Sarah Cordivano
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Sarah Cordivano

Creating your organization’s first D&I Strategy

A clear step-by-step process to create a D&I strategy that has accountability and buy-in from the organization.

Blue table with stationary supplies: tape, sticky notes, scissors, pens.
Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash.

I’ve had several conversations with D&I professions who are preparing to create their company’s first D&I strategy. This can seem insurmountable, especially if you are just one person taking on this task. This blog explores one approach to create a new D&I strategy for a company. There are other ways to do this, of course, but I offer one step-by-step process.

The overall process I define below, specifically the steps to create the strategy are relatively lean and flexible. But there are also structures that are more robust such as the OGSM structure which may be worth considering depending on your organization’s size and governance. One thing to remember before you start: An effective D&I strategy will not be short term. It should span several years to help give you focus and create meaningful impact for the future. I’d recommend a strategy spans 3–5 years. There can be some flexibility to adjust it in the future, but it’s important you do not change your focus too drastically over time.

First, what is a D&I Strategy and what can it do for you?

A D&I strategy will help you create focus in your D&I work and help you translate your vision into practical strategy statements. Then you will define the initiatives needed to achieve those strategy statements. D&I is a unique topic compared to other strategic business topics. There are many, many different dimensions of diversity (race, religion, gender, disability, age, sexuality, etc). It can be an easy pitfall to look at one dimension of diversity and decide this is the one thing that deserves attention in your organization. Often this happens with gender (for example: women in leadership or women in technical roles). But I’d advise against this approach. This erases the experiences of others in your organization and gives the message that some groups are more worthy of attention than others. A holistic strategy is a better approach.

A D&I strategy helps you focus your work. But what does this practically mean? As mentioned before there are so many things you could be working on at any given time. Especially with D&I, which is such a personal topic to so many people. Especially if your organization has never before considered D&I as a priority. Beginning D&I work can open the floodgates of ideas, projects and ambition. A good D&I strategy will help protect you from spreading your work so thin that it lacks impact or becoming so overwhelmed that it’s difficult to get anything off the ground. It will also provide the direction needed so you always know what you are working on and what your priorities are at any given time.

The following eight steps explain the process for creating a meaningful, holistic strategy that has buy-in from your organization. For context, most of these steps focus on the preparation and creation of buy-in that makes a strategy effective for an organization. I think this is a very important part because without this, you may end up with a very good strategy but no interest or dedication from the organization to follow it.

Step 1: Get the mandate

It can be tempting as a member of an employee resource group to begin the process of creating a company strategy on your own. But without the explicit mandate from HR or leadership to do so, you may end up wasting your time. It’s important to get the direction and commitment from the company before starting the work of creating a strategy. Talking with HR or Corporate Responsibility is a good place to start. This will also help you become aware of any work or research that has already been done that you could build upon.

Step 2: Find your champion(s)

A good strategy is worthless if no one in the organization is willing to be accountable for it. Finding a leader (ideally a few) from the executive team who are dedicated to see meaningful change is the first step. If there is no one in leadership who is willing to champion the work of D&I as a priority, I would question whether the organization is truly willing to put the time and resources into making change happen. Honestly, your time may be better spent doing different work or at a different organization.

What do you look for from a D&I champion in leadership?

  • Someone who is very senior in the organization, ideally executive level.
  • Someone who will go into a room with their peers or people more senior than them and put their credit and visibility behind D&I work.
  • Someone who does not just talk the talk of D&I, but also role models behaviors in their every day work life.
  • Someone who has some ability to gather or allocate resources (budget or staff time) to back important D&I work.
  • Someone who is respected and would be willing to speak to the entire organization to champion D&I.
  • Someone who is well connected and willing to make meaningful introductions to stakeholders that are critical to success.
  • Someone who is willing to make time to provide guidance and advice.
  • Someone who understands and has a passion for D&I, recognizes their own privilege, has already done the work to educate themselves and takes feedback humbly, without defensiveness.

