Advice to Leaders: Why Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is Not a One-Day Solve

Aleka Bhutiani  Follow

Business leaders are at a monumental inflection point where their actions and commitment to uprooting entrenched systems and ideologies for a more diverse and inclusive approach is not only critical to business success, but also increasingly becoming a moral expectation from their employees and clients. However, the prospect of tackling diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) challenges can seem daunting and riddled with reputational damage, even when the intention is well-placed.

In the early days of corporate social responsibility (CSR), companies were applauded for hosting community days and providing charitable donations to worthy causes. However, in many instances, this same approach is no longer considered to be enough by current standards. As a result, many companies and their leaders find themselves being criticized and seen as simply throwing money at the problem rather than solving it. Here is why.

It starts at “home”. For companies to be able to authentically talk about and affect change externally, they must be able to demonstrate those changes within their own walls (i.e. diversity in senior ranks and leadership, access to opportunity for all, equal pay, breadth in talent recruited). While many are behind, those that are at least identifying their deficiencies and looking for ways to improve will ultimately be able to deliver meaningful impact and become a voice amongst their peers in external arenas.

One size does not fit all. Each sector or industry is facing similar DEI challenges, but in different ways. In financial services, for example, access to opportunity is a big barrier that can manifest in a multitude of ways – from education, networking opportunities, entrenched prejudice, to lack of access to capital and cultural restrictions. In the professional services industry, male-hierarchy, legacy and internal politics can often play a big role in the lack of DEI progress. So, initiatives for one industry cannot always be effectively translated over to another. They need to be looked at in the context of the challenges faced for that industry and the channels through which consistent change can be achieved.

Communities consist of different voices. It is often a misconception that one community shares the same lived experience. In fact, multiple diversities (e.g., sexual orientation, race, culture, gender, ability) often impact opportunity for individuals more than others in the same overall group. It is important for leaders to listen and understand all these different permeations and experiences to be able to find the right means to even the playing field, recognize unconscious bias and break down barriers to opportunity.

Don’t sacrifice the long-term for short-term gain. When an issue is highlighted, it tends to place heightened pressure on business leaders to provide a solution or response to show that they are taking the matter seriously. Many leaders may try to do the “right” thing by responding rapidly to questions on the firm’s culture, diversity figures, pay of employees or opportunity for career progression. However, this can often end up causing more reputational harm than good.

By focusing on the long term – being aware of the organization’s shortcomings and the steps needed to make change (hiring metrics, mentoring programs, encouraging internal dialogue etc.) – leaders will be better fit to serve not just themselves but their people and ultimately, the firm’s reputation. This approach also enables leaders to talk about tangible change, not just justify what they have currently.

Change takes time. To evolve thinking and overhaul systems and processes that have been designed to function a certain way for decades, even centuries, takes time and a sustained commitment to ensuring change. Even once the conversation has started and there is growing appetite for transformation, it must be maintained to guarantee a lasting outcome. Social events from earlier this year have turned the spotlight on some of the issues that we have been living with and the restraints some have been fighting against for many years. What we are seeking to tackle is not new. What is new is the global momentum of change being advocated for. This means that true leadership will be about the relentless focus on DEI and how to ensure that the progress made today sticks, so that more is achieved in the future.

Accountability is key. Setting goals and metrics is critical to ensuring an organization makes concentrated and lasting change. It is the only way to set a new norm in the corporate world. While DEI can be perceived as the current “trend”, leaders need to show they are focused on making positive and lasting change that is about more than achieving business impact or driving the bottom line. Publicly setting goals is the way to achieve this. Even if an organization is unable to meet all of the goals it sets, the commitment to doing better and measure how far it can move the needle is more powerful than simply saying “things should be better”. It also goes a step further where companies can hold those other businesses with which it engages accountable to the same standards. If it becomes an expected norm, all organizations will ultimately need to follow suit or face becoming obsolete.

Ultimately, success will be determined by lasting impact and how leaders hold themselves and others to a new standard of good and fair business. For those that show a dedicated drive towards creating a better and more inclusive working world, it will mean broader talent pools, new ideas and innovations and greater employee loyalty. Talent will no longer look elsewhere to rise through the ranks because structures that once worked against them will serve to uplift them. Fairer access to capital will enable new entrepreneurs and future leaders to step forward and build their businesses. A more inclusive culture, inside and outside of the business world, will enable a great appreciation for diversity of thought, experiences and approaches leading to more creativity and even a faster way of solving some of the other challenges we face globally.

DEI is not going to be “fixed” with a singular campaign or donation to an initiative. It is a continuous commitment and evolution of all facets that the three words of this acronym represent. The more authentic leaders can be in realizing the scale of what needs to be achieved in their own organizations, sectors or industries and society, the more effective they will be at making a lasting shift. 

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