Of Diversity, Inclusion, and Leadership with Teeth

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Of Diversity, Inclusion, and Leadership with Teeth

So you have courageously prioritized Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (DEI) and have lifted it as a strategic investment. In fact, you have made the decision to provide it the resources, time, and thoughtfulness any true organizational commitment requires. You have also embraced the fact that an effective DEI strategy will need to be holistically embedded in organizational programs, policies, and culture.  You get it! Now what?

Well, BEFORE you hire your first DEI leader, here are two next steps to consider:

Build a job description that will have the positional weight, authority, and organizational license and support to drive DEI.

#1. Remember–Words Matter. Companies often create DEI roles that lack the positional authority to drive necessary results. One of my favorite (not really) exercises is to plug in “ability to influence without authority” into any job search board and then count the diversity roles that pop up. Unfortunately, too many do.

It is true that effective DEI officers need to be strong communicators with exceptional Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and a keen ability to influence others. However, leading this work also requires the ability to strategically design policies and programs and to co-build the foundation for an inclusive organizational culture. It is difficult for the DEI leader (no matter how good she may be) to challenge or deconstruct the status quo when her role is not perceived to be one with the authority or power to do so. 

Asking a DEI officer to focus primarily on influencing instead of leading is like asking her to run, swim, and cycle her way through an organizational triathlon with one hand tied (with status-quo twine) firmly behind her back.

The good news? There is an easy(ish) fix. Be thoughtful about the results you actually want and build a job description that will have the positional weight, authority, and organizational license and support to drive them.

Structure should serve you—not derail you.

#2. Keep in mind that Culture May Eat Strategy for Breakfast but Structure Devours Culture for Lunch. Where you position your DEI work is symbolic. Tuck your new DEI officer a level or two below other prioritized offices (i.e. EVP of Marketing vs DEI Director), and you are telling your community that the value of the work is lower on the organizational food chain. And this isn’t just a matter of where you position the role on the org chart and the title you may assign it, it also speaks to where you physically place the leader and her office.

One of the most explicit cases of unintended messaging I have seen through placement was an organization that tucked the DEI leader in an off-the-beaten path office on the basement level of the facility while his peer leaders had offices on a highly visible and well-trafficked executive floor. A few months into the role, the DEI leader believed his office location fully reflected the prioritization of his work. Although this may not have been the intention of the organization’s decision, it was still its impact. Structure should serve you—not derail you.

So…You have chosen a bold path! That’s an important first step. Now, it’s critical that you also recognize that this approach will be “toothy” and, at times, may bite at established and well-liked organizational norms, people (including some high performing leaders who may not fully see its value), and practices (like how people are hired, developed, and promoted).

Again, are you and your organization truly ready? If so, let’s talk about those “leaders” with DEI blind spots or willful disregard for diversity. You know what you should do about them. I’ll remind you about the why of it.

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