A champion is such a critical role for the success of D&I within an organization. I’d personally be hesitant to start any D&I work within an organization, without a visible champion ready to support the work.

Step 3: Set up a Council

A council is invaluable in moving D&I work forward. With just one D&I responsible person in an organization, the work can be lonely, overwhelming and fruitless. An effective council creates a motivated team that brings you ideas, energy and visibility to continue the work. This post explores in depth the process of setting up a D&I council.

Before setting up a strategy, it’s important that you have identified a group that can support you in this task. A D&I Council should be a diverse and representative group of leaders or managers within your organization. Similar to the champion described above, they should be willing to make time to prioritize D&I work, be knowledgeable and open to feedback, be willing to give visibility to D&I in their part of the business or geographic location. D&I Council members should be leaders but they do not need to be at the very top of the organization. I actually found it’s more useful to prioritize expertise and passion over seniority when searching for council members.

There are many different ways to set up a council and it is very dependent on the governance structures of your organization. Here is one resource that explains councils. To start off, I’d recommend monthly meetings of 1.5–2 hours but with commitment to communicate between meetings. When inviting or soliciting members for your council, make sure to be clear what the expectations are and how much time they should be willing to commit. There’s no hard and fast rule about who should or should not be involved, but I’d strongly recommend having someone senior in HR involved. Someone from Communications and Corporate Responsibility can also provide valuable insight and create accountability within these parts of the organization.

Step 4: Understand what your main challenges are as an organization

Before you start working on a strategy, it’s important to get to know your organization and document it’s unique challenges. The first one or two meetings with your council should be dedicated to this, likely with a pretty casual structure to let people share openly. You may also consider setting up focus groups to listen to employees’ concerns. Minimally, before you start creating the strategy you should understand the following:

  • Has any work already been done to create a strategy and who did this work? (Talk to them!)
  • Has any D&I related data already been collected that would be helpful to review?
  • What D&I groups or networks already exist in your organization, for example: working groups, advisory groups, Employee Resource Groups, etc? Be sure to talk to them first.
  • Do you have any systemic issues of unfairness or discrimination? Does your whistle blowing system show concerning patterns within parts of the business or geographically?
  • Are there any other structural barriers that would make working on a D&I strategy difficult or impossible?
  • Are there experts with skills on project management, strategy building, data analytics or other relevant experience that would be willing and able to contribute?

And lastly, before you get to the next step, have a frank conversation with your champion and D&I Council to understand if the organization is willing to adopt an aligned strategy and provide resources (budget, FTE, etc) to materialize the work. Get their clear commitment ahead of time.

Step 5: Set a workshop to create your strategy statements

Now it’s time to work on a strategy. There are many ways to do this. Often times, people work with outside experts to do this. That’s a great approach if you have the budget and commitment for it. Here’s a list of Black owned DEI consultancies which is a good place to start. But I also think, if you have steps 1–4 in place and good project management skills, it’s also possible to do this task without a consultant. I recommend a loosely structured workshop with the following steps moderated by you with participation from your D&I council.

In advance:

  1. Schedule a 2 hour session workshop and invite your D&I Council, D&I champion and perhaps a few other key stakeholders (HR, CSR) that can provide valuable insight (max 8–10 people, preferred 5).
  2. Ask everyone to pre-read anything gathered in step 4 before the workshop.

