Diversity, equity, and inclusion – abbreviated DEI, and sometimes DEIB with an added “B” for belonging – are topics that have a growing presence in the social and corporate zeitgeist. You’ve likely seen news stories, have liked (or disliked) social media posts, taken polls, or have attended conferences where any or all of those terms were mentioned. And yet, just knowing how to properly define them, not to mention applying or addressing them in your company, can feel daunting. I know the first time I heard the phrase DEI as the COO of my previous company, and that “we needed to do something about it,” I was afraid. I barely knew what the words meant, nor what we should do. But I was curious.
As a straight white man on the leadership team, here were some of my thoughts: “What do I know about these topics? How can I possibly show up without my foot in my mouth? I’m not a racist! Shouldn’t someone who doesn’t look like me lead these conversations? But wouldn’t that be worse to have a teammate not in the majority group talking about these issues? Isn’t that tokenism? What is tokenism!? Are we sure this is really a problem? Wait, what is the problem exactly? I don’t think we can handle this. We should probably wait until we have the right strategy.”
I’m sure your unique experience is different, but I imagine you may find some resonance with those thoughts. If you find yourself curious, but knowing what to do or justifying the cost of this work – in time, focus, or money – feels unclear, I’d love to share some learnings from our journey. For us, the first step was leaning into curiosity and seeing where it took us. There are usually two primary reasons to commit to these efforts and one – or both – are likely to resonate with your leadership team.
First, simply listening to your employees and getting curious about their experiences may underscore that there’s work to be done. The realization you’re likely to have – that not everyone’s experience at your organization is the same when it comes to feeling a sense of belonging, affinity, and inclusion – should be compelling enough to try to change that, should it not? Employee satisfaction and engagement will increase, but a more unified, fair, and equitable culture will also produce stronger outcomes for the business.
Second, if you’re a numbers person, did you know that study after study has shown companies that create a diverse and inclusive workplace experience stronger financial performance than those that don’t? It’s not just the top line that benefits. There is also greater retention and talent acquisition, higher employee engagement, improved customer satisfaction, and more. As restorers, all of these results are important!
In San Francisco, we have increasingly found that commercial clients care about our company’s efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive team, and yet, this is not just a SF thing. A quick Google search on why business leaders should care about DEI will yield plenty of compelling articles to choose from to justify why this matters.
No matter which entry point to this work you choose, here are a few realizations we have had on our journey:
Ownership and leadership need to take the first steps and show their support. Above, I mentioned my doubt about whether it was my place to lead in this space. In fact, my former colleague and current DEI consultant Viva Asmelash would argue that senior leadership education is exactly the right place to start. She asserts that starting with the team with the most decision-making power in the organization mitigates further harm, creates a baseline understanding and shared vocabulary among that group, and demonstrates an embodiment of the internal cultural shift taking place in the company. When the leadership team of an organization models change and inspires others to act, it creates a culture of clearer accountability around this work. Without it, the initiative is likely to fail.
Race isn’t the only dimension of diversity. While race is significant, there’s also gender/gender identity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, language, disability, and more. Intersectionality, the concept that acknowledges that these factors overlap and create even more unique experiences and perspectives, further underscores the complexity here. Wanting everyone to belong means wanting everyone to belong, and widening our lens opened our eyes to the fact that we were ignoring important dimensions of our teammates’ identities.
Expect to make mistakes and be uncomfortable. Fear of making mistakes shouldn’t be used to justify inaction. You’re human, after all! But recognize the difference between intent and impact: your well meaning actions or words may still harm others, and positive impact should be the focus of your efforts. Get ready to misstep, and when you do, be humble and ask for forgiveness. Learn from your mistakes, and be introspective so that you do better next time. Humbly and openly share what you learned so that others have permission to make mistakes in their journey, too.
Get help. If you don’t know where to begin, or even if you do, getting the support of an outside consultant (like Viva) who can support you on this journey is one of the best investments and decisions we made. The right professional can tailor a program that works for you and your team, and this will free you up to engage more deeply in the process yourself.
The journey is the destination. Cliché as that may sound, there is no arrival on this trip, so enjoy the ride. There will always be something to learn, experience, and grow from. In the beginning of our work, I think some of us thought that doing a workshop allowed us to check the box and move on. This topic doesn’t work that way. Instead, it’s an ongoing and continuous process.
Whether this is completely new to you or you’ve been at it for a while, keep pressing on in your journey. Personally, I’ve found that following leaders in this space on LinkedIn or regularly reading from HBR or Forbes has kept me engaged and learning. I’ve also found it helpful to talk with other business leaders, both inside and outside of the industry, about what’s (not) working for them, because I believe that openly sharing our experiences can help us all to be more successful. On that note, please reach out to me if you’d like to talk if I can be helpful to you or your team!