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Do You Want Culture Day in the Cafeteria, or DEI Transformation?

By Janet Crenshaw Smith

Recently someone asked me, what’s the difference between DEI transformation and DEI programs? It’s a valuable question given our current perennial state of disruption and change. Diversity leaders, really all leaders, have to navigate this change state in an intentional way to thrive in today’s marketplace.

Simply, transformation involves a series of actions that result in desired outcomes. So, whatever is required to take an organization from its current state to its desired state, that journey is transformation. Sometimes it’s new, and sometimes it’s better, but it’s definitely moving from where you are to where you want to be.

To move from the current to the desired state, organizations need a North Star

Programs are events. They’re interventions. Sometimes programs can enable transformation, but typically they’re isolated events. The most common DEI programs are monthly celebrations, speaker series, or even reading groups. Organizations may bring people together and say, “okay, let’s read this book about a really important DEI topic and discuss it.” But these isolated events won’t move your organization from its current state to the desired state.

Take programs around food, for instance. Sometimes I jokingly refer to these events as “culture day in the cafeteria.” A lot of organizations will offer these singular events because they want to demonstrate commitment, to make a tangible effort to value different cultures, which is important. So, they celebrate certain months — Black History Month, Women’s Month, Pride Month, AAPI — to create awareness.

These programs are popular because they feel good. They do spark increased awareness, and they’re fun, but they don’t necessarily lead to transformation. To do that, organizations need a mix of strategic, transformative actions — and programs. You need that balance because when your organization is going through the change process, people do want to have some fun. Fortunately, transformation can be exciting, but there are steps an organization must take to achieve that state.

First, your company must have a North Star — that’s the desired state — then you must do things that will take your organization to that North Star. You must invest in these steps. Communication is an important one, but you must be clear on exactly what you are communicating and why? Key messages need to define diversity, equity, and inclusion – what they are and why they matters. Will the communication make it clear that this our North Star? That we expect this behavior and will measure and even reward it? Transformation does that.

Transformation is a dynamic, intentional journey

Now, I mentioned current and desired organizational states. Those need to be clearly defined. Meaning, you need to lay out a plan if you want to move from programmatic activities, and achieve transformation that creates substantive impact on people and the business. With a plan in hand, then you must execute the actions that will take your organization from here to there. Sometimes we need training to do that, but quite often, that’s an easy thing. People say, “good training isn’t easy,” but it is — if you’re teaching people how to take that journey. What’s not easy is taking the steps that actually drive the change process.

Anytime you create a program, you should ask: “As a result of this, how much closer am I moving toward our North Star?” Now, when you approach DEI that way, sometimes people say, “You’re no fun!” To which I say, I love a good ethnic meal as much as the next person, but I’ve gotta tell you: At the end of the day that’s not going to cut it.

But let’s get back to the steps. The steps of change are a function of your current state as well as the desired state. Look at this opportunity from multiple angles, specifically, workforce, workplace, and marketplace. The steps for the workforce and workplace are attracting and hiring talent, and intentionally building an environment, culture and processes where talent can be and do their very best, so that we can retain that talent. The steps for the marketplace are everything external. It could be the products and services needed to serve a marketplace. Or, it may be managing partners and vendors that reflect the marketplace and serve customers, stakeholders, and communities best. Each of those opportunities has steps, and there’s value in understanding and actively applying them to achieve transformation rather than to simply run a successful program.

Ivy has been at this for 30 years. We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work. We’ve seen the downside of a programmatic approach and the upside of a transformational approach. The latter can be hard. First, you have to sell this to the C-suite. Pushback can manifest as “we need to prove that we’re committed, so let’s do a town hall. Or, we need to prove DEI is important, so we need mandatory training.” Leaders want to do things that demonstrate commitment, but transformation requires a more long-term, structured approach. So say yes to the town hall and training, but also seek approval of your proposed DEI behavioral framework and the accompanying accountability model. That’s real commitment, and these are the strategies and nuances that we teach in the NEXTGEN CDO Institute. If you’re interested in more information let us know. Our next cohort starts in January.

To transform organizations need strategy and tactics — in the appropriate measure

But let’s get back to transformation. DEI work has to resonate with the C-suite, and diversity leaders have to communicate to them effectively. That’s not the same as popping up in 2020 after George Floyd and saying, “Yes. Now, I care about this. Let’s do something.” Organizations have to be intentional and committed to build and execute structures and systems that will lead to transformation.

I’m not saying no to programs. I’m saying organizations must build programs differently when the purpose is to transform versus to entertain. Diversity executives should not be in place to entertain; They should be in place to help organizations transform. That is the desirable state. That is winning.

This may sound like a discussion about the difference between tactical and strategic. Like, the tactical is the programs and the transformation is the strategy, but be careful. A strategy also requires tactics. A DEI plan should have a vision, goals, strategies, tactics or actions, and measures. Tactics are important. They should be very clear because they outline the necessary steps to achieve the transformation. Too often DEI programs don’t do any of that. Your organization may end up asking:

“Why are we doing that again?”

“Well, everyone says we should.”

That’s not a good reason! As diversity leaders, we have to be able to communicate why transformation is the right approach, what programs are most impactful, and how to structure them appropriately to ensure success for the workforce, workplace, and marketplace. That’s winning.


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