At the workshop:

  1. Clear your mind (5 minutes)
    At the beginning of the session, ask everyone to release their pre-conceived expectations on D&I, ideas for current initiatives and mentally start fresh. Ask them to close their eyes, and picture themselves 5 years in the future, with a cup of coffee in their hand, a clear mind and ask them to reflect back on the achievements of the past five years.
  2. Imagine your success from the future (15 minutes)
    Start the brainstorming exercise: Five years from now, ask everyone to imagine what D&I achievements would make them proud as a member of the D&I council for your organization. Ask them to formulate these achievements into true statements and write them on post-it notes. Such as:
    “We have a leadership team that is diverse and representative and can speak confidently and competently on D&I.”
    “We have a working environment where everyone feels psychologically and physically safe.”
    “We support and empower a visible network of ERG communities and D&I advocates throughout the business.”
    “Issues of discrimination are dealt with quickly, seriously and with standard processes for transparency.”
  3. Everyone shares their statements (15 mins)
    Ask each participant to share their statements on a board and cluster them into similar achievements. (These clusters will become the main strategy statements of your overall D&I strategy). For guidance there’s a list of example strategy statements at the bottom of this post.
  4. Sort by internal vs. external (5 mins)
    On the board, separate these statements into two groups: internal and external. Internal meaning statements that refer to your employees and work culture. External meaning statements that refer to your customers, external partners, your industry or broader society.
  5. Capture ideas for initiatives to achieve strategy statements (15 mins)
    Then ask everyone to begin writing ideas for initiatives that would help the organization work towards achieving these strategy statements. Ask them to be detailed and also not limit themselves to what would be realistic with current resourcing or available data.
  6. Everyone shares their initiatives (15 mins)
    Ask each participant to share their initiative ideas on a board and cluster them around each of the main strategy statements from above. An initiative should be written in such a way that it clearly supports achieving one of the main strategy statements.
  7. Make a list of critical stakeholders (15 mins)
    Ask each participant to make a list of stakeholders that would need to be involved generally, to put those initiatives into place. Make note of those.
  8. Final Reflections & expectation setting (15 mins) Ask your council if they have anything else they want to add or make note of. Ask them if they agree with the clustered strategy statements. Do a ROTI exercise for everyone on the way out. Thank everyone for their time and contributions. Let them know what to expect next (a draft of the strategy based on the input gathered today).

After the session, document all of the post-its and feedback. Take photos to make sure you have it all saved.

Step 6: Create the draft of the strategy document and align with stakeholders

Don’t let too much time pass after the workshop. I’d recommend creating the first draft of the strategy within two weeks of the workshop. Here’s how to create the first draft: Using either a document or spreadsheet, make a list of all of the clustered strategy statements sorted by internal and external. If your strategy is only meant to focus on internal work, set the external strategy statements aside for future reference. Ideally, create a maximum of 8 strategy statements. Narrowing down to 5–6 strategy statements is the sweet spot to make sure you are focusing your work and balancing ambition and realistic expectations.

Then list the initiative ideas that relate to each strategy statement. You may need to edit some or out or add additional initiative ideas. Make sure your initiatives are clear, contained and somehow measurable. If you can not measure when an initiative has been successful, then they are not effective. It’s ok if not all initiatives are defined at this time. It’s ok to start with just a few initiatives per strategy statement, with the expectation that more may be added in the future.

Share this first draft with your champion and D&I council and ask them to provide feedback. Make edits based on feedback, then expand the review process to other stakeholders such as those you listed during the workshop or your Employee Resource Groups. You may consider having a few feedback sessions to capture this insight efficiently.

Finally, ask your D&I council and champion to officially adopt the strategy and agree to it. If your governance structure requires others in leadership to sign off, ask your champion to get approval and acceptance of the strategy from the relevant groups.

Step 7: Create a roadmap with accountable owners

From your list of initiatives, identify which need to be completed first and use this to create a roadmap. Make sure each of the initiatives has an estimate of budget (if applicable), a KPI to track its success and an accountable owner within the business. It’s ok to only estimate the timeline for the first year of initiatives. Make sure to not be too ambitious. Once you have an idea of what resources you will need to be successful, go back to your D&I council and champion and ask for the commitment of those resources in order to proceed. Keep in mind, resourcing may take an extra 3 months to materialize (including hiring) which will delay the time you can begin the work.

