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DEI in Leadership

At my company X-Factor Solutions, we’re often asked about the intersection of topics on which we focus. I love it.  In fact, when I founded the company, the “X” in X-Factor was always intended to be a visual representation of the intersection and connection between multiple professional and personal success factors… a reminder to investigate wholistic approaches and solutions to our business challenges.

On Season 3, Episode 2 of the “Lessons from Terrible Students” podcast, sponsored by and hosted by Senior Instructional Designer Jeremy Brown & Senior Project Manager Sarah Meyer, I was asked to provide a few thoughts on the connection between Leadership, Training, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).  From the Q&A prep with the interviewers, below I share my perspective, based entirely on my practitioner experience.


What does DEI mean in corporate America?

Great question, because I think there’s no singular answer.  From an academic standpoint, the study of this topic changes and morphs as more data and more experiences are added to the landscape.  And that’s the same for corporate America as well.  When you look at an organization’s responsibilities to create environments in which all employees are treated fairly, have the same opportunities for success, and whose employee, corporate, or board composition is reflective of the community they serve or the customers who support the company, what’s deemed “acceptable” continues to shift.  We are not too far removed from organizations that had blatantly racist, misogynistic, or homophobic policies on paper.  To move to a corporate society that says we are patently “anti-racist” is a continuous effort.

And so, it can mean a lot of things.  Internal focus on a sense of belonging within the employee base.  External focus on creating equity in the community, vendor/supplier diversity, and so many other facets.

What we have to be diligent about is to not let people hijack that term, “DEI”, twist its definition and intent, and then use it for political soundbites to symbolize something completely different.  DEI, from an organizational culture standpoint, at its core, is being proactive about how we ensure all people are treated fairly and that we don’t normalize one demographic as the “standard” and then consciously or subconsciously subjugate everyone else to be considered an “other” or “not normal”.


Does that definition change if you look at it from a training perspective?

I don’t think the definition changes, but the application of how you approach it may change.  Training, especially with adults, and even more critical with adults in a work setting, needs to be relevant, practical, timely, and sustainable… basic adult learning theory.  Having high-level philosophical conversations about DEI may set the foundation for learning or training, but when we develop DEI training in the workplace, we need to show both the short-term and long-term value proposition.  And I think those are obvious. Diversity of thought leads to better, more complete solutions.  Equity and Inclusion lead to higher retention rates.  There are a number of studies that prove that it’s just smart business, in addition to being the right thing to do.


How should companies provide DEI training to their workforce?

First, understand that it’s an ongoing learning.  You don’t participate in a training workshop on unconscious bias and then raise a victory flag.

Secondly, it has to be supported from the top. Executive support and participation are critical to the success of these types of training efforts.

Thirdly, going back to that relevance that I mentioned earlier, you must be very clear about  WHY you are doing this training.  WHY are we doing it now?  What are we trying to accomplish?  Is it just for general knowledge or is there a behavior or culture change that we are trying to facilitate?  How will we know if it’s successful?  Are we just merely measuring the number of courses we provided? Or are we measuring the change that we are seeking through some quantifiable metric?

After we have addressed or answered those questions, then we can start the course design and development, or contract to someone who provides what we’re looking for.

So, in that way, the approach is not inconsistent with how you would approach any other training… it’s just that the subject matter can be tricky or have long-lasting detrimental impacts if you miss the ball.

And regardless of whether you develop it in-house, contract someone from the outside to help, or even purchase some off-the-shelf product, I suggest that it is customized with stories, storytelling, and examples from YOUR workforce!  Understanding the history of discrimination might be interesting, but hearing from your CEO or one of your colleagues about an epiphany they may have had, or a personal bias that they were able to identify and overcome, can be a much more powerful lesson than information that someone can just google.  Context matters!


Should Senior C-Suite leadership be REQUIRED to attend this training?

