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Advancing workplace diversity: Insights and tips from modern leaders

November 4, 2022, 5:00 PM UTC
As companies seek to formalize DEI efforts, how can you ensure you’re moving beyond good intentions to real action and impact?
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Having a comprehensive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy is a cornerstone to business success, especially as companies continue to navigate new challenges. As companies seek to formalize DEI efforts, how can you ensure you’re moving beyond good intentions to real action and impact?

At the Modern Leadership Roundtable in October, the Women Business Collaborative (WBC) and Diligent convened CEOs, C-suite executives, and leading change agents to discuss practical takeaways around transparency, impact, and accountability for DEI at all levels of an organization. Throughout the day, several important tips emerged:

  1. Be transparent and accountable.
  2. Be curious and deliberate.
  3. Be willing to sponsor diverse talent.
  4. Be ready to bring everyone with you.
  5. Be patient.

Transparency and accountability

Panelists discussed diversity with purpose, moving beyond broad statements and promises and working toward real action. Felicity Hassan, cofounder of The Find and WBC board member, touched on transparency as part of this effort: “When I think of competitive advantage, I think of transparency. What are we being transparent about? We need to make the data and statistics around diversity visible.”

Nellie Borrero, managing director and senior strategic adviser for global inclusion and diversity at Accenture, discussed the elements of trust that come with clear data: “Transparency creates trust, and what gets measured gets done. It’s all about how you can disrupt with good intentions. Organizations will continue to talk about how they can’t close the gaps if they don’t disclose the data, especially with race/ethnicity representation.”

She continued, “Pull data with purpose: Where do people sit in your organization? Where are the cliffs and gaps? Peel the layers back and look at discrepancies within populations. When you do a business review with your leader, ask about DEI strategy. You can’t build strategy without data.”

Lisa Edwards, chief operating officer and president at Diligent, reviewed board composition and diversity data from Diligent Institute’s latest report, Board Diversity Gaps: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant. We found in our research, for example, that only 36% of new director appointments to public company boards globally were women through the first half of 2022. Despite progress, we still have a long way to go.”

Curiosity and intentionality

After you set informed DEI goals and metrics, ensure your organization is set up for success by reevaluating current structures and processes around DEI, company culture, hiring, and retention. As Hassan said, “Start thinking about ways to change ingrained processes to make positive change. Never let ‘This is the way we’ve always done it’ get in the way.”

Lynne Murphy-Rivera, managing director for the Americas at the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (AESC), added, “Be intellectually curious about diversity and different elements of it. Be supportive and allow yourself to be educated. There’s no reason why we can’t lift ourselves up.”

How do you bring DEI to the forefront of strategy? Khalil Smith, vice president of inclusion, diversity, and engagement at Akamai, pointed out the importance of buy-in and intentionality from company leadership: “Ultimately, this work around DEI, justice, and belonging is about being a good leader. The point is not to change beliefs, it’s to change behaviors. When you change holistic operations and systems, you change the downstream effects.”

Sponsorship and mentorship

On an individual level, sponsoring diverse talent can make all the difference. Sandra Quince, CEO of Paradigm for Parity, expanded on this idea: “Lift as you climb and bring people along with you once you reach the leadership level. Women and other underrepresented talent cannot make it to the C-suite without sponsorship.”

Borrero added some practical tips on how to cultivate an environment of mentorship: “Make it a priority to bring women together outside of the office—at dinners, at the leaders’ homes. Creating bonds with women across levels makes it easy for people to reach out to one another for help. Think about what you can do differently. Do you expect your organization to solve all the gaps, or are you working to take others along with you? Think deeply about your role as an individual within the system.”  

Integration and allyship

Many speakers point out that tying DEI initiatives to the bottom line and integrating them into every aspect of the business is vitally important. As Smith put it, “When this work is a bolt-on, it’s very easy to bolt off. If it’s not woven into everything going on, it’s easy to put it on pause when things get tough.”

Murphy-Rivera pointed out differences in the way various regions think about DEI in the workplace: “In Latin America, they aren’t ready to talk about race, for example. We can’t be presumptive and push too hard on everything at once. If a region is ready to talk about women in leadership, let’s start there. Women can and should be allies and bring those other groups in. Communicate across each region: Come up with a mission for each—and we’ll bring it forward!”

Tonie Leatherberry, board member for Zoetis and American Family Insurance, highlighted the importance of inclusive allyship: “Inclusion is about culture, and about diversity in the holistic sense. We often talk about diversity and include everyone who isn’t a white cisgendered male. We need to think about the white cisgendered men as part of this equation as well.”

Patience and courage

Most important, understand that each organization’s DEI journey is different, and any progress is better than no progress. As Hassan said, “To stay competitive, you don’t have to already be the best. It’s about how you can be honest about where you are in the journey, to show others around you that you have to start somewhere.”

Quince added, “It’s pretty simple. Lead with data and follow with passion. Take your time. If you rush, you’ll fall back on what’s easy, familiar, and which ultimately stagnates diversity of thought.”

Edie Fraser, CEO and founder of WBC, ended the forum with a call to action: “Everyone wants to leave a legacy. Let’s do it now.”

Kira Ciccarelli is lead research specialist at Diligent Institute. Diligent is a partner of Fortune Most Powerful Women.

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