Inclusivity Starts From the Top Down…But Your C-Suite is Clueless.
It’s common for a CEO who is only concerned with optics to sign off on a DEI budget and plan, only for DEI professionals to find themselves stuck on a moving sidewalk of never ending assessment and planning. When that C-Suite isn’t fully engaged and invested in the process, DEI initiatives are bound to fail.
This lack of commitment from leadership could stem from something as innocuous as being overwhelmed with the business or not budgeting time for the efforts or not understanding how diversity, equity, and inclusion will benefit the bottom line to something as insidious as an underpinning of bigotry and supremacy. Regardless of the cause, you and the stakeholders in your company deserve to feel a sense of belonging, deserve to be included, and deserve equity. Not only because it’s the right thing to do–it’s also good for business.
As the person in charge of making these changes happen, you have to captivate the emotions and logic of the people making decisions when you want them to switch directions as well as shape their environment so that the people in it are more amenable to change. So before you begin gathering data for an equity assessment to determine the first problem you’re going to tackle, hire an outside equity consultant to host a retreat or a series of workshops for your C-Suite to engage their hearts and minds and help show them the business case for equity.
Win Over Their Hearts
Let’s face it, you’re not just a strategist as a DEI professional. You’re a politician, a psychologist, a salesperson, and a tightrope walker. You’re going to have to hone all of these skills when working with your leaders.
A great first step to winning over the hearts of your company’s leaders is effective and consistent communication from lower-level staff and even outside stakeholders about how they experience organizational policies, procedures, and culture that leadership reviews, implements, and reports back to the greater organization. Leaders already have a stake in the game for this sort of information because their jobs depend on these policies working to fulfill the company’s overall goals, whether that’s increasing the bottom line or staff retention.
Your job, however, is to make it about the personal stories that are a part of the overall data they’re used to looking at. Elevate the stories and lived experiences beyond the data points and statistics - use quotes, audio, and video to help drive the point home. This work is about people, not numbers.
For example, how will the chiefs feel when they learn of keeping salary ranges hidden on job postings has led to Black women in the organization having to work a full 9 months until they catch up to the average pay of a white man in the same company? Just that information alone may not appeal to someone who cares about the bottom line, but sharing the stories of these women, the challenges they’ve overcome, the feats they’ve achieved, and how they feel about their wages will help your Chiefs feel more compassion and empathy toward her situation. When you connect her struggle to its effect on the business, then you’ll really have those chiefs listening.
If you aren’t successful with that approach, play to their own oppressed identities to help them gain a sense of understanding for the inequities that are running rampant within their organization. Even if the head of accounting is a white male, he may have grown up in a family that struggled with finances, or he may be overweight. Get him to get in touch with the feelings he experienced in not finding clothes that fit him unless he went to a specialty shop. Then help him connect those feelings to the trauma a Muslim employee faces in the workplace when they aren’t given a designated room for afternoon prayer. You’ll be guiding his heart in the right direction for change.
Give Them Information
So you’re pulling at their heartstrings with the personal stories that you’ve collected from stakeholders and employees, but you also have to play to their minds.
The logic that your C-Suite cares about relates to the bottom line, the talent in their company, and their competition. Help them see that diversity is what drives innovation and adds money to the bank. Teach them how Millenials are making purchasing decisions based on a company’s values and actions as much as they are on quality and price. And with the trends of the Great Resignation and all this talk of quiet quitting, remind them that employees are much more likely to stick around and produce quality work when they feel valued, heard, and like they belong.
You aren’t just doing this because you feel like it’s a good idea. The success of your DEI initiative is going to positively correlate to the success of their company.
Change Their Environment
If the C-Suite isn’t already diverse and inclusive, you’ll have to help them see the value in implementing those concepts in their own inner circle, which is going to be hard.
Does that mean a shift in power? A change in organization to make room for new people? And when they diversify the C-Suite to ensure diverse leaders at the table for decision making that can reflect larger organization staff, are the people who come in with a different set of experiences going to feel comfortable in the existing culture of the leadership team? Probably not if they’ve been operating without a different perspective in the room for years. You’ll have to guide them through that change of culture.
The good news is that when you go through these experiences with your C-Suite, you’ll have more buy-in for making the same changes throughout the rest of the company.
That’s what you need just to get started. But you’re going to have to come back to your leaders on a regular basis to communicate your wins and challenges and to keep them on the learning edge instead of stagnating after your initial series of workshops.
Let your bosses know that this isn’t going away. Help them understand that even though it's been two years since the death of George Floyd, DEI is still at the center of what many customers and staff consider when patronizing and working for a company. This is a movement, not a moment. It is an ongoing journey that will take months, years, hell…it will never stop.