Without a doubt the artifacts of diversity and inclusion at work are here to stay: unconscious bias training, employee networks, the initiatives aimed at women, the awareness courses, the statistics and the measurement: the smorgasbord of imaginative ideas aimed at creating change. These are all elements which make valuing diversity a reality. What is new thinking in diversity and inclusion is what we have known for years but has now been proved beyond reasonable doubt: without strategic intent by the Board and the Executive Committee, progress will be illusory and may roll back if advocates of diversity and inclusion leave.
What is Strategic Intent?
First: what strategic intent is not is asking the HR department to take sole charge of fixing diversity and inclusion and leaving it at that. The Board and Executive committee may believe that delegation has happened and the job is done. What will then happen is that with best effort the HR department will get its house in order and lots of initiatives will be launched but diversity will be seen as what HR does and everyone else will carry on as normal.
The best do it differently; what they do is understand why diversity and inclusion is a strategic change issue which is owned, understood, explained, monitored and personally led by each member of the Board and Executive Committee. It is a change issue which reaches into advertising, publicity, internal and external communications as well as procurement. Most of all it is about everyone and primarily the majority group. The majority group in whichever context you are talking about.. the people without disability, the white majority, men, straight etc. It is not about ‘fixing women’ for example and it is particularly not about the wishful thinking –‘ all would be well if only we could attract more x, y, or z’s to the company: they would do diversity for us’. No, the responsibility for creating an inclusive organisation which values diversity starts and stays at the top.
The delivery of diversity and inclusion is a strategic change initiative. The likes of Deloitte, Accenture, Microsoft, Sodexo and a number of others understand this and get results. The most successful organisations ensure that if they appoint a Diversity and Inclusion ‘manager’ that person is not lost deep in the organisation of HR but is seen as a strategic change agent with senior influence, has permission to rove and backing from the CEO when the reality of change becomes painful and personal.
What they know is so simple: they understand that in a global market they need to understand their customers. That’s it. They know that they need to become or stay agile and realise that their customers are diverse – not only people from different nationalities and cultures but from different age groups, women, people with disabilities, people who care for the aged, parents, people with strong religious beliefs and those without and people with lots of cash and those on the margins ….. and so on. Dead simple, a truism… but that real top ownership marks the front runners out.
Split a demographic any way and you have your customers whose buying decisions will be based on how that company treats them and that is made up of how it makes them feel:, how appealing the advertising is, the pictures and how easy it is to use their website, the word on the street about the company (remember how B&Q got so much kudos by employing older people and introducing disability friendly services?). Often, knowing someone who works for a company and knows it from the inside significantly affects reputation too. I will never buy from a certain travel company owing to the unconscionable racism a friend experienced from her manager…. and I tell other people who mention the company why they shouldn’t either.
So the Board and the Executive Committee needs not only to approve a paper about diversity plans but to understand and implement diversity for themselves. How? It is that old idea: alignment…followed by an equally old fashioned action: stewardship. They need not just to nod and say good idea and pass through a paper but realise that organisational change starts with them. This in itself is uncomfortable. What does each Board and Executive Board member feel and think and do about diversity and inclusion? Do they really agree with the enthusiasm of the CEO or whoever is driving the Diversity and Inclusion initiative or do they have private thoughts which go something like: ‘this is a distraction from the real work’? How do they really feel about maternity returners or men taking sharing parental leave with their partner? Unless they have been honest enough to voice their doubts and discuss them out in the open environment of their peer group, doubters will undermine change.
So what is a strategic change agent charged with introducing Diversity and Inclusion to do? In the ideal world the first step is creating the opportunity for alignment… this means working with the Board and Executive Committee to hear their individual views and stories on diversity and inclusion and to explore diversity openly to reach a consensus about what it means to them and their business. ‘Not got the time’ or ‘we don’t need to do this because we are all aligned’. Without the fundamental work at this level exhortation to change will not be taken seriously and whilst programmes may be successful and the impression good, ten years down the road little will have changed.