What skills do you need for a DEI Job?
I get asked this question a lot: What skills do I need for a Diversity, equity and inclusion job? I have explored topics related to careers in DEI in previous blogs (one, two) and I’ve been inspired by other blogs such as this one. But I thought it would be useful to take a deep dive into the skills that are needed for a DEI job. Be warned, this is based on my own experience and your mileage will certainly vary! Everyone has a different approach to DEI work and everyone brings a different skillset, so you may not find all of those directly relevant but feel free to leave a comment below and share your own list of skills.
This blog explores the skills you need to be successful in a DEI job, specifically for those who want to make a transition into a DEI career. You may be surprised that I don’t list passion for DEI among the top skills for a DEI professional to be successful in their role. It’s important to care about the work you do. But It’s also important to be able to set boundaries and differentiate between the topics you are personally passionate about and what can you realistically accomplish in a corporate or organizational environment. Now, let’s dive into the skills.
The ability to communicate the work you are doing including both basic and complex DEI concepts to your colleagues and stakeholders is really important. This is especially true because the people you work with will have a very wide range of understandings of DEI, so it’s important to be able to find a way to communicate successfully to everyone no matter where they are coming from. Also it’s very important to be able to present various arguments about why DEI is or should be a priority — different people are convinced in different ways.
How to build this skill? Try to write explanations of different DEI concepts or practice explaining concepts to friends and family. As inspiration, find resources online that successfully communicate in easily understandable ways. Remember, your audience members do not have PhDs in gender studies or intercultural communication, you need to make these topics accessible.
Your DEI strategy is not valuable unless you can deliver on its commitments. In order to deliver, you need clear project management skills. This includes the ability to break a project into definable and measurable tasks and track it’s progress to completion. It also is very important that your stakeholders are actively engaged in your projects and have transparency on the status.
How to build this skill: find a project manager you work with and simply ask them to tell you about their work and the challenges they face. Also try out different project management tools (such as Trello or Asana) to find what works for you.
A lot of DEI work is herding cats… getting people across your organization in different roles (HR, Communications, Technology, Legal, Corporate Social Responsibility, ERG organizers) to compromise and work together. In general, it’s all about finding a solution that is a win (or a perceived win) for everyone. This involves a lot of delicate stakeholder management, smoothing over misunderstandings and trying to create moments of empathy across differences. You have to get people on board with your work and often times this is best done by fully understanding their own motivations.
How to build this skill: This is a tough one to build, because you really learn this in practice and by making mistakes (and then learning from them). But before you kick off a project, make a stakeholder map with three categories:
- Collaborative (stakeholders who are integral to the success of the project)
- Consultative (stakeholders who should be invited to provide their insight and feedback)
- Informative (stakeholders who need to be informed and aware of the project)
As you move ahead with your project and are keeping your stakeholders engaged, ask for feedback on whether they feel suffiencnly engaged and informed and build on this feedback.
DEI best practices
It’s important to know DEI best practices, to read and get inspired by others in the industry (here’s a Twitter list of great people to follow). But it’s impossible to know every right answer for every situation. A more important skill is to know how to find the right answer. You will get questions all the time about complex topics (accessibility, gender identity, religious inclusion, you name it!) You will need to know how to research these topics and synthesize information from various sources. Remember to consult external and internal experts as well.
How to build this skill: Research some sample topics (What to include in a gender transitioning guideline for your workplace? What are important considerations when setting up prayer rooms?). Try to find a variety of sources and experts to provide guidance.
Self Care and Boundaries
DEI is different from almost any other professional field. Every DEI topic (such as accessibility or sexuality) is deeply personal and meaningful to someone. You will not be able to fix every problem. Your organization will fail and you will fail to meet the needs of someone, sometime. It will happen. Try to learn from these experiences and move on. Try not to internalize too much of this. It’s hard to shut off after work and find perspective, but you need to actively make this a priority or you will burn out.
How to build this skill: Take your mental health and self care seriously. Try to understand what is under your control and within the scope of your role and what is not. Try to develop the awareness to know when you need a break.
I think a lot of people idealize DEI jobs. They seem like a great fit because they supposedly let you to work on that topic you are passionate about and make meaningful change. The reality is pretty different. The job is less about working on a passion project and more about slow and tedious organizational change and painstakingly getting naysayers on board. I think some people will find more satisfaction in their grassroots/volunteer DEI work such as being an ERG organizer than in a paid full time corporate role. I’m not trying to discourage anyone for pursuing a career in DEI, I just want to be candid on the reality of the work.
To end on a humorous note, read this McSweeney’s satire DEI Job role published earlier this year. If you ever find yourself working in a role where the organization is not earnestly interested in meaningful change, it’s probably time to move on.