The One Thing Most Companies Get Wrong on Diversity + Inclusion

Admittedly this title is a little ridiculous. Wouldn’t the world be different if there were only one thing organizations got wrong when it came to diversity, equity and inclusion? But following our event on creating diverse and vibrant teams, it struck me that this one thing is the real game-changer.

I had the incredible privilege of co-hosting a talk with private equity fund Turning Rock Partners last week on Creating Diverse + Vibrant Teams. We did your standard prep: my fellow panelists (the truly amazing Rita Kakati-Shah, Kevin Burke, and Saba Ahmad) and I got on a call to talk through the topic and get organized. Our focus was on providing practical tips to companies that wanted to attract and retain more diverse talent (more on that below). But the one thing that really struck me (thank you, Rita) was this. Before you start plotting your DEI strategy you need to answer the question: why are you doing this?

This may seem obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s common. How often do you start doing something before you have a clear vision of why you’re doing it? I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve sat in, or calls I’ve listened to, where the person leading was barking out orders without any clear sense of why that was the right thing to do. And the team would then dutifully go off and carry out XYZ in the same fog of ignorance. This all resulted in, you guessed it, work product with very little value and damage to morale. Why do we all torture ourselves like this? Because it feels easier in the moment. Sometimes determining the reason for doing something is harder than just doing something. It requires an upfront investment of time and thought that sometimes our Instagram-addled brains would prefer to skip over.

So back to the topic at hand. When you are sitting down with your leadership team having a discussion about the DEI policy, or creating employee resource groups, or putting together a diversity retreat, stop and back up. Why is this important to you? Do you truly believe diversity will help your bottom line (because that’s what the data show)? Is it a moral decision based on a genuine acknowledgement of structural and historic inequities? Are you reading the studies showing diverse teams are significantly more innovative? Have you experienced the feeling of not belonging and want to create an environment that is more welcoming to you and others like you? Is it because your clients are demanding diversity and you are afraid of losing business? Are you tired of hearing people complain about how your company isn’t diverse and you just want to shut them all up?

Be honest. There is no point in spending time and money on this exercise if the outcome is not meaningful to you. There is also no point in lying about it. People will know. If you are doing this to shut people up, but you say it’s about a genuine moral belief, you are not going to fool anyone. Purpose and mission are things that permeate and human beings are highly sensitive and have (selective, but still) highly evolved radars for inauthenticity. When you tell them diversity, equity and inclusion are important to you, but that’s not reflected in your executive team, in your budget, or in how you speak to your employees, you are only making things worse. Now your employees know you don’t care and they trust you even less. That is all a long way of saying: figure out the why before the what

For those of you who couldn’t make it to the event last week, I also wanted to share some of the whats. These whats came from the combined perspectives of a DEI expert (Rita), a leader who is in the process of implementing these tactics in his own organization (Kevin), and from someone (me!) who has the privilege of working everyday with companies who build inclusivity into the foundation of their businesses (in other words, examples of how this looks when it’s working). After you’ve decided on your why, these are some ideas for what to do next:

  • Take stock of your starting point. Sometimes the least charged way to begin is to assess where you’re starting from. Look at your existing team and where you are spending money. Do your staff, your investments, and your service providers (that’s us!) reflect your values when it comes to diversity and inclusion or is there work to be done there?
  • Allocate resources. If this is really important to you then you will put time and money into it. It should be a line item in your budget just like creating a new product or new division of your company. If you truly believe in the value, you will invest in it.
  • Focus on qualities rather than credentials. We have all been trained to think that the best people come from certains schools or certain consulting firms or certain investment banks. The problem is that all of those institutions have historically excluded the people you are trying to include now. By requiring those credentials, you are recycling the problem. Do you want employees who are smart, diligent, curious, and resilient? Then look for those qualities and open your mind to the fact that there are many, many different experiences that reflect them.
    • Corollary: stop thinking you have to lower your standards. Unless you think women and people of color inherently have less of the qualities you are looking for (you don’t really believe that, right?), then you know you don’t have to lower your standards. All you have to do is broaden your understanding of how quality is assessed.
  • Know it will take time. This is not a quick fix, particularly if you are working within an organization that was not founded with these principles in mind. The larger the organization and the longer a different culture has been entrenched, the more time it will take. Going into it with that mindset will hopefully prevent quick burnout.

There were plenty more tips covered last week and I would love to refer you to the recording of our event, but we didn’t record it (because we wanted an open discussion) and no one really watches pre-recorded webinars, do they? The final thought I’ll leave you with is how Kevin closed out the panel: it’s hard. This stuff is hard. But if you are taking it on with purpose and you truly believe in the value of the work, you’ll do it. Because that’s why we do hard things. They’re worth it.

--Jessie Gabriel

P.S. Speaking of doing hard things, this event took quite a bit of work to put together. I am incredibly grateful to Turning Rock's Rima Roy and All Places' Shelly Roberson for their substantial work behind the scenes.