I recently had a frank conversation with colleagues about the struggle we’ve observed our clients experiencing with achieving true inclusion and diversity in their organizations.
While our first instinct was to discuss possible solutions to what seems like an insurmountable problem, we had to admit that I&D is an issue fraught with complexity. “Most organizations say they believe in inclusion and diversity, but we believe that workplace intention and commitment must be met with action, or no sustained change will be possible,” said CB Bowman, CEO of Workplace Equity Equality.
Solutions, we concluded, needed to be holistic, address the systemic roadblocks that prevent inclusion from becoming a way of life inside organizations, and acknowledge that interpersonal blind spots can foster them.
“In all of my years working with leaders and teams, I’ve not seen any sustained and consistent improvement in my client’s success with creating real inclusion and diversity,” lamented Tony. As an executive coach of C-suite leaders, Tony found that he was frequently addressing this challenge with his clients, particularly over the last six months, as social justice matters have become more evident around the world and more widely reported in the media.
“As a white male talking to mostly white male clients, I’m just not sure of how best to advise them,” he admitted.
As our small group began to unpack possible solutions, we structured a framework for thinking about the major organizational and leadership components that would need to be part of any I&D solution, regardless of business type. They include the following:
The governance body of any organization has ultimate responsibility for all matters that affect the success or failure of a business. When a company experiences major manufacturing, product or sales issues, those challenges are raised and monitored at the board level until they are addressed. These are the kinds of issues that influence shareholder value, market position and customer satisfaction.
While inclusion and diversity should be no exception as important issues, they first require appreciation among the board for their value to the business beyond that which is morally, legally or ethically appropriate — an appreciation that puts I&D on par with product development and sales growth.
When an organization is struggling with achieving meaningful improvement in the diversity of its workforce and the inclusion of a range of people and viewpoints in the dialogue of the business, the board plays an essential role in resolving this difficulty.
Until it becomes personal in some way, there are leaders who do not feel the need to transform.
No real improvement in the area of I&D is possible without an aware, educated and impact-driven leadership group. Much of what has been accomplished in I &D thus far has focused on awareness — most recently in the form of unconscious bias training and other awareness initiatives — yet more is required. Around the subject of inclusion and diversity, our group of colleagues arrived at a few important conclusions through our analysis of the leaders we have worked with:
Many leaders do not know themselves well when it comes to their understanding of the tenets of race, ethnicity and culture that have shaped their mindset as it relates to people different from themselves.
Many leaders shy away from the “unmentionables” and struggle with the deep and potentially divisive discussions that would improve their capacity to appreciate others’ life experiences. Fear, and the lack of safe spaces and processes to have tough conversations about what is happening in our world and our workplaces, is preventing leaders from doing the important work required to understand the current state. This understanding includes the cultural experience for diverse people in the organization and the hurdles they leap (that others don’t) just to come to work in the morning. Developing true subject knowledge in this area is critical for creating a leadership team that can foster and sustain a diverse and inclusive culture. Without it, leaders cannot begin to imagine the new possibilities that they have the power to create, whether internally or in the surrounding community.
Until it becomes personal in some way, there are leaders who do not feel the need to transform. They hold on to systems and long-established workplace norms because they are, on some level, benefiting from them. Until leaders shape cultural systems in a way that better balances the benefits for everyone, attracting and retaining diverse talent will continue to be a challenge, and sustained change will be nothing more than wishful thinking.
Transformational change capability
As we continued exploring our framework, it became clear that achieving I&D requires a large-scale transformational change process in most organizations. Noel Tichy, professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, would say these processes are like creating a “revolution” inside the organization. All successful revolutions, he asserts, require control of the police, the media and the schools.
As it relates to I&D, it matters how an organization monitors and sets examples around how individuals are valued and included on teams and in the business. In essence, how the organization polices behaviors and fosters fairness in systems and processes determines what becomes acceptable as cultural norms.
What are the messages and stories that get shared in your organization? This is the “media” that influences how other perceive the I&D transformation that’s underway in the company. How can you encourage and empower your workforce to put these ideas into broader practice? By highlighting the organization’s success stories, learning moments and examples of diverse viewpoints, you help others understand how inclusion is making a difference in the business.
It’s important as a leader to help all employees learn about themselves and develop an appreciation for individuals who may have had different life experiences. Do you have “schools” in place (formal and informal) where your teams can gain greater exposure and experience across various dimensions of diversity, including cognitive diversity? Are there opportunities and tools for teams to practice inclusion, not just talk about it?
Finally, do you have a prepared cohort of leaders who are equipped to lead a transformational change inside the organization and within the community it serves? Achieving sustained improvement in inclusion and diversity requires knowledge and capability in change leadership and an appreciation for the complex suite of solutions essential for ongoing improvement.
Without a doubt, it also requires courageous leadership. Are you ready to make it happen?
This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, October 2020.