Every day more stories emerge about the positive impact that diversity and inclusion has on business and society. Data and research shows that diverse teams of people working together are smarter and more creative. Yet, we continue to see a lack of diversity at the highest levels of leadership in many of our favorite companies despite CEO commitments to diversity and inclusion initiatives and the increased calls for change from the public.
During a recent conversation with a friend, she relayed a quote from Verna Myers that drew an interesting comparison between diversity and inclusion. Ms. Myers said the difference between them is that “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”
This metaphor resonates with my own experiences as a lawyer many years ago. When I started my career, diversity (without the inclusion) was a topic of conversation in the legal and business worlds. Even though I worked just as hard as the other lawyers, I was often faced with reminders that I was (a) a woman and (b) Hispanic, which suggested to me that one of the reasons I was at the firm was to fulfill some statistic about diversity. Despite our qualifications, few to none of the lawyers that were women and people of color ever made partner. Neither were we actively mentored by the senior leadership. Without any indications that we would be included as future leaders of the firm, it was difficult for me to imagine how I could become a partner, especially when no one who looked like me was in a real position of leadership. I saw little evidence that diversity in and of itself would lead to that coveted spin on the dance floor.
I decided to step away from law and pursue a career in fashion, which lead to my work in branding and innovation. There, I experienced first-hand how diversity and inclusion were proven business strategies because an inclusive team provides a competitive advantage in creative problem-solving. A multi-cultural team rich in experience is better at bringing fresh thinking, more able to see constraints as creative inspiration and has a greater cultural IQ than a group of people from homogenous backgrounds.
With respect to my former law firm, I wish I had the power to go back in time and share with my colleagues what I learned about the benefits of diversity and inclusion. My goal would be to transform the culture so that the generations of lawyers who followed me could have a more welcoming and inclusive experience and see their way to partnership more clearly. My approach to the project would be the same one that I have used in other organizational change initiatives:
● Admit there is a problem: Organizations can change if they accept that something is amiss with their culture. Internal clues to look for include: too few people of color or women in senior leadership roles, a stagnant environment or way of working, unanswered system-wide complaints, and the loss of market share because the organization has lost touch with its customers.
● Listen: Organizations improve when they listen to their own people and their customers. This is the most important part of transformation because through active listening, people will put aside assumptions, open themselves up to new possibilities, and learn “why” and “how” things can be different.
● Build empathy: The driver of real change is empathy. People may not realize the collective impact of their behaviors on an organization when either following “tried and true” standards or conduct modeled by senior leadership. Responding with punishment and reward systems are temporary, and ultimately may not work at all, because they do not address people’s concerns and underlying motives (frustration, fear, happiness, calm, ambition, etc.). People want, foremost, to be heard and know that the changes that they are being asked to make will benefit their work experience, or help them become a better version of themselves.
● Design together: When it comes to cultural transformation, people want to contribute to designing an approach to change. The pride of ownership is powerful and they are more engaged when they have a chance to contribute ideas and approaches. They will feel responsible for the success of “their” plan.
● Be specific: The approach to change should include the organization’s overarching vision followed by concrete examples of how it will come to life. Giving people scenarios, role-play exercises and sample dialogue will clarify what new behaviors are expected and provide the tools they need in order to use their best judgment in tough situations.
● Practice: The more opportunities for immersive role-play and dialogue the better. I cannot stress this enough. Cultural transformation requires commitment to a practice of new behaviors by everyone throughout the organization, especially senior leaders who must lead by example.
● Hold everyone accountable: Organizations must hold everyone accountable for the success of a change initiative. Though applauded at the outset, commitments to the initiative are often forgotten when people get too “busy.” One way to avoid this is to support the initiative with real funding, resources, a team leader, deadlines and metrics. Only then will people take it to heart and not push it to the side to deal with later when they have time.
Today, the cultural will to support diversity and inclusion initiatives are moving us in the right direction, and that is underscored by the financial data. We still lack significant diversity, however, at the highest levels of leadership. For example, Fortune 500 companies employ roughly 17.5% of the total US workforce. Of the 3% of those companies that release complete data on the culture and gender breakdowns, we see some double-digit percentages for women and non-white workers. But the numbers are less impressive in the C-suite: 95% of the CEOs are white men, 5% are women, 2% are Hispanic, 2% are Asian and 1% are Black. Until we get to a more diverse set of senior business leaders, organizations will continue to experience cultural missteps that can erode public trust, tarnish brand reputation and negatively affect the bottom line.
A real commitment to diversity with inclusion requires more than nodding heads in agreement. It demands that organizations choose different leaders with top-notch skills — and make room for their diverse backgrounds and unique points of view. Like dancing, diversity with inclusion takes practice, persistence and gumption. After all, everyone feels a bit nervous about getting on the dance floor with new partners for the first time — but the more you do it, the better you get, and soon enough the dance will feel perfectly natural.
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