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6 Make or Break DEI Decisions

Diverse team of business people collaborating

Now more than ever, your employees, customers, and stakeholders are asking where you stand on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). You need leadership, cultural competence, and savvy to respond in a way that aligns with your organization’s core business strategy and core values. Here are 6 Make or Break DEI Decisions you’ll need to get right.

1. Who leads the effort?

It’s a difficult job that requires exceptional talent. Do you choose core business expertise or DEI credibility?

When your organization announces its new DEI Director people will ask themselves a series of questions such as:

  • What qualifies them to lead our effort? Do they understand DEI?

  • Do they understand our core business and our industry?

  • Will they understand our organization and the way we prefer to do things here?

  • Do they understand DEI? Have they led DEI initiatives from launch to

  • maturity, ensuring success elsewhere? Which (visible and invisible) dimensions of diversity do they represent?

  • Will they have credibility with our employees, customers,

  • stakeholders, partners and community? Do they have external relationships to elevate our brand and generate positive PR for our DEI work?

  • Will they be credible with our leaders and able to influence them throughout our DEI change process?

Yes that’s a lot to ask of one person, and it might be difficult to get everything in one package. Particularly when it comes down to two capabilities: Knowing the core business, and Knowing DEI.

It’s an important decision that starts with reminding yourself that success depends on having the right expectations about the talent required to succeed.

For some organizations, if you don’t know the core business, or if you don’t have a proven track record driving revenue or running a line of business, you will have zero credibility. So when it comes to DEI, particularly when you have stated that DEI is a core business opportunity, why would you bail on that requirement?

Other organizations, particularly those who value subject matter expertise, would never trust DEI to someone who didn’t have a proven DEI track record. They wouldn’t hire a CFO who didn’t know math and expect them to figure it out because they look like they’re good at it. Why hire a Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer who doesn’t have past experience in DEI?

2. Where does DEI report?

A long time ago I was told that I could understand what matters to the organization by reading its org chart. It would tell me who holds the power and what the organization values. For some companies that is less true today. Some have become less hierarchical, flatter and more fluid. And even in those companies, organizational structure impacts communication, accountability and efficiency. So it matters where DEI sits and where it reports. f you want DEI to drive workforce, workplace and marketplace opportunity, it helps when it reports to a person or group where all of those functions are considered. Some DEI leaders struggle to influence business operations, product/service development, customer acquisition, etc. because they are sitting under human resources (HR). We don’t want DEI to be viewed only as a HR initiative when it should also include marketplace, R&D, suppliers and more. Think about where DEI reports.

3. Top down bottom up?

This could be its own point/counterpoint discussion. DEI only works when it is driven from the top vs. DEI only works when it is grassroots-driven from the lowest levels. The answer is revealed in how your particular organizations gets things done.

Does change happen when the workforce gets energized, makes the case for change, and captures the attention of decision-makers? Does it start with a small group of change agents to create a pilot or lab environment to demonstrate that change is possible, and this is how we do it here?

Or does change happen when the CEO declares it, gains buy-in from the senior team, and provides the resources and accountability for implementation to move throughout the organization?

Pay attention to how change happens at your organization – then go for it. We’ve seen it work well both ways.

Regression analysis helps to pinpoint areas of inequity, so that you know where any targeted interventions are required. Measurement provides the proof you need that DEI does indeed drive organizational success inall areas—workforce, workplace, and marketplace.

4. Programs vs strategy?

The list of available DEI programs today reads like a Cheesecake Factory menu. Training, Affinity Groups, ERGs, BRGs, Special Emphasis months and celebrations, keynote speeches, DEI teambuilding, DEI dialogues, speakers series, mentoring and more. Without question, many of these programs can increase awareness, engage the entire workforce, and inspire behavioral change. Before launching a program, commit to asking yourself:

• Is the strategic intent for doing this clear? • What education or knowledge gaps are inhibiting DEI change? • What value will this program bring to advancing the DEI effort? • What actions or behavior change will come from this program?

Answering these questions increases the likelihood your programs will have impact. Otherwise you’ll look in the rearview mirror and find that you’ve wasted time, money and credibility. Furthermore, the organization will view your DEI programs as check-the-box events that do not drive meaningful outcome.

It’s fascinating how many organizations do NOT have a DEI strategy. They can’t answer some fairly simple questions:

• When it comes to DEI, what are our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?

• Why are we on a DEI journey? Why now?

• What constitutes DEI success? How will we know when we get there?

• What milestones must we achieve over the next few years to realize measurable progress toward our goals? Assessing the DEI current state, creating a case for change or business case, visioning the desired state, and developing a plan for moving from point A to point B are fairly straightforward. Then implement the plan, measure progress along the way, and course correct when necessary. In other words, it requires work. And maybe that’s the problem. Strategy development and execution, at least in the beginning, isn’t as fun as a program. There’s not yet a reason to celebrate – just basic blocking and tackling with no point on the board . . . yet! So, if you choose to go the strategy route, you will have prepared the organization for sustainable DEI success.

5. Make or Break DEI Decisions: Best performer, worst offender?

We have practically emptied rooms when we’ve asked this question, “What happens when your otherwise best performer is one of the worst offenders of DEI?” One of the funniest – well at least most honest answers: “Best performer, much money are we talking about?”

The rainmaker, top surgeon, most published scientist, most distinguished professor, the A-player, the star. Every organization has one or hopefully, many. People look to this person as the example and they are what the organization values. When this person underperforms on DEI, how does the organization respond?

How you answer the question defines the credibility of your DEI initiative. It is an indicator of DEI’s importance if the immediate reaction to the question is to put a condition on the response based on the individual’s value to the organization. Employees are assessing the consistency in how you hold everyone accountable for what you say matters. If underperformance in DEI is allowed to slide, then DEI isn’t a priority and people will act accordingly. The answer to best performer, worst offender demonstrates the organization’s appetite for accountability, and ultimately whether you will succeed when you get to the hard work of DEI.

6. Measurement, friend or foe?

People seem to really like numbers – revenue, profit, productivity, website hits, citizens served, percent engaged – until we talk DEI numbers. The conversation often changes when DEI metrics are on the table. If that’s true for your organization, figure out why. Do you not know what to count? Do you not have the analytics know how? Do you think you will uncover something distasteful that could be used against you? All of these concerns have remedies. They are not viable reasons to avoid DEI measurement.

Many people have come to learn that when it comes to DEI, data is their best friend. Trending data shows where you are making progress. Regression analysis helps to pinpoint areas of inequity so that you know where any targeted interventions are required. Measurement provides the proof you need that DEI does indeed drive organizational success in all areas – workforce, workplace and marketplace.

We strongly believe that there’s a “right answer” to these 6 make or break DEI decisions. We believe that the most successful organizations choose well and significantly increase the likelihood that their DEI initiatives succeed.

We’ve worked with organizations for more than three decades to tackle these challenges and opportunities. So we’ve seen it all. CLICK HERE to schedule a 30-minute conversation.


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