Step 8: Start doing the work and track your progress

Schedule a kickoff with your stakeholders and share the timeline of work. Make sure each owner is aware of their relevant initiatives. If you need to request additional resources, be sure to do it now before the work begins. Schedule a regular check-in (monthly) to check in with the owners of the active initiatives so they can report back on their progress and share any blockers or challenges they face.

Also be sure to set up a dashboard to report on the KPIs for each initiative quarterly to create transparency within your organization.

A few tips to keep in mind as you create the first strategy:

  • Recognize that creating a strategy takes time, likely at least 3 months. It’s better to not jump into work on initiatives until you have an aligned strategy (to avoid duplication of work or wasting effort).
  • A strategy that just focuses on only one dimension of diversity (for example gender), will quickly become too limited in scope to properly address D&I. A holistic strategy as described here has a better chance of properly addressing the needs of your organization. To understand how initiatives interlink, check out this post on the dependencies of hiring.
  • Employee Resource Groups have first hand knowledge of what your biggest challenge are. Engage them in the review of the strategy and incorporate their suggestions. This helps you learn from their experiences and also creates more buy-in on the grassroots, employee level.
  • Be realistic in scope and timing. A lot of this work takes time to do properly. It can be tempting to make a very ambitious strategy that promises the moon then quickly fails to deliver.
  • You will need data to help you track your success and understand if you’ve achieved your goals. Find someone in HR or elsewhere who is interested and willing to use their time to support you in creating and tracking KPIs.
  • Do not underestimate the time and cost it takes to make progress. Try to estimate the amount of time and cost it will take to achieve your goals and ask for commitment of budget and staff time for leadership. Keep in mind that hiring takes months, so it’s better to start this process soon.

Some example strategy statements:

As mentioned above, here are some example strategy statements. Please feel free to use this for inspiration or practically in your strategy, if it’s helpful.

Internal statements:

  • “All of our employees and prospective applicants experience equitable and un-biased hiring and promotion processes.”
  • “Everyone in the organization, and especially leaders, have regular D&I skill building and learning experiences that are embedded in our company culture to support them in their understanding, awareness and role modeling.”
  • “Everyone in the organization, and especially leaders, contributes to inclusion by understanding and delivering on their individual responsibility to create a psychologically and physically safe working environment with belonging.”
  • “Our Employee Resource Groups are visible, supported and empowered to achieve their own goals, support their communities and be a resource to the organization by providing consulting and guidance in business decisions.”
  • “We report quarterly on our D&I progress through transparent and meaningful KPIs and through authentic, empathetic and consistent communication internally.”
  • “Our leadership team is diverse and representative of the greater customer base and industry.”

External statements:

  • “We communicate externally on the goals and successes of our D&I work to create transparency and awareness of our commitments.”
  • “Our product and services have been designed to serve a diverse audience, with input from expert communities in order to create inclusive experiences.”
  • “We support the broader ecosystem of our industry by providing education, mentoring or engagement to actively create opportunities and inclusion in the industry.”
  • “We take an active stance on D&I in society by communicating our goals within the industry, sharing best practices and setting a high bar for others to follow.”

I hope you have found this helpful. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but I think this set of steps can be a relatively lean and flexible way to create a first D&I strategy. Hopefully this will help you create a strategy that has buy-in across the organisation (thanks to your D&I champion, council and stakeholders) and is ambitious but manageable over time with measurable initiatives to achieve.

And one final note: D&I work can feel very incremental and slow while you are doing the work, so it’s important to recognize the progress you have made over time to stay motivated.

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This publication explores practical diversity, equity and inclusion guidance for driving change in a global working environment. Header photo credit: @aznbokchoy on Unsplash.

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Sarah Cordivano

Sarah Cordivano

Community Building, Equity, Inclusion and Maps. Former Philadelphian, Current Berliner. Twitter @mapadelphia & LinkedIn.

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