Obama effect trickles into boardrooms: More women, visible minorities will reach the top

The election of the first African-American U. S. president lets all Americans tell their children to aspire to any role.

There are incredibly high hopes for Barack Obama, but no one knows what he will accomplish as President of the United States in the midst of such challenging times. But one of his achievements that can be determined right now will occur without legislation, without trillion-dollar bailouts, without sabre-rattling and without the need for bipartisan political support.

When Obama leaves office, either in four or eight years, the face of the leadership of Corporate America--and Canada-- will be changed. As head of a firm that finds and fills top-level corporate positions across North America, I assure you there will be more women and visible minorities in corporate board rooms and corner offices than there is today.

The fourth annual Rosenzweig Report on Women at the Top Levels of Corporate Canada is set to be released on the heels of yesterday's inauguration. Previous research reports have shown little gains for women seeking the highest corporate jobs; consistently the numbers are a paltry 5% or 6% of these corporate leaders being women. (U. S. studies have comparably low numbers.) Unfortunately, we expect similar numbers this year. But, thankfully, they will shoot up during Obama's first four-year term.

Why do I think Obama will accelerate change; especially in Corporate Canada, a country beyond his jurisdiction?

For one, his ascendency into the Oval Office will do more than any affirmative action program or employment equity initiative to date. When the highest hurdle is passed, the others become so much easier to jump.

As well, all Americans can finally tell their children -- boy or girl -- they can one day be the President of the United States. This Audacity of Hope, to pinch one of his book titles, will go well beyond politics and into the highest echelons of corporate power. The sight in Chicago's Grant Park on on Nov. 4, the evening of the United States election, was awe-inspiring: More than 100,000 people of all creeds, colours and backgrounds came together to celebrate the first African-American president in the history of the United States. For Corporate Canada, there will be a spill-over of the "Obama effect" -- Canada is not an island. Many Canadian corporations are subsidiaries of U. S. companies; all major Canadian companies are linked to U. S. corporations through buy and sell relationships.

This is the opposite of the old adage "when the United States sneezes, Canada gets a cold." In this case, when the United States ges out of its sick bed, Canada spritely heads off to work.

There is also the changing demographics of the North American workforce, which has changed dramatically in the past 30 years, its just that the change hasn't percolated to the top where white males hold about 95% of the jobs.

Simply by getting elected, Obama is a catalyst for change at a faster pace. He has roots in Kenya and Kansas and was raised by a single mother who at times had to rely on food stamps to feed him. Whether you agree or disagree with his policies, the man as a symbol is inspiring; inspiring to so many in Corporate North America who want to reach the top leadership roles but have historically been disadvantaged.

I can hear many visible minorities and women in the business world saying: "If Obama can be President of the United States, I can be president of this company."

On the flipside, those holding the levers of power in the corporate world should be paying more than lip service to diversity at the highest ranks, promoting simply the best talent to the uppermost offices in their companies.

When this happens, we'll all win. Research has proven the more diverse leaders are, the better a company performs.

-Jay Rosenzweig is managing partner of Rosenzweig & Company, a senior executive search firm with offices in Toronto, Calgary and New York.