Executive Summary:

Celebrating “firsts” can signal important change, but can also:

  • Encourage counterproductive assumptions
  • Sideline what people really bring to the table
  • Distract from genuine belonging


A couple of months ago, I was fortunate to attend the NMSDC Annual Conference and hear Wes Moore, the current Governor of Maryland, give a keynote.

Wes Moore at the 2023 NMSDC Conference

He started his inspiring talk with this profound statement:

“Making history was not the assignment – and being first was not the goal.”

It’s still sticking with me.

In the aftermath of 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, I watched entire industries reckon with their complicity in workplace discrimination and inequality. At the time, organizations left and right decided to hire Black women to “right the ship” — most of whom were the first Black woman, and in some cases, the first person of color, to ever hold the position. I hate to say it but it felt like a fashion trend — if you had what was in style, you made sure everyone knew about it.

It turns out that, three years later, many of those Black women have stepped down. Rosalind Brewer, who was named CEO of Walgreens, stepped down after less than three years in the position, during a “turbulent period” for the retailer. She was one of only two Black women leading a Fortune 500 retailer. Arts and culture organizations weren’t exempt from this pattern either – notably, Nataki Garrett resigned from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival earlier this year. She fought for three years to keep the festival open through wildfires and the pandemic, not to mention the death threats she received over her “overly left-leaning programming.” Tokenization is alive and well in so many industries – and, at the very least often leads to burnout in the most traumatic way.

How many times have you read a tokenizing headline that read, “First Black CEO” or “First Openly Gay Elected Official”?

Personally, I can think of way too many examples. Again, people like to show off their fashion trends.

Celebrating “firsts” is a tactic used by the media (and sometimes by companies and organizations themselves) to signal a celebration of the candidate’s accomplishments, but what’s the actual impact of these headlines? What happens when we focus our headlines on someone being “the first” while downplaying their actual qualifications? Here are three consequences.

Focusing on “firsts” encourages counterproductive assumptions

When the focus on a new hire is that they’re the “first” person like them to come into the role, their qualifications are often implicitly called into question. The assumption that a candidate was hired because of their identity and not because they’re qualified is sadly still so common. For example, I recently came across this curated clip on my social media feed from The Morning Show. In the scene, a young Black anchor confronts her boss about an email questioning whether or not she’s qualified to do her job. This moment speaks to so many real exchanges that happen all the time about so-called “diversity hires.”

The reality (and the thing that many of us miss) is that these candidates are often more qualified or have had to work harder to arrive at the same place – labor that is often completely invisible to outsiders. Nearly two-thirds of Black professionals agree that they have to work harder to advance in their careers, whereas just 16% of white professionals think Black folks have to work harder.

The dark side of these preconceived assumptions is that “firsts” are often put in a position where they cannot succeed in their new role. For example, in difficult times, companies are more likely to appoint women and people of color to leadership roles with very little support. This phenomenon is called the Glass Cliff – women and people of color get promoted to these positions because companies want to signal that they are changing by promoting a “first.” But as evidenced by my earlier examples, this kind of tokenization leads to burnout, especially when these candidates aren’t given the support they need.

Focusing on “firsts” sidelines what people really bring to the table

At Change Coaches, we often reference the concept of KPEs – Knowledge, Perspectives, and Experiences. These are the pieces that every employee brings to the table when they come to work, and it’s important to be aware of KPEs as a Below the Surface leader. But KPEs aren’t just related to identity! Often the most valuable KPEs come from work experience and career milestones. When companies place the focus on KPEs related to identity, they accidentally sideline all the other contributions their employees could be making.

Just a couple examples of how I’ve seen this play out – recently, a friend of mine who happens to be transgender was telling me that their gender identity gets brought up in conversation a lot, but to them, it feels like the least interesting piece of who they are. This rang true for me too – I’m a queer woman, but that’s not my most important identity. There are definitely many other things about me that impact who I am, especially at work.

Focusing on “firsts” can often distract from genuine belonging

Back in September on an episode of the Leading Below the Surface Podcast, I sat down with José Torres-Don (Executive Vice President of Organizational Development, People, and Culture at MissionWired) to discuss what really matters when it comes to hiring and retaining diverse candidates. When hiring diverse candidates, José steers away from labeling people “diverse candidates” because he doesn’t want to make people feel tokenized – it’s a distraction from genuine belonging.

To me, focusing on “firsts” is a surface-level signal that an organization is attempting to care about diversity. It makes me wonder what that company is actually doing to make sure their “firsts” are successful and have the resources they need to thrive. That’s not to say that there’s NO value in celebrating someone being the “first” to do something! Representation matters, especially in a context where people are seeing leaders like them for the first time. The most responsible thing that organizations and professionals can do in that context is to uplift that leader’s track record and experience while intentionally creating a path for success. That way, you can pave the way for many more to come.

How can Change Coaches help organizations re-center towards genuine belonging?

There are a few ways you can engage with us: