Diversity is not ‘a journey.’ Here’s why soft language in DEI may actually make it more difficult to achieve hard results

June 22, 2022, 1:23 PM UTC
In some badly managed organizations, 'journey' has become a preferred term because when they analyze their diversity numbers, they realize how bad they really are.
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The word “journey” is overused in the corporate world–and it’s easy to see why. Saying you’re on a journey implies your job isn’t–and perhaps never will be–done.

Indeed, in business, you are in fact never done. The world evolves. Your market evolves. Your customers evolve. We evolve. The context that surrounds us–from people to processes to technologies–is perpetually changing. But evolution requires that milestones are met, that periodic objectives are clear, and that deliverables and impact can be quantified. So words matter–a lot.

When it comes to emphasizing action on diversity, equity, and Inclusion (DEI), “journey” is far too squishy of a word, especially if your DEI objectives represent a strategic imperative. If a journey seems and feels endless, do you ever arrive? Does it imply that you are wandering toward some abstract destination instead of being focused and purposefully driven?

While DEI is typically regarded as an issue of employee representation, it’s much more than that. In fact, DEI is central to the future of every business and organization. It must be a part of each organization’s growth strategy. 

Consider this fact from Catalyst: By 2060, the majority of women in America will be women of color. With that context, DEI looks less like a touchy-feely byproduct of HR-driven compliance and must become an imperative for any organization expecting to survive and thrive in the years and decades to come.

For the future, DEI is integral to your brand identity. It must be embedded in your marketing and advertising. It can fuel your innovation and growth engine. And it is central to your talent: If your frontline employees don’t reflect your customers, that’s a problem. Similarly, if your board and executive team don’t reflect the ever-evolving market, you’ll be at a disadvantage.

Against this backdrop, we can’t afford to wander. We must forge ahead with a defined mission and comprehensive measurements, coupled with impactful milestones. There should be a clear destination that you are moving towards with intention, speed, and focus. 

DEI is an evolution that leads to a revolution. Incremental, measurable goals serve to enable your team, culture, and company to achieve a greater breakthrough. This is not an aimless journey. It’s an imperative that requires purpose, progress, and prescriptive actions.

Since it is measurable and, in some cases, visual, DEI is also a way to motivate and inspire.

The rising crop of Gen-Z customers, employees, partners, and constituents has a clear idea of what they want from an organization. The generation that will soon represent one out of every three people on Earth has repeatedly expressed that it values DEI more than those who came before. This generation also puts a premium on purpose.

Gen Z wants to be part of something bigger (as do a lot of members of other generations). They want something more than a job. Accomplishing stated, quantitatively measurable DEI goals is one of the most visible ways to show these workers that there is a purpose behind their work.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the premise of a “journey”, as in moving from Point A to Point B. The word itself is less of a problem than what it obscures if it’s used as an excuse for lack of progress, or a replacement for real milestones.

If your employees or team justified their lackluster numbers by saying they were on a journey, you’d see it for what it is: an excuse for not getting the job done. Indeed, in some badly managed organizations, “journey” has become a preferred term because when they analyze their diversity numbers, they realize how bad they really are. Putting the emphasis on the concept of a journey can help justify their meager accomplishments.

The changing face of both America and organizations worldwide is a hint of what’s to come. An ever-growing number of employees want to work at a place that looks like that larger world–and customers want to do business with those companies. To do anything less will create a visceral impression your organization is behind the times, or worse: That it’s perhaps unwelcoming to broad swaths of society.

A real commitment to DEI isn’t a never-ending journey to an abstract destination, but rather a competitive advantage that is integral to your culture. It’s a way to help you define the future faster and more effectively–a future that’s filled with significant impact and growth.

Anne Chow is the chief executive officer of AT&T Business, leading an organization of over 30,000 employees serving 2.5 million business customers worldwide, representing over $35 billion in revenue. She is the co-author of the best-selling book, “The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias.” In March, LinkedIn named her one of the Top Voices for gender equity.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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