Mary Johnson

Breaking down 'faux diversity' with GE exec-turned-entrepreneur Luke Clemente

Blog Post created by Mary Johnson on Feb 7, 2018

Luke Clemente cartoon“The pursuit of diversity requires not just the embrace of the form, but the substance of diversity,” says Luke Clemente, a former GE executive turned entrepreneur.


Some companies mistakenly believe diversity is a check-the-box proposition: Do we have African-Americans on our team? Hispanics? Asians? Women?  Then we’re good to go.


Luke calls that “faux diversity,” and it means from the outside in, such companies look diverse, like the photos typically found in college brochures that strive for a mosaic appearance. But in actuality, faux diversity is no diversity at all. While the members of the team may look different, they may not think differently or, worse, feel secure in thinking and expressing themselves differently. Faux diversity falls far short of the essence of true diversity.


Luke posits that “our DNA may be hard wired to resist diversity. We see strength in numbers, which is what drives conformity as a group survival skill. On the other hand, group-think could get us killed. So there’s a tension in our DNA: We have to work together and conform to survive, but on the other hand, if we abandon our individuality and independent thinking and become one mind, group survival is also threatened.”


Luke spent the past 25 years managing industrial businesses, first for Enron Energy Services and then for General Electric. 


Luke has always been a champion for diversity.  He was previously a co-chair of the GE Women’s Network at GE Grid Solutions. He is also the father of two daughters, both of whom are early in their careers and who continue to stun him with tales of blatant sexism, not just by members of the old guard but by new recruits eagerly embracing the prevailing culture.


He’s also seen firsthand what happens to a company that doesn’t embrace diverse perspectives and encourage a collaborative approach.


Enron was very much a boys’ network and hyper-competitive. It was running fast and loose with the rules,” Luke says.  It had a “conform or be gone” culture that failed to embrace the benefits of diversity that can serve as a counterweight to group-think. Although women were present in key roles, “a true embrace of diversity and openness was not valued at Enron. Had a more inclusive culture been allowed to develop, it could have served as a counterbalance at Enron and made it stronger.”


Luke believes that "while bad culture doesn’t always kill a company, it is always a detriment to optimizing its performance." When a company’s employees think the same, the company suffers. Innovation stagnates, and the best members of the team leave to find a better home for their talents and passions.


“Successful organizations have to evolve, mature and develop, but some corporations can’t make that transition. What you’ll see then is good people leaving, and often, those people go on to create their own communities, their own tribes,” he explains. “Pink Petro is a perfect case-in-point — a startup founded when one energy industry veteran decided to step away from the corporate giants and change the status quo,” he says. 


“Pink Petro is a tribe — a tribe of people coming together and sharing a common set of values. And they’re trying to change the world,” he says. “Tribes come into existence, and tribes die, namely the ones that fail to adapt.”


So Luke’s message to the disenchanted employees of stale companies: “do something about it.”


“When my daughters lament challenges at the office, I tell them point blank: ‘You either figure out how you’re going to survive in that tribe, work to change the culture of the tribe or change tribes. Better yet, if you’re not happy, aim to start your own tribe that reflects your core values,” Luke says. “I could also give them the cheap advice to emulate the powerful people in their companies. But if they do that, the culture won’t change and decay will begin to set in. That’s not diversity. It is neither good for their internal well-being nor for their organizations.”