Insight #2: Diversity requires being “in the room where it happens.”
One of the most powerful songs in the musical Hamilton is “In the Room Where It Happens.” In the scene framing the song, Alexander Hamilton interrupts a conversation with Aaron Burr to attend a secret dinner with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. At the dinner, the three men agreed to a deal in which Jefferson and Madison would support Hamilton’s centralized financial system in exchange for Hamilton’s support for having the nation’s capital in Virginia, home base of Jefferson and Madison.
Burr, who is desperate to be part of the momentous decisions shaping the nation, sings of his desire to be, like Hamilton, “in the room where it happens”:
“No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in the room where it happens…
I, I wanna be in the room where it happens…”
This song illuminates a critical reality as we attempt to move from discussion to advancement of social justice: We will never have equity and diversity if women and people of color are not “in the room where it happens.” We will never have the necessary range of perspectives, and we will never have the momentous decisions that those perspectives will inform.
In Major League Baseball, Kim Ng is now in the room. She is the head of baseball operations for the Marlins, and she is the team’s spokesperson for the league as a whole. In this position, Ng can make a mark in the biggest decisions about her sport.
However, in order to make progress, you have to make progress. It took someone else to put Ng in the room where it happens. Leaders like Gregg Popovich and Derek Jeter are rare. Popovich essentially is the room where it happens—he has that kind of clout and can decide who joins him in that room. Jeter, as team co-owner, essentially built a room in which he, a Black man, is one of the very few people at the table for big decisions, and he has already demonstrated his willingness to put alongside him a person never before seen within those exclusive four walls.
For all organizations, the imperative is to ensure that women and people of color are placed in the most senior leadership positions—not just part of the broader leadership team, but in positions that will place them in the most exclusive groups making the most important decisions.
I challenge our most senior, respected healthcare leaders to make 2021 the year of true advancement in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and to do that by making the bold moves necessary to put new voices “in the room where it happens.” The last thing anyone wants is for 2020’s once-in-a-generation momentum in pursuit of social justice to be lost.