We’re in a time where leaders must determine the role that they want to play in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their companies. Events over the past six months, including the senseless killings of Black people, the stories that many people of all races have shared about their experiences, and social unrest impacting all facets of our lives, have once again brought this issue to the forefront of our consciousness. I say, “once again”, because it’s nothing new. It’s been cyclical in our nation’s history, yet it’s reached a new level of awareness.
Beyond just making a Black Lives Matter statement, I am also seeing more CEOs step forward and take tangible steps toward deepening their understanding of how issues of diversity, equity and inclusion impact their stakeholders, employees, community, customers, suppliers and shareholders. And most importantly they are recognizing the moral imperative of using their leadership role to do something about it. It’s just the right thing to do.
Every person who wants to be a part of the DEI solution must determine what role to play. In my 37-year career as a Black woman in positions of leadership, whenever topics of diversity came up, I had to think about how to leverage my personal and positional power in the room. How would my comments be received? How far could I push the group? Were they ready to hear my direct professional recommendations and feedback, or did I need to sugar coat it?
In these settings, I’ve played one of two roles, a human resources leader or a consultant. A colleague recently asked me about the differences in these roles. As I reflected, I realized the differences were quite significant.
As a HR leader I saw multiple opportunities to increase diversity, equity and inclusion, and was able to provide constant intervention to situations and strategies. But at the same time, I had to pick my battles and balance other priorities of my position daily. I was also embedded in all levels of the process and results related to our efforts.
In my current role as a consultant, I have intermittent opportunities to drive change…several hours here and there throughout each week. I work with HR and business leaders who themselves are embedded in the process and results, and I leverage their commitment. While DEI is my only priority in their organization, I seek to understand and leverage their other priorities to demonstrate how these topics can work together to accomplish goals.
As a HR leader, DEI discussions were not always a conscious request from business leaders. As a consultant, there is an overt decision to improve the organization’s results in this space. The difference in the resulting discussions are considerable in terms of engagement and dialogue.
And while it is not always necessary to hire a DEI consultant, doing so makes a clear statement about the importance of the desired outcomes, and how that role can support the human resources and business leadership.
Keep in mind that in both roles, I’m not the decision maker…certainly not as a consultant. And as a HR leader, we must partner with business leaders to accomplish anything of value.
Key Diversity Success Factors
But in both situations, the key success factors were understanding the organization’s “why”. Why is DEI important? What’s motivating them?
For years organizations have talked about the business case that having more diverse people at the table will increase the organization’s performance. This didn’t necessarily result in these firms becoming more diverse, but it was part of the supporting discussion. A recent critique of this line of thinking by Robin J. Ely and David A. Thomas in the Harvard Business Review says that
“Increasing diversity does not, by itself, increase effectiveness;
what matters is how an organization harnesses diversity, and
whether it’s willing to reshape its power structure.”
Reshaping the power structure means leaders must rethink their unconscious biases, sources of influence and development of talent. In most organizations, this means that white male allies are needed, because they are in positions of power.
“What do you expect from the White guys?”
When I look at the websites of many companies, I always look at their leadership—the board, the officers—as a first step to see how diverse they are. In many cases I find mostly White males. Which brings me to a question that my colleague David Wheatley, a leadership development consultant like myself, asked. “What do you expect from the White guys?” I have to admit, my first response, stemming from my years of experience, was “nothing”. That didn’t mean that some weren’t supportive, but many didn’t understand, or had other priorities.
Amazingly, in the past five months, I’ve had more frank discussions on DEI with business leaders, particularly White males, than at any other time in my life. Through these discussions they’re moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence; from not knowing what they don’t know, to knowing what they don’t know. And that’s a great step forward, because continued exposure and learning will move them to conscious competence, a point where they can effectively use their knowledge to drive change in their organizations.
No matter your position in your company, you get to decide the role you want to take and the impact you want to have. You can determine whether you want to react to the issues in your businesses and communities; whether you want to take a minimalist approach and do just enough to make incremental progress; whether you want to simply be compliant with government regulations; or whether you want to be proactive and truly make a difference. It’s about the quality of results you want. It’s about whether you really care. You decide.