Diversity & Inclusion: 3 Essentials I Learned As A U.S. Army Colonel

Col. (Ret.) Diane Ryan served 29 years as a U.S. Army officer. Now a professor and management coach, we asked her to share insights on three challenges businesses face in unleashing the power of diversity and inclusion. 

COL (Ret.) Diana Ryan, Ph.D., Associate Dean of Programs and Administration at the Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University, and Faculty Member at Thayer Leadership, West Point

COL (Ret.) Diana Ryan, Ph.D., served in a variety of command and staff assignments during 29 years as a U.S. Army officer. Now a professor and management coach at Tufts University and faculty member at Thayer Leadership, Chief Executive asked her to share insights on three challenges businesses face in unleashing the power of diversity and inclusion. 

On adopting a people-first mentality…

The Army that I came up in always impressed upon us mission first in everything—that the mission is the most important thing and the people sort of fall into place behind that. But I think the Army has adopted more of a people-first mentality recently. They recognize that we’ve had 20 years of war and now we have a pandemic and all these different stressors on our people. We need to take care of people first and recognize that the mission will follow along afterwards. 

And it’s important to recognize that what we’ve gone through is impacting people differently. There’s been a lot in the press about how the pandemic and working remotely has disproportionately affected women as they try to balance work and home. And racial incidents have been really difficult for people of color. So, companies should be thinking about helping women stay in the workforce and having open and honest conversations with people who have been disproportionately affected by social justice issues and by health and welfare issues. It’s really important for you to think about what kind of load individual people are carrying and what you can do to lighten their burden. 

On training leaders to become more inclusive…

In the Army, we certainly had formal training, but you will not improve your organization by giving people 40 PowerPoint slides and saying, “Read through this and understand it.” It’s by having personal conversations.

I had zero experience with racial or ethnic diversity from my upbringing or where I went to school. So my first experience was my first duty station and the first platoon that I led—about 60 people. All of my next-line leaders were African-American men whom I’d never worked for or with. I learned to be a really good listener, to ask questions and to be interested in their lives and the experiences that they had, and to think about what was different and what was the same and find ways to bridge gaps and capitalize on shared experiences.

The higher up you get, the harder it is to devote time and make an effort to take stock of who’s there. You won’t be able to do it to the same degree with every person in your organization, but creating a culture where first-line leaders do that is really important. 

On handling divisive topics in the workplace…

It goes back to listening to diverse perspectives and trying to understand why people might feel the way they feel. We couldn’t talk about partisan things, but in 2016, I was teaching my class and we were having a conversation about diversity in the Army and different policies. One of my students started to pop off about affirmative action programs and how the minority admissions at West Point meant that his friend who had all the qualifications did not get in. The best kid I had in my class was this guy named Isaac who happened to be an African-American from Alabama.

He was always the most prepared and contributed the most illuminating insights. Isaac said, “I know I benefited from that, and I feel badly about it.” I said, “Don’t. Everyone in here should be thanking you that a policy existed that helped you to get here because everyone in class is smarter as a result of your contributions to this class.” 

Another student said, “Huh, nobody ever explained it that way. It was always explained as if you were taking something away from my group of people and not the fact that I’m better off as a result.” So, it was a great conversation. Approaching things with kind of a calm head, establishing some ground rules, trying to get to the understanding of why people feel the way they feel, and sticking to facts while having leaders who are able to definitely read the room and help control the emotion—doing all of that is better than not talking about it at all.