How to Build Sustainable Diversity

Orin Davis
The Startup
Published in
16 min readNov 28, 2019


A look at the business world reveals a graveyard of diversity initiatives that have failed to move the needle. Despite discussions happening all over the place, be they in boardrooms, social media, or the water cooler, it seems that very little has changed. Some of this is a function of the difference between diversity and inclusion, but a large part of it is because most of the diversity solutions are cosmetic and do not build a sustainable culture that includes diversity as one of its values.

Something to understand about any sustainable movement is that it is slow change, and that means early gains may be invisible or so small as to seem negligible. Instead of being celebrated, however, these gains are often derided as not enough, and attempts are made to force the change to move faster, which ends up killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs. When it comes to social changes like diversity, this need for speed is entirely understandable. We are moving for changes to archaic systems that never should have existed in the first place, and the idea that people should have to wait for that change and continue to suffer under these systems is unconscionable and almost impossible to stomach.

As a society, we have committed atrocities, and some of us know that and want to repair things, but the challenge is that flipping the system on its head (e.g., by forcing people to pay reparations [in whatever form] for past societal errors) often goes over like a lead balloon. The discussion then devolves into what should and should not be, and quickly devolves further into moral and value judgments of speakers, and the conversation ends in an ugly way with the only action items being: (a) keep being angry, and consider getting even more angry; (b) try to force the system even more while staying ignorant of how it will push back; © stop talking to certain people. None of those action items are productive, and the idea that we are going to change anything in short order that took us centuries to get to is at best naïve and at worst destructive. As a community, we will all need to pitch in, starting with the understanding that a twist of the genetic dice put some people on the bottom of the outdated system, and others on the top. Those in comfortable strata are in a position to dismantle this system that shouldn’t exist, and their obligation to do so hinges upon the fact that those in the lower strata receive unearned punishments and deficits that none of us would want if our rolls had come out like theirs. None of us wants to live in a world where such spins of the wheel determine our fates, and it is for that reason that we need to stop reinventing that wheel and actually break it.

Recognizing that the issues underlying the diversity and inclusion initiatives comprise a system that none of us wants to be part of is the first step in creating sustainable diversity. The second step is looking at the realities of that system, and there are several that are critical to understand if we are to change the system at the business level:

1) Certain groups of people are often undereducated (see below) and so their potential remains unexplored.

2) As certain groups have been largely excluded from the development of the business world for centuries, said business world has a culture and rules that may not be reflective of all the talented people that could be in it. As a result, those who have been excluded may find the culture and system of the business world unfamiliar and are likely to make many faux pas. This creates the illusion that they do not belong when the simple reality is that everyone who is part of a culture has to learn it. Those who did not have it as part of their upbringing need to be mentored and nurtured within the culture and have their mistakes tolerated, just as those born within the culture have their many errors gently corrected with good humor and patience.

3) Sponsorship and coaching are very often crucial ways of advancing within a culture, but those who were historically excluded in the first place tend to lack any way to acquire sponsors/coaches or prove that they deserve one.

4) One of the main barriers to entry into any group is the resources required to join (which often go unnoticed by those who are born members or who have easily acquired resources from others).

5) Entering into a new group/culture is a risky proposition for all parties. The only way to smooth the transition is to take risks, be tolerant of errors and failure, and to accept that there will be people who are erroneously brought in. This patience and investment of resources should be viewed as a means of combatting inbreeding, groupthink, and stagnation rather than attending to a particular group/individual that “deserves a handout.”

6) There will be a great deal of anger and unrest as people continue to get devoured by a monster that humanity created and can only kill slowly. This must be accepted and tolerated with grace to the fullest extent possible, if only because that is what we would ask were it us or our “kin” that were being swallowed up by the system.

[A key point for the above is that this can apply to any number of categories of people, including almost every demographic you can think of and any other way you can classify people.]

Establishing the first principles above and recognizing the realities are two key parts of the first step in establishing a foundation for sustainable diversity. The last two are reexamining/redefining terms and envisioning the desired future.

In the business world, there are a few concepts that need to be reconsidered, especially with regard to their role in determining who may enter.

