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DEI leaders need C-suite support to achieve corporate equity goals, yet many of them are feeling ignored and exhausted

May 24, 2022, 8:50 PM UTC

I recently attended the DEI Officer Forum, the first-ever convening of DEI officers, organized by Deloitte, and hosted at their Dallas-based campus, Deloitte University. It was an ambitious and well-organized event that brought together 100 practitioners, from an array of industries, with a collective 300 years of experience. It was an extraordinary opportunity to take a pulse on the lived experiences of the people who have been tapped to transform the workplace as we know it.

It felt, very much, like a homecoming. Plus, I learned a great deal:

As a group, THESE diversity officers are very, very busy.

They’re navigating some 172 public commitments—typically related to contributions and donations after George Floyd’s murder, all while managing $18.3 billion in financial commitments to increase representation. (These results were the product of in-session pulse surveys, so these conference responses might not reflect the entirety of their scope.)

You will not be surprised to learn that many of them are tired.

Many diversity officers shared they were exhausted by the daily grind of being the only person who “told the truth” to senior leaders about all of the things—the true lived experiences of underrepresented talent, the resistance from internal leaders to change, and the lack of critical investment in their work. In fact, in a poll of attendees, the number one answer to the “orthodoxies” they were facing inside their organizations was the classic zero-sum response: “Advancing certain groups of professionals will mean fewer opportunities for others.”

Only 19% of respondents said they reported directly to their CEO. Others said lack of access limited their ability to influence their workplace. “Filtered access to the CEO robs you of teachable moments and just-in-time learning,” said one officer.

The conversations I had were wide-ranging, candid, and very real. I came away with two big challenges I want to share with you.

The first was a collective concern (my characterization) that C-Suites are not doing enough to lead on public issues that impact race and equity.

The issues are thorny. And in the age of supposedly CRT and LGBTQ-related curriculum, voting access, abortion rights, and the like, of course they are. But in session after session—some with C-Suite figures—the tension caused by the pace of corporate decision-making in the face of troubling legislative action weighed heavily on practitioners. “Decisions to not to speak out two years ago or in the past should not impact what you do today with respect to social stances,” said one attendee. “You earn the right to be an ally through your actions,” said another. “You can’t just say you’re an ally; you have to be recognized by the community as one.”

The other challenge was directly related to the now near-universally understood operating principle for DEI professionals: bolt-on programs and ad hoc initiatives do not work. “We have to make [equity] the ‘way we do business.’ Everything we do must have an inclusive and equitable approach,” was the clear consensus.

But how? How do we embed inclusion in every aspect of the business? This was the question that hung in the air as people reluctantly packed to go home to the “orthodoxies” that still await.

Here’s what they think will help:

  • Clear accountability of C-suite for results/outcomes
  • Distinct budget and resources from other talent initiatives and philanthropic contributions
  • More empowerment of those in DEI roles
  • The ability to influence C-suite and take bold stances from those roles
  • Make DEI a business imperative, and not just a talent imperative

The only sure answer that came from the session was a surprising one: Solidarity.

“This job can feel so lonely, and I don’t feel alone anymore. I have all of you!” said one attendee, a sentiment which was echoed across the room. “If I look around the room, I’m surrounded by my competitors—but this forum helped me to see that we can really help each other,” said one. This included an alliance I saw form between people at rival companies, to join forces and uplift the entire industry. No spoilers, but I plan to follow that story, if they’ll let me.

Kavitha Prabhakar, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Officer for Deloitte US tells raceAhead that this was the outcome they were working toward. “[T]his is why we brought together DEI leaders from organizations across the marketplace—to learn from each other and optimize our shared opportunities to influence positive change,” she said in a follow-up email. “We are much stronger and more effective when we work collaboratively.”

So, here is my (forwardable) message to C-Suite leaders—talk to your diversity leaders. Ask them: Are you funded correctly? Do I regularly give you my time and attention, including messy and unstructured conversation? Do I insist that you have meaningful interactions with other C-Suite leaders or relevant board members? Am I translating your insights into action in every aspect of my portfolio—and if not, do you understand why? And finally, how can I support your development through unique collaborations with your peers? (Seriously, forward this.)

It’s a long, long game, but friends really help.

To that end, how can we be better friends to you? If you are or know a DEI practitioner, what’s top of mind? Let me know, subject line: DEI friends.  Oh, and I’m reviving raceAhead’s private LinkedIn group for DEI experts, which went fallow during the pandemic. I’m hoping to use that as a resource for smart reporting and necessary solidarity going forward. Join us!

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On point: George Floyd

Tomorrow it will be two years since the murder of George Floyd. What’s happened? What’s changed?

Where have all the police reforms gone? President Biden is expected to mark the anniversary with an executive order directing federal law enforcement agencies to revise their use of force policies and create a national registry to track law enforcement officers who are dismissed for cause. Will it help?

Insider checked in with the promises made by America’s largest banks—specifically JP Morgan, Bank of America, and Citi—to see if their collective $32 billion promise to level the banking playing field for Black Americans was bearing fruit. “CEOs of five banks primarily serving Black communities said they were able to acquire customers at faster rates, lend to more Black-owned small businesses and entrepreneurs, service more mortgages for Black families, and improve their technology in ways that were previously out of the question,” is the short answer. But, to address the racial wealth gap, more investment is needed.

After emotional and public attempts at a racial reckoning in Minnesota, not much seems to have changed. “Although everybody’s heart seems to be in the right place, their actions are not matching up as fast… We’re dealing with big, deep cultural issues, systematic issues that have built up for hundreds of years and that takes time,” PJ Hill, an adviser at NorthRock Partners and vice-chair of the Minneapolis NAACP told the Washington Post. “You worry about the time that it is taking and whether we are missing a moment.”

Journalist, author, and columnist Charles Blow sees mostly erasure, specifically in the Black Lives Matter part of the conversation. “In the end, transformative national change proved to be an illusion. Inflation, a war in Ukraine, public safety, abortion, and even a baby formula crisis have overtaken the zeitgeist. Support for Black Lives Matter has diminished. Federal police reform and federal voter protection both failed to pass the Senate. And the founders of Black Lives Matter have been drawn into controversies about how they handled its money.”

Here's a must-read review of a must-read new biography of George Floyd.

Parting Words

Yet if the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past, American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocent, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be.

— James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village

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