I think so, but then again, I am a practitioner of this topic.  I think a better way of looking at it is Senior C-Suite Leadership should sponsor, support, and in some instances, LEAD parts of the training.  They set the tone for the rest of the workforce to follow, and I think they should be present and visible.

Often what you get with DEI training participation (when it’s optional) is that the people who need it the most opt out, and the people who are already on board are the ones who attend the class.

If I told you that sexual harassment training or fiscal compliance training was mandatory, you wouldn’t blink an eye, even if you personally would never harass anyone or do anything that was financially inappropriate.  But somehow when it comes to this subject matter (the fair, equitable, and respectful treatment of our co-workers), we somehow turn it into this giant dilemma because we’re afraid someone may get offended.  Training on Inclusion should be just that, inclusive to help everyone regardless of level, background, ethnicity, country of origin, sexual orientation, political views, etc. have an opportunity to share thoughts, opinions, and be educated in a safe environment.


If so, does that change the training?

If you have C-level executives in the training, just be cognizant of power dynamics.  Ensure that everyone has equal opportunity and that no one’s presence intimidates others from speaking up.

You may consider having multiple iterations of training, designed for the respective levels, or design your course in a way that eliminates or reduces chances of those power dynamics disrupting your goal.  Again, relevance and applicability are important.  One-size training definitely does not fit all!


Is culture more important to the new generation of workers?

I think it’s always been important, but I think the newer generation has placed an emphasis on it, is not afraid to vocalize it, and makes employment decisions (not just on who they work for, but also how long they stay) greatly on organizational culture.  We raised them to be more conscientious, so we shouldn’t expect anything different.

And to be clear, this isn’t saying that every time someone disagrees or has challenges with the current org culture that we’re supposed to scrap what we’ve built, but it often signals a wake-up call for us to stay vigilant about what we’re consciously building.  Do our actions and behaviors match the core values we worked so hard to define?  Is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, as defined by whatever way we define it, even included in our core values?  Do we recognize that “culture-add” is a far greater asset, learning, and growth opportunity than “culture-fit”?


What can companies do to foster a diverse and inclusive culture?

Define it.  Be real about what it actually is and not what you promote it to be.  No one wants to look bad or say we’re missing the mark, but if all women in your organization quit or never make it to the executive suite, you have some work to do to understand the root causes.  If no people of color routinely attend your company’s social outings, you have some work to do to understand why.  If there is clear divide between generations, not just how they approach work, but how they treat or respect each other or their expectations of each other, you have some work to do.

Culture change is not easy.  Developing an inclusive culture may require that everyone in the organization from top to bottom revisit their perceptions of “reality”, redefine or re-establish a baseline understanding of many concepts you thought you had previously mastered.

I’ll give you a personal example.  I am “privileged”.  Most people will ask how or why do I think that way.  In a traditionally male-dominated society, my gender affords me certain considerations that I did not have to work for.  I am “educated”. There are certain assumptions that people will make about my level of intelligence (whether accurate or not) based on that fact that I went to college.  None of this says that I didn’t work hard to get to where I am.  None of this points to other inherent disadvantages that I may experience in my personal or professional life.  But it also doesn’t discount that I have certain advantages over others.  Treating our organizational culture as a learning lab where we can explore perceptions of reality and collectively define what these concepts mean for our organization makes us closer and ultimately more inclusive.


What are some DEI red flags you have seen in your experience?

When we normalize one demographics’ experiences as the “norm” and anyone else is discounted, that’s when we set the foundation for organizational issues related to DEI.

Clearly there are easy metrics that point to the lack of Diversity and Equity.  What is the composition of our workforce? And when people do reach higher levels, was their path, time to promotion, etc. the same?  Many companies do a great job of ensuring meritocracy and objective measures are in place to determine success.  But many others base people-decisions on “gut feels” and intuition, which unfortunately, allows bias to creep in.

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Want to learn more about this topic? Listen to the related podcast episode on Friday!

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