Talent. We like to bring in people who have already shown excellence at certain tasks and in certain fields, and we consider those who have done so to be “talented” folks. This is a rational move, as it makes the most sense to take a chance on bringing in those who have been successful elsewhere. And, in our fast-paced world where we need new hires to be up to speed yesterday (a bad hiring strategy; see below), it is a large and perhaps unconscionable/irresponsible risk to bring in someone who is untested.

As rational as that perspective is, it fails to account for the fact that only certain groups have had access to tests or other opportunities that would allow them to prove themselves. As such, our view of talent needs to shift to recognizing that what we call talent is not a one-dimensional, established item, but rather a vector whose magnitude and direction are the resultant of inborn potential combined with nurturing and deliberate practice (which includes assessments for identifying strengths to foster and weaknesses to counter).

Consequently, we need to view talent within the business world not as an established resource that it harnessed or used as is like gold, but rather like an engine that can power any number of machines, can be refined, upgraded, retooled, and even recycled for creating a better one (e.g., transferrable skill). Any engine added to a system must be onboarded carefully, connected tightly to all the parts it is supposed to power, and given both fuel to power its work and coolant to keep it from burning out. As the vector of the individual’s talent gets nurtured by the company and transfers some of its force into work, it can lose momentum unless we feed it with a sustainable salary, a good culture, mentorship and networking, coaching, paid leave, etc.

Thus, we need to view talent not as a fixed resource, but as a dynamic interactor that comes in contact with the company to exchange work for new resources. But, its initial set of resources may be very different from what could be considered “typical,” and that definitively means that we need to meet such forces where they are, assess them with a far keener eye that considers their contexts and opportunities, and feed them opportunities to work and prove themselves continuously across their sojourn in the work world. This is one of the main reasons that companies are starting to use skill tests to assess candidates, along with hackathons, competitions, and other development programs that offer opportunities for diamonds in the rough to reveal themselves.

Fit. We treat “fit” as being sufficiently familiar with the culture as to join seamlessly without needing much in the way of learning, tutelage, or the like. This is actually far more rare than people think, and the result of that ignorance is poor onboarding, high stress, loss of productivity, and attrition of people that could have been powerhouses. While ready-made fit is a fantastic ideal, its rarity means that it should be minimized as a criterion for entry. Rather, the key identifier should be the quality of the onboarding program and some indicator that a person is ready, willing, and able to learn the culture of the company and field, and likewise willing to weather and fix errors along the way (and the company should be prepared to help with that and cushion the mistakes). Those who aren’t will need to go to a different company or continent of the business world, and since there are many such continents, people certainly have options about where they apply for membership. In any case, however, fit is not something we find, but something we make.

Knowledge/Skills/Education. As the world seems to turn faster in the Knowledge Era, we need to keep in mind that any metric of what someone can do in the moment often fails to consider both how they got there and where they are going. Anyone who joins a company or takes a job for any length of time (say, 6 months or more) will unquestionably need to grow, learn, and upgrade in the process. As such, the question isn’t what the person can do in the moment, but what they can learn to do in an adequate timeframe. We need to be careful and thoughtful about how we define “adequate,” keeping in mind the context of the individual and the amount of work that will need to be put in to develop fit and also be productive. This is a complex set of demands that any new entrant must navigate, and while it is ideal to have a ready-made person who fits in seamlessly on the first day, the costs of searching for such a unicorn often exceed the value that can be built by investing in a high-potential hire that can learn everything and keep on exceeding and excelling.

The trouble with taking a snapshot of anything in motion is that some accuracy about the motion (e.g., speed, direction, position) is lost in the process of capturing the information. We must respect this uncertainty and recognize the risks inherent upon going with this snapshot. The best way to protect against this risk is to have solid onboarding and ongoing training and development (which includes planned investments of time, effort, and resources to ensure these developments).

Work. In physics, work is the application of force over a distance. In business, this distance is guided by the company’s value proposition, such that the distance over which an employee applies force is one in which value is created. That is, we need to see work not as the grind that people put in, or the outputs that their factory-like grind produces, but rather whether the time and energy they expend actually contributes to the company’s execution upon its value proposition. Indeed, every company should be connecting its workers’ daily tasks and periodic deliverables to a meaningful value creation process, and that connection should begin at the very inception of the job (i.e., the creation of the position and writing of the job description).

