Culture consulting company The Cavu Group makes its mission clear: empty promises of workplace diversity do nothing for marginalized employees. Real inclusivity requires executives to seriously examine their business practices. Leslie Short, CEO and author of “Expand Beyond Your Current Culture: Diversity and Inclusion for CEOs and Leadership,” says that many companies struggle with confronting their biased hiring, reporting and meeting practices.
“They’ll keep repeating, ‘That’s not us. We don’t have that problem,’” she said. “A successful restructuring needs someone to step up, be a leader and say that inequity is unacceptable.”
An “off the beaten path” career
Short’s career spans the globe and multiple industries. She was a ballerina on tour for many years before she opened an acclaimed dance studio in Japan. After returning to the U.S., she transitioned to television and broadcasting before becoming an event manager for Macy’s. Still, she felt disconnected from corporate life.
“Something was missing,” she explained. “I wanted to make a meaningful change, something that lasted longer than a moment.”
She worked in marketing before opening her branding and event planning agency, K.I.M. Media, where she still serves as CEO. In 2019, she started the Cavu Group.
Expanding beyond current culture
According to Short, many underrepresented employees face bias and discrimination at work even when diversity programs are in place. The current system, she says, fails to make any significant change. Pledges only accomplish so much. What should an employee do if they want to report bias from a direct manager, but there’s no option for anonymous reporting?
“Everyone can have freedom of thought. But no one has the right to spread hate in the workplace,” Short said.
Changing workplace diversity from within
In describing her work, Short said that there were four crucial “pillars” to strengthen: diversity, inclusion, equity and company culture. Any weaknesses can cause the company to buckle and fail its employees.
Every project begins with a consultation. Short works directly with her clients, who range from general staff to the owner. As she said, many initially resist the idea that their company could be biased and unwelcoming. Short’s method, though, is simple, effective honesty – “brutal honesty,” she joked. To her, where many programs fail is their tendency to hand-hold clients and try to soften the blow. The seriousness of the situation is lost.
Short’s role varies depending on the company. Sometimes, she works with a specific Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee to develop programs or policies. She may help a company refine its current setup, such as creating a tiered workplace reporting system with multiple options. On the drastic end, she’s set up office hours at companies that lacked an HR department to be a resource for employees. As she described it, she aims to develop diversity of thought and experience, serve as a conflict coach and “help companies help themselves.”
Creating an inclusive workplace
Based on her experience consulting, Short has plenty of advice for other business owners hoping to bring values of diversity and equity to their own workplace.
- Even without a dedicated HR employee or department, think about how to develop equivalent policies for your company. Where do employees turn if they experience discrimination?
- Develop an employee handbook to clearly lay out expectations and resources.
- Seek feedback from multiple employees and receive it gracefully.
- Inclusion means everyone, so make sure to consider gender, race, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability – all groups face discrimination.
- Do research to learn about potential policies that encourage inclusion. Short specifically highlighted the CROWN Act, which protects against employment discrimination based on natural hair.
- Pay attention to global news to learn about similar policies or find potential partnerships for your company.
Expanding her reach
For all entrepreneurs, she had words of advice as well. She stressed the importance of preparing for any opportunity, even those outside of your general industry.
Short spoke from experience. Outside of her globe-trotting career, she also works on webinars and hosts a podcast, “Visibility Ultd.” In Jan. 2021, she published “Expand Beyond Your Current Culture: Diversity and Inclusion for CEOs and Leadership.” The book is a reflection of her current work, stressing the ideas of individual value, bringing in diverse, outside perspectives and growing your network. These principles aren’t limited to inclusion efforts. They serve as guideposts for being an entrepreneur.
“When building a business, you need to be open to any direction and adding dimensions to expand your personal footprint,” she said. “Focus on the business of your business first, but make sure to keep learning.”