Getting DEI right will require a top-down, sustained and quantified approach to successfully institute the organization-wide changes that are needed to get the most out of the increasingly diverse American workforce. The effective implementation of these three key practices is crucial for any organization operating in the 21st century.
Since the murder of George Floyd, as our national discussion on race relations has intensified, efforts to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in the business world have taken center stage. Entities ranging from JPMorgan Chase to McDonald’s to McKinsey & Co. to Harvard Business School have announced sweeping initiatives to signal their commitment to increase the number of employees of color, improve institutional culture and belonging, and even work to solve some of the deep problems around racial equity that have plagued not just their own organizations, but also society at large.
However, as the proverb goes and as most organizations have experienced, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The initial, grand vision statements have largely not yet been converted into successful initiatives, while some of them have also actually backfired. We already know how difficult and complex organizational change can be, and the added dimensions of inequity issues and power dynamics makes DEI a particularly thorny and sensitive topic for change initiatives.
So how will these organizations actually bring their intentions to pass and fulfill the goals they have laid out? Through our work, we have identified three necessary keys to doing so.
Key No. 1: Commitment from the top
Military officers know that an initiative is serious when a) there is a general put in charge of it and b) significant resources are applied to it. The hierarchical nature of the military requires a positional authority to properly direct resources. Based on their enterprise-level experience, senior leaders are the appropriate stewards of volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments. Therefore, it is necessary to provide action, appropriately communicate a vision, operationalize that vision and scope implementation. “Pinning the rose” on a leader with such positional authority ensures accountability for important initiatives.
Likewise, no real change is possible in corporate America, in academia or in the government without deep commitment and buy-in at the highest level and the significant financial and human resources that only top leadership can mobilize.
Until now, DEI has largely been relegated to the HR department and has either been ignored entirely or only superficially embraced in the C-suite. For real change to happen, the commanding officer, or the CEO, or the dean, or a senior public official must make it clear that true diversity, equity and inclusion is their top priority. And critically, they must “put their money where their mouth is” by devoting real resources to the effort.
For example, C.Q. Brown, the new chief of staff of the Air Force, and the first Black man ever to hold that position, modeled true and authentic leadership by revealing his own emotions and experiences in the wake of Floyd’s murder. Likewise, McKinsey and Co.’s former global head Kevin Sneader provided a particularly good example of immediate signaling from the C-suite that he was serious about the company’s commitment to DEI with the video message he sent to employees in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s murder. Thus, the company was able to devote significant human and financial resources to back up a detailed 10-point plan “toward racial equity.”
Key No. 2: A sustained and continuous process
Institutional efforts to address DEI have historically been largely “checkbox” in nature, undertaken more to protect the institution from liability or for public relations benefits than to spark meaningful change. However, our research has shown that, as with most corporate change initiatives, successful DEI programs need ongoing, long-term work and sustained, continuous efforts to be truly effective. This requires the tenacity to gradually change the culture with an asymmetric approach similar to the way the military introduces its service-specific values.
The newly onboarded soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman gains exposure to these values during bootcamp, after which the values are continually reinforced. Individuals are then required to attend monthly counseling to evaluate them on how they model those values on a daily basis. These frequent touchpoints are what adjust behavior over time. It is not immediate, and there are no quick wins, but this adjustment process creates a far more effective organization.
Key No. 3: Quantifiable, measurable assessments
Once you have buy-in and commitment from the top and a warrant for a long-term, sustained and continuous mission, you must have metrics in place to measure the results you have (or haven’t) achieved. We are all well-aware of KPIs, measurable values that demonstrate how effectively a company is achieving an objective. With DEI, those metrics must focus on measurements in three areas: diversity in representation, equity in opportunity and inclusion in participation.
Perhaps the easiest of these three parameters to measure is diversity in representation, meaning the achievement of a diverse workforce. Diversity cuts across many lines, including gender, sexual orientation, race and even socioeconomic status/background (for example, first-generation college students). The achievement of true diversity requires creative strategies, such as hiring people with criminal records, in order to avoid disproportionately hindering people of color.
With regard to equity of opportunity, it is critical to analyze the evaluation, career development and promotion processes to level the internal playing field. The entire promotion system must be examined to identify and root out bias, and results on advancement must be measured year over year.
Finally, with regard to inclusion in participation, perhaps the best model comes from Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei, who describes the four stages of true inclusion with what she calls the “inclusion dial”: from safe to welcome to celebrated to cherished. This can be measured through anonymous surveys that are tracked over time to “take the temperature” of the workforce.
Getting DEI right will take a top-down, sustained and quantified approach in order to successfully institute the organization-wide changes that are needed to get the most out of our increasingly diverse American workforce. The effective implementation of these three key practices represents a crucial task for any organization operating in the 21st century.
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