Outcomes of Diversity

When people are asked what the outcome of a diversity initiative should be, the answer is far too often disturbingly reminiscent of a quota system. As soon as I point this out, most people respond that the numbers don’t have to be exact, but that there will be “some” of one demographic, “some” of another, and so on, as if “some” isn’t quantifiable as a range. Somewhere in the discussion, the word “representative” or “underrepresented” will come up, but we’re still in Quotaland. Some people duck the quota outcome by talking about inclusion instead of diversity, and that’s a step in the right direction, but the reality of that answer is a gloss-over of the quota in an inherent presumption that there are a “reasonable” number of different types of people present.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the numbers tell you as much about your diversity as a thermometer does about your actual health. Off-kilter numbers mean something is likely wrong, but the goal in either case is not restoring the numbers to where they should be so much as treating the disease.

Inclusion is very much a step in the right direction, because it means that the company and its employees are putting in the resources to ensure that people of all types feel included and welcome. This means that they can bring their authentic selves more fully to work, and that they may participate in every relevant value creation task and social event as much as their fellow employees.

The problem is that neither diversity nor inclusion are effective unless they are tied directly to the value proposition of the company. To be sure, a decent number of groups actually don’t need much in the way of diversity, in large part because they aren’t looking to innovate, don’t actually want significant growth, and are looking to maintain the status quo. These are understandable business goals for any number of groups, and they can exist as separate businesses, divisions within businesses, or teams within divisions. The lack of diversity on the teams can actually be valuable because it makes consensus far easier to obtain and likewise to ensure that people are consistent in what they are doing and how they are thinking.

Lest one quote the innovate or die maxim so quickly, it’s important to remember that every institution needs a solid foundation that is harder to shake, which includes systems for efficiency, consistent and reliable revenue streams (and consistent and reliable products and services to match), and tasks that are always done the same way that people can predict and rely upon. One would hope, for instance, that when one goes to a coffee chain and orders a particular menu item, the result will be the same each time. If the quality were to be noticeably variable (especially with some downward dips), one would likely switch to a different purveyor of caffeine. At the same time, the risk of consistency is homogeneity and stagnation (and then disruption/competition), which is a risky proposition.

As such, a company must balance the need for consistency, efficiency, and reliability with the need to grow, innovate, and develop. And, for the record, even companies that are incredibly consistent in what they produce still do quite a bit of innovation in their creation methods, supply chains, delivery systems, etc. In that sense, the mandate of innovation remains a constant, and therefore the mandate of diversity does, as well.

Thus, every company necessarily needs to answer the following questions:

1) How is having and including different types of people in the company an intrinsic part of our value proposition?

2) How does having and including different types of people in the company improve our ability to create value in a unique way?

3) How much of our long-term strategy is dedicated to growth and innovation? What are the resources we have available for promoting long-term growth and innovation?

Companies usually struggle mightily with all three questions, and this is almost always why they struggle with diversity. The existence of systematic inequalities and myriad forms of demographism is undeniable, but it’s also no longer the main culprit for why things haven’t changed in the business world. Inequality and demographism simply worsen the existing problem of not knowing why diversity is needed or valued. There are those who would argue the social justice side of diversity and inclusion, and while they aren’t wrong, asking companies to foster diversity on those grounds is asking them to spend resources on something regardless of how it might affect the bottom line. That is, it’s asking other people to spend their money on an external initiative that may be valuable, but which does not appear to impact their bottom line directly. It is essentially the equivalent of asking them to pay more taxes to fund a social initiative (which, to be sure, is what most taxes are for!). True, such things do serve the public good, but that’s not the inherent reason for the existence of a for-profit company. As such, unless diversity is an intrinsic part of the value proposition, a business is going to like promoting diversity about as much as it likes paying taxes. It will do only the bare minimum it has to and leave the rest to others.

If, however, a company understands why it needs diversity to create value in a unique way, and likewise to grow and develop profitably in the long term, then the company will continually push for diversity and inclusion, because without them there will be no sustainable profit. That is: diversity and inclusion have to be strategic initiatives, not personnel initiatives. Both are an integral part of the product/service design and delivery methods, right along with the marketing and growth strategies. This strategy may be partly executed by personnel teams, but it doesn’t start there. Thus, diversity and inclusion become line items in the allocation of resources by the C-level team to execute upon strategies. Unless and until diversity and inclusion are part of the company at this level, they will never be sustained or sustainable without an outside force, like taxes.

