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From platoon to boardroom: fighting battles in diversity


The United States military isn’t really known for having a proactive stance on diversity and inclusion. Adam Harrison believes it should be.

Harrison, who joined Flexability this year as director of business development, has a long military background and says his decision to join the army was actually spurred by a desire to interact with a more diverse cross-section of people.

Harrison grew up in Dayton, Ohio. He was studying psychology, aiming to be a counselor, when he decided he needed to get out of his comfort zone.

'My life experience wasn’t really robust enough'

“I had all the intentions in the world to go to graduate school and got accepted into really good schools. At the last minute, I felt like my life experience wasn’t really robust enough to add as much value.”

“I would have been 28 with a doctorate and would have spent most of my adult life in a library. It just didn’t make sense to be someone telling other people how to live their lives or why we think the way we think.

“So I wanted to get a little bit more practical life experience.”

This was in 2008. The US was embroiled in two major wars in the Middle East, and the US military came to mind. At the time, the military had a program to recruit people with a strong leadership background and good academic credentials to become officers.

“I jumped at the chance to do that.

'The military in the United States was a really interesting melting pot'

“I felt like the military in the United States was a really interesting melting pot. Joining meant getting a chance to feel out what America was really like, what the people in America thought and did, and how they interacted with each other.”

His first role was as a platoon leader, in charge of about 40 soldiers.

“If I were to put demographics on that group, about half were African-American, another 20% to 30% were Hispanic, there were a handful of White kids from the poverty South. And then there were a number of people with different developmental disabilities and psychological problems, which were either as a result of the military, or not.”

At the time, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was still in place. The policy was a 1993 defense directive that prohibited discrimination against closeted homosexual or bisexual members and barred openly homosexual or bisexual members from joining the military.

This meant the soldiers in Harrison’s platoon weren’t open about their sexuality. He says once the controversial policy had been repealed, he learnt that around 30% of his platoon identified as LGBTQ.

Harrison says this diversity in such a relatively small group shows how diverse the US military actually is.

'I don’t see those struggles as being any different to what you see at big corporations'

“The military gets a bad reputation, when statistically it’s probably more diverse than most organizations. The military was promoting women and minorities into significant leadership positions long before some of America’s oldest corporations, and doing it in a meaningful way. Where it falls short is less in terms of racial and socioeconomic factors and maybe more in terms of sex and gender.

“I don’t see those struggles as being any different to what you see at big corporations. They exist in most corporate American structures. It’s just that big companies like tech giants hide it behind ping-pong tables and beer in the office.”

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in 2011, while Harrison served in recruiting command, the branch of the military charged with recruitment.

“Recruiting command was kind of the tip of the spear for the military’s reputation in small towns all over America. We did most of the work in getting the army squared away on how it was going to approach recruitment and onboarding for folks coming from more open backgrounds.”

He says he observed different reactions to the repeal among the diverse military population.

Most of his friends and peers in the younger group were keen to bring their husbands or wives to social events the minute the military was “open” to openly homosexual or bisexual members. “They were fine, because knew they had legal protection and were willing to push against whatever discrimination they thought they might get.

“The people who had been in the military longer, who were maybe a little older, had to deal with being closeted more aggressively. They seemed to take a longer time to be more open about it.”

'I’ve made a concerted effort to help place veterans'

When Harrison left the military, he decided to put his recruitment skills to a different use.

“Recruiting for the military is very similar to recruiting for companies. It’s a different audience, it’s a different type of person that you’re vetting, but the skill set is the same. You’re getting in front of people to increase the awareness of your job opportunities and explain why it would be a good idea for people to come work for you.

“As a headhunter, though, there’s not a lot of overlap. Headhunting is more laser focused – spearfishing as opposed to fishing with a net.”

One of the first roles he picked was as a recruiter, getting Fortune 500 companies to hire military veterans.

“The military has some formal programs you have to go through when you come out to help you get your résumé ready and handle job interviews, but they are always very poor in their preparation and the advice is outdated.

“I think the expectations veterans have are also often way too high. The military does a really good job of making you feel like everyone’s going to want to hire you, and that your skill set is so translatable.

“It’s not that translatable and it’s hard sometimes to make arguments for our skills in a corporate environment. So I’ve made a concerted effort to help place veterans.”

Flexability focuses on intersectionality

This interest in opening doors for more diverse candidates is what led him to Flexability.

“Coming from the perspective we have at Flexability, you have to be more nuanced. In traditional recruitment, there’s a lot of networking and gatekeeping, to be honest.

“At Flexability, our mission is not to just fill the role. It’s to fill the role with somebody who is going to effect positive, progressive change, ideally eliminating the need for us.”

The key to this, he says, is Flexability’s focus on intersectionality – the understanding that people are not one identity alone, but have intersecting identities that come with different and diverse experiences.

“America has hit a point where you can’t just look statistically at a company and say: well, look, I’ve got 40% African-American [representation] and 30% of my leadership is women; ergo, I am diverse.

“Did they all go to Ivy League schools? Did they all come from an upper-middle-class background? Where are your veterans? Where are your people with neural disabilities? Do you have people coming from a poverty background?”

“And then, on the flip side, what are you doing to support people from a diverse background? If you hire single mothers, how are you ensuring that they can stay with the company? How are you focusing on their retention and career growth? With a little accommodation, you can provide them with what they need and they will provide you with innovation and revenue growth. Hiring them is not diversity. What you want is the ongoing growth of these candidates.”

Why is it important to open up workplaces?

“If I was a CEO, I would want my company to be representative of the population I’m selling to. I would want my company to ‘look’ like America. To feel, talk and express America in all of its facets. That’s good business.

“Companies have been organized in prejudicial, misogynistic, patriarchal ways for so long that we’re just used to seeing them that way.”

He says Covid-19 has prompted a promising shift in mindsets.

“It’s shown companies that they don’t need the same strict hours that they’ve had in the past, and the same, weird office policies that they’ve had. Having the ability to work remotely, to slide hours around, is huge. I’m a single father and it’s huge for me to [be able to] say I need to dip out for an hour to do this thing with my son, but I’ll work a little longer or check in on Saturday.”

Get in touch with our team to talk about how to create a diverse, successful and productive workplace in your company or organisation. Or share your stories using the hashtag #MyAbility and tagging @getflexability on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.