Implementing diversity initiatives to drive change
Far from being a fad, creating workplaces that are intentionally diverse, mindful of the importance of employees’ identities, and thoughtfully inclusive of a variety of differences is a mandate for 21st century leadership. It is no longer acceptable to lead teams that lack representation of the experiences and communities of their employees and customers. But with so much superficial activity in the marketplace regarding diversity and inclusion (D&I) — and much of it resulting in no real change — how can leaders who truly want to address inclusion-related aspects of workplace culture do so meaningfully and sustainably? We have worked with organizations of all sizes across industries globally, and those effectively implementing D&I initiatives and successfully driving change apply the following best practices.
- Treat diversity as a strategic and cultural advantage, not a problem to be managed.
The initial framing of D&I often sets organizations on the wrong course. Rather than waiting to respond to a complaint, think proactively, and recognize that a diverse workforce and a truly inclusive environment are strategic advantages. If you knew that customers and employees might respond positively to diversity in gender, race, ability, religious expression, political affiliation, sexual orientation, language, veteran status, and other identities across your public-facing leaders, employees, products, and values, what would you do to avail the organization of that opportunity? How might individuals with different experiences offer productive challenges from alternate perspectives? How could these varied approaches lead to better business solutions? This strategy emphasizes conscious inclusion rather than the management of so-called unconscious bias.
- Take personal responsibility and accountability for the success of the D&I agenda.
Delegating execution of an inclusive leadership agenda to a dedicated team of expert professionals is useful, but ownership of the total agenda and assurance of its success must sit with leaders at the top of the house. It is critical for employees to witness the commitment from the CEO and others as an indicator of the seriousness and importance of the D&I agenda to the organization’s total performance.
- Prioritize the kinds of difference that matter to employees and customers — and to prospective employees and customers.
Gather data and determine which communities and identities are represented by the team now, and who is missing. Ask what is important to current employees, and what might matter to those who could bring something new or different to the workforce or customer base. Be careful not to undermine the message by prioritizing cognitive diversity over social and community diversity. Cognitive diversity without identity diversity is exactly what even the most homogeneous organizations have in place now.
- Recognize diversity as the first step — but only a step — towards inclusion.
Look at demographics across the organization, but also gather data on experiences, attitudes and points of view. Determine whether employees feel they have fair access to leadership opportunities, to influencing the culture, and to engaging in work assignments. Do they believe they can really engage their most essential identities in workplace-appropriate ways, such as through dress and hairstyle, full disability-accessible spaces, or alcohol-free events (for individuals in recovery or whose faith prohibits alcohol consumption)? Consider employee turnover and whether it reflects disproportionate departure of individuals from certain groups. Diversity is about counting people, but inclusion is making people count.
- Focus on outcomes and impact, not inputs and outputs.
Too many organizations prioritize inputs and outputs by focusing on the number of D&I activities that take place or the number of people who participate in those activities. Instead, emphasize outcomes and impact. Identify what you want to be tangibly and visibly different as a result of your actions and build a plan to make changes based on what effect you want to drive in total organization.
- Create consistent language and framework for inclusion in the organization.
What does a truly diverse environment look and feel like? What is conscious inclusion? What does “workplace-appropriate” reference? Helping people throughout the organization to have a consistent framework and language for identity, diversity, and inclusion will make it much easier to ensure that the team is collectively facing the same direction when implementing a change agenda. It will also help individuals to understand the role(s) that they might play in contributing to or supporting a consciously inclusive workplace.
- Make it personal — consider what D&I means to you.
All people have identities and worldviews that are shaped by life experiences, how they see themselves, how they were raised, and how others see and treat them. Consider your own journey: When did you begin to understand the identities and experiences that inform your perspectives on life, business, family, community, politics, the media, and more? How have these perspectives changed throughout your life and how might they be supplemented with ideas from others who do not share the same identities and experiences? Moving a D&I agenda from the theoretical to the deeply personal reminds us of the real, practical implications of this agenda on real people’s lives.
- Address unspoken or whispered fears head-on.
Some of the concerns that people will raise — or discuss only behind closed doors — come from logical, if inaccurate, places. For instance, the goal is not to foster leadership that is less-than-best; it is to broaden the definition of “best” to account for a more relevant range of variables than have been historically prioritized. There are no attempts to limit career opportunities for individuals from any particular group; rather, the goal is to broaden opportunities for a wider variety of candidates than might have been considered in the past, and to raise the expectation of “best” for everyone across all roles. Ask what is worrying team members about D&I and address their concerns directly, honestly, and transparently. When you are not sure, demonstrate the vulnerability to acknowledge that you do not know and are still learning, too.
- Be in learning mode.
Few leaders have been taught how to successfully support consciously inclusive workplaces. The good news is that the skills to do so are developable; everyone can get better at them through training, reading, listening to others who represent a variety of perspectives, practicing, making mistakes, and trying again. No matter how experienced you are as a leader, a good rule of thumb in inclusive leadership is to listen more than you talk and learn more than you teach.
- Prioritize the D&I agenda all the time.
Members of marginalized groups know that the day after International Women’s Day, Black History Month, LGBTQ Pride Month, Veterans’ Day, or other observances of critical identities can represent a return to “normal,” where “normal” is ignoring some of the most important parts of their lives. Show all employees that you value them every day — not in spite of their identities — but because of the identities and experiences they hold, and for the special and unique perspectives that they bring as a result. That’s not just great D&I; it’s great leadership.
Written by: Eric Pliner
Eric Pliner is CEO of YSC Consulting, an independent leadership strategy consultancy that helps organizations develop the individual leaders, team dynamics, and total cultures to successfully attain their desired future state. His expertise includes executive coaching for CEOs, succession planning, strategic diversity & inclusion initiatives, and building successful leadership teams. Eric has worked with individual executives, teams, and organizations throughout the Fortune 500, the FTSE 100, and around the world. www.ysc.com