In order to determine the diversity and inclusion outcomes needed, it becomes necessary to look at the different manifestations of diversity and how they can be included in the company’s strategy.

Types of Diversity that Need to be Considered in Strategy

Education. Though fairly obvious at the surface level, educational diversity has additional layers. One of the primary values of studying a wide range of subjects is the ability to draw analogies between the subjects one knows and the situations one encounters (for instance, my chemistry background comes in far more handy than I ever would have guessed). This goes along with hiring T-shaped folks who have both an area of expertise and a diverse range of experiences. Generally, T-shaped people and the like are needed for the middle and upper levels of a company (and only those on the knowledge/innovation side), and are useful at the bottom only for succession planning and home-growing talent. For the promotion of stability, however, one needs straight-up execution and ensuring that rules and structures are followed in order to maintain the stability of the company.

Skill. Again, fairly obvious, but more thought needs to be given to the concept of meta-skills. As I discussed elsewhere, meta-skills are higher-order and reflect a sufficiently deep understanding of the domain as to be able to develop new skills within that domain. For instance, linguistic ability relates to one’s understanding of how languages work to the extent of being able to learn new languages by drawing on the individual’s internalized frameworks of how language tends to work. One of the primary roles of the human capital team is ascertaining which skills are necessary in which job roles in order to convene the right team to execute upon the company’s value proposition. Thus, despite the obviousness of skill diversity, it is very difficult to include in the strategy.

Experience. This is one of the most elastic of the types of diversity, because experience is not just about what someone has been through, but the meaning, value, skills, and judgment/discretion that have been acquired as a result. When people look for experience in the hiring process, they are usually employing different proxies (such as years in a role, or the fact of one or more accomplishments) that are used for determining whether the person has a wide enough base of experiences to draw from in order to have good judgment/discretion in novel situations.

Whither Demographic Diversity?

You might have noticed that none of the biological demographics was included above, and that’s because they’re almost always irrelevant to strategy. If a company takes education, skill, and experiential diversity seriously, however, then demographic diversity will be an automatic byproduct. A company will be searching all over the place for the right kinds of education, skills, and experience, and collecting the right talent definitively requires a net wide enough to cover the demographics. They will be looking not just at who is a ready-made candidate, but who is teachable, who can be included in succession-planning strategies, who is a rookie that can be paid less in exchange for more training but who can then command a powerful skillset and earn a far higher salary, who knows the market, who can handle adversity, and a whole host of other forms of wherewithal that are not based on any biological demographic. This means significant deliberation about company strategy, and people strategy, and it likely means making sure you have the right advisors on the board and the right consultants in your rolodex.

The biggest challenge to all of this, besides the effort any company needs to put in to be successful (which it should be doing anyway), is that using this method is going to be a slower change in society because of the systemic inequalities that already exist. By not focusing on demographic diversity and focusing instead on strategic diversity, change at the higher levels is going to be slow, and for the next 10–30 years the biological demographics of companies will shift only gradually. Critically, however, this change is a sustainable one, and the continual focus on seeing people for their education, skills, and experiences will be a slowly-built habit that companies can develop only over time. It is a maximally effective way of approaching hiring and talent, and one that will unquestionably yield demographic diversity as efforts by other entities are put into the earlier parts of the talent pipeline (e.g., K-12 education, income inequality, etc.).

This isn’t to say that no effort need be spent on overcoming biases, but rather that such efforts must be placed in the context of strategic diversity. For instance, was a candidate’s experience overlooked or given less weight because of demographics? This surely happens, and must be addressed. But, developing the habit of focusing on strategic factors instead of demographic ones is a slow change, especially when a surface-level look at certain demographics provides some inverse correlations with education, skills, and experience. Going deeper takes additional time and effort, and in this fast-paced world that can be harder to do when stakeholders are demanding fast decisions and instant action. That creates an inertia for surface-level decisions that must be overcome and replaced with better systems of decision-making and action, especially when it comes to talent management. But, the effort that companies put in to build solid strategy for the value proposition and for finding the people who will execute upon it is not just an investment in sustainable diversity, but in success.

(For more tips on diversity and inclusion, check out our D&I Cheat Sheet)



Orin Davis
The Startup

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab ( Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.