Even a romantic comedy can carry important messages for talent managers: to embrace independent-minded expertise no matter how unconventional.
Jimmy Fallon, the host of NBC’s Tonight Show recently mocked President Trump’s Liberty University commencement talk, suggesting that he had plagiarised a speech given by Elle Woods, the ditzy fashionista character played by Reese Witherspoon in the 2001 romantic comedy, Legally Blonde.
Fallon was not ridiculing the plagiarism as such—orators have always borrowed the words and sentiments of great speeches—but the idea that the President might actually have been inspired by the film itself and deliberately cribbed it.
The film—a favourite of many eminent lawyers—follows a fashion and make-up obsessed student who sets out to pursue her less-enamoured boyfriend to Harvard Law School. Along the way, she is belittled, underestimated, excluded, and repeatedly told by ‘intellectually-minded’ Harvard students and the lawyers where she interns, that she doesn’t belong. Outside the hallowed halls, however, she is widely adored (‘everyone likes me’), and with persistence she eventually succeeds. You can already see the appeal for Donald Trump.
Large companies and their HR managers might also reflect on some of the film’s lessons when identifying and promoting talent. First, Elle is both passionate and profoundly knowledgeable about her subject. With ‘a 4.0 in fashion merchandising’ who ‘aced the history of polka dots,’ she understands the thoughts and hopes of fashion consumers, and through this grasps issues of class, ambition, self-confidence, wealth, style, indeed everything about society. She has a tested world view, albeit not one expected of a lawyer.
Second, that ‘outsider’s perspective’ is what companies say they want but wouldn’t recognise it if came up and powdered their noses. As one Harvard selector says: ‘A fashion major? We’ve never had one before and aren’t we always looking for diversity?’ And her insights, though not always expressed in conventional terms, prove as acute as any. (She wins a murder trial by spotting that the real killer couldn’t have been in the shower because you don’t wash your hair after a perm.)
Third, the film is not about celebrating the victory of the underdog. It doesn’t disparage the years of study, hard work and experience that it takes to get to the top (as ‘Working Girl’ or ‘The Devil wears Prada’ seem to do). The lesson for companies is how it is all-too-easy for blinkered or self-satisfied organisations to overlook true talent if it doesn’t tread the familiar path.
‘The difficulty in overcoming bias in companies is that those charged with making change don’t recognise their own bias.’
Some companies are now beginning to ask the awkward questions about inbuilt bias. This is not so simple because those charged with making change don’t recognise their own biases. Objective analysis is therefore key. AI and data management are challenging many in-built assumptions. Computer simulations have already demonstrated, for example, that a systematic one-percent bias against women in performance evaluation scores leaves them hugely underrepresented at senior levels. Google encourages staff to test their own biases using measurable image-recognition tests. Recruiters can also deploy fair and transparent scoring systems in recruitment to counter the instinctive likes or dislikes of the interviewer. And firms can be more active in countering work-related stereotypes in a more systematic way.
Once that process starts, it becomes all-too apparent how widespread bias, based on ignorance, arrogance or vested interests, still is. Consider the economists who missed the financial crash; the pundits who misread support for Brexit, Trump and Theresa May; the doctor who misdiagnoses his patients while ignoring their views; or the local government building committee that dismisses residents’ concerns about fire safety. To quote the fictitious Ms Woods: ‘You need to have a bit more faith in people. You might be surprised.’
Paul Lewis is Editorial Director, FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance.