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3 Critical Steps For Companies That Want To Move The Needle On Diversity

In too many cases, executives tackling diversity is akin to children eating their vegetables—they'll do it, but with little enthusiasm and mainly just to stay out of trouble. We can do better.

With a national dialogue swirling around equity and inclusion, the data show that corporate America is still struggling with the basics of diversity and representation.

According to a recently published McKinsey report, only 15 percent of the executive teams they surveyed in the United States and the United Kingdom had female representation, and more than a third of companies had no women at all on their executive teams.

Representation of ethnic minorities on these US and UK teams wasn’t any better, standing at 13 percent. Not exactly the picture of diversity.

Interestingly, this same report emphasizes that there is a strong business case for diversity. It found that organizations in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed those in the fourth by 36 percent in terms of profitability in 2019.

So, what seems to be the hold up? For all the talk around the importance of diversity as well as its potential upside, why so little progress?

One reason is that companies aren’t approaching diversity the right way. The concept of diversity is generally greeted by most companies with an eye roll and a few perfunctory efforts. Talking to executives about diversity has basically been the equivalent of telling kids to eat their vegetables: They will begrudgingly do it, but without any real enthusiasm, and mainly just to stay out of trouble.

These reluctant bites of brussels sprouts have typically taken the form of “tolerance” and “tokenism,” neither of which are good approaches.

Let’s start with tolerance. It’s not setting the bar very high to agree to tolerate someone who is “different.” No one makes it to the executive suite if they are simply “tolerated.” Instead, they need to be called upon for their insights, valued for their opinions and trusted for their decision-making skills. That’s how they are given a chance to succeed and to rise within the ranks of an organization.

Like tolerance, tokenism isn’t very helpful in the success of the individual. It’s more about checking a box and filling a quota for a specific race, gender or other marker of diversity and to be able to say “See? We’re a diverse organization.”

It’s time to go beyond the bare minimum of tolerance and the cheap symbolism of tokenism. A new approach is needed within corporate America to ensure true diversity, equity and inclusion. The following three steps are a good place for organizations to start.

First, go beyond the business case and the moral imperative to the human connection. There is overwhelming data on the business case for diversity and diversity, equity and inclusion professionals have been pushing the moral imperative – it’s the right thing to do – for more than 50 years. If these assertions were compelling enough, we’d be further along than we are.

However, good leaders do care about the performance of their people. They care about them as individuals, and they care about seeing them succeed. For many executives, building meaningful connections outside of their usual suspects, hearing personal stories from employees about the challenges or negative experiences they’ve faced, helps them connect the dots.

They realize that creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment is a way to support their people and get the best out of them. This gives them a personal stake in DEI and makes it something that matters to them. People don’t necessarily care that only 2% of the C-suite of Fortune 500 companies is Black. But they do care that Sonia, who they know to be incredibly talented and capable, has been snubbed for the last three promotions despite having outstanding performance reviews.

Second, know the data. As the saying goes, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. For example, a lot of organizations actually hit their hiring goals around women, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups or other diverse candidates, but then struggle to retain those people or to promote them. Identifying where there are bottlenecks can help you zero in on what the actual problem is rather than what you think or guess the problem might be. Data and metrics are your friend here in identifying areas that need attention.

Third, expand the decision-making tent. This means bringing in voices that might not have been asked to share their opinion in the past and might not have formal authority in the organizational structure. If you have some problems around hiring, retaining, and promoting certain groups of employees, you need to seek out the insights of people who are closer to the problem. They can tell you very candidly and clearly why that is the case if you create an environment that feels safe to them and build confidence that you will actually take their guidance. Their input is invaluable in helping solve the challenges an organization might face.

It takes great humility on the part of the leadership team to open up the tent. After all, they’ve built their careers on being decision-makers in positions of authority. But a wise leader realizes that they don’t have a full view of everything that goes on in an organization, and that bringing in some additional voices might provide answers that they otherwise wouldn’t get.

Once organizations take these steps, by personally connecting to the problem, quantifying the problem, and bringing in the best people to solve the problem, they are poised to enter a high performance zone where people feel valued, fully engaged, and are willing to go the extra mile.

But if they don’t take those steps – if they treat diversity and inclusion like a plate of vegetables – their people will pick up on that lack of enthusiasm and the organization will be the worse for it.


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