Leaders who achieve success and inspire others understand that taking risks is an essential part of achieving results. Leaders discover and push their “risk tolerance” by stepping outside of their comfort zones while exercising good judgment. Reward and profit usually come in direct proportion to the risk involved. Making diversity and inclusion a part of your objective, business model, and vision puts your company ahead of the curve.
Why is risk-taking important to modeling inclusion? The simple answer is that modeling inclusion often means engaging in conversations that involve a level of discomfort and forcing the individuals of your organization to confront their own fears and preconceived notions about others. For instance, those in the majority may fear losing ground and being marginalized to the point that they become the minority. Those in the minority, whether by race, gender, or gender identity, may fear that expressing their feelings of disconnect to the organization may place their jobs in danger.
Effective leaders can facilitate communication and engage members of their organizations to navigate through uncomfortable feelings and fears in order to arrive at a meaningful discussion on modeling inclusion. In particular, they are able to inspire their colleagues and employees to lean into an environment that promotes inclusion.
Skilled leaders build inclusive teams and develop norms, practices, and behaviors that foster respect and objectivity in the sharing of ideas. When individuals feel supported in the ability to share ideas in the discharge of their job duties, they will feel supported in tackling the conversations regarding diversity and inclusion.
Skilled leaders inspire trust by communicating their ideas regarding diversity and inclusion in a manner that lets their teams know that the leaders are prepared to guide the discussion through the process. Diplomacy and conflict-management tools are needed to manage negative human interactions and to improve diversity mission readiness through greater teamwork and higher morale. In short, a positive diversity climate incorporates inclusion into practices for motivating and resourcing diverse work groups. Successful diversity leadership influences teams through basic people-management practices such as:
• Instill a mission-related sense of identity.
• Manage the work-group inclusion team processes.
• Facilitate open and productive communication.
• Motivate and provide the tools in accord with diversity and inclusion needs/goals.
• Establish personal and professional credibility and accountability.
The best leaders today recognize that diversity and inclusion are business necessities. The general population continues to become more diverse, which makes diversity and inclusion important to a business’s customer base.
A leader enhances her organization’s connection to its customers and potential customers through inclusion on its management team and sales team. Leaders recognize that on-boarding diverse leadership and promoting diversity in the business relationships that an organization fosters with its suppliers and customers is critical to the organization’s survival and competitiveness.
The Vision Toward Equity
How do leaders achieve diversity and inclusion in their own organizations? First, it is important that the organization’s stakeholders buy into the concept of not only diversity and inclusion, but also, importantly, equity. Successful diversity and inclusion leaders inspire others to share their visions—this makes implementation smoother and faster.
The statistics provide the talking points to sell a leader’s colleagues on diversity and inclusion: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2050, the Hispanic and Asian populations will both triple, and the African American population will almost double. However, for example, the growth of women corporate officers has stagnated. According to Catalyst Census, in 2002, women made up 16% of the corporate officers of Fortune 500 Companies; in 2014, the number of women corporate officers shrunk to 15%. Thus, demographic trends indicate that women and minorities are the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. workforce, but they are not advancing to senior management positions.
A leader has to be able to admit that there is not a fair playing field, even today, and a “fair opportunity” is not the same for everyone. Clear goals toward equity and motivation for countering inequity are important, and they signal a commitment that becomes the foundation of an organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts.
Planning for the future means on-boarding diverse talent. However, on-boarding is not sufficient for success: Retention of diverse talent is critical. To that end, a leader can advocate for a mentoring program where a senior management individual provides guidance and support to a new diverse management trainee employee and for a diversity program.
Sharing a roadmap for success and advising a diverse management trainee on how to succeed and advance in the organization is important for retention. Small groups of 10-15 people per group with senior management can provide an opportunity for diverse employees to exchange experiences and knowledge to enhance their professional development while having the guidance of a team leader. Committing to a meeting of these small groups once a month can foster a sense of inclusion for diverse employees and create a pipeline to senior management positions from these groups.
Furthermore, an organization can implement and commit to a diversity program. To do it, a leader must encourage senior management to ask questions: What does diversity mean to us? What does inclusion mean to us? How do we track advancement of diverse employees to senior management positions? Do diverse employees receive the same mentoring? Do diverse employees have the same career opportunities? Is appropriate funding going into these mentoring and diversity programs? Is there a metric for measuring the success of these programs?
What gets measured, gets done. The metrics for determining whether a mentoring and/or diversity program is successful comprise several snapshots—namely, the demographics of the applicant pool, tracking the demographics of candidate retention, measuring the representation of diverse individuals in key leadership positions in organizations, measuring the investment in diversity and inclusion sponsorship programs and time committed to them, measuring how much money is spent on diverse suppliers, having employee assessment tools where there is feedback on employee perception of the mentoring and diversity program, measuring time spent in diversity and inclusion training, and developing tools to measure the quality of decision-making.
Taking action on diversity, inclusion, and equity means changing the conversation. An effective leader will facilitate this change by understanding how to build the team around the diversity, inclusion, and equity mission. In many ways, this involves finding an overarching framework and common language that use the diversity lens to share the vision on how the change will benefit everyone.
Providing networking and mentoring options—along with creating opportunities for people to hear from each other, learn from each other, and see how different groups share commonalities—can ensure the future success of the organization. To increase the likelihood of success, leaders should carefully assess the current climate, be deliberate in their planning and goal setting to ensure their vision is addressed, and be prepared to evaluate and adjust systems by dollarizing the success of their vision as the plan moves forward.
With clear vision and a renewed lens, leaders can use their people management techniques, and their open and effective communication and conflict resolution tools, to positively implement their diversity and inclusion goals for successful work-group outcomes and the profitability of their organizations.
Taking a Risk to Explore Inclusion
Article co-author Carey Bond, an African-American field grade officer, was deployed to Afghanistan as part of NATO Headquarters serving on the staff of the supreme commander of all forces in Afghanistan. Below, he recounts an experience he had concerning efforts to increase inclusion.
I was joined for breakfast one morning by one of the supreme commander’s deputies-—a two-star Caucasian general officer (GO). I immediately honed in on the subject at the front of my mind, which I am sure was not at the front of his. My question was, “Sir, what are you and other general officers doing to drive the succession of diverse officers to the general officer level?”
The promising part of the conversation was that he did not evade the question, but seemed to think seriously about the response. In a civilian organization, this would be the equivalent of a frontline manager engaging the chief admin/people officer in the lunchroom and asking him to explain what the corporation is doing to make sure there is a succession channel specifically for diverse employees.
The GO explained that there were mentors assigned to young officers to guide them through their careers. That was a great answer, but I continued my questioning: What is the mentor’s focus and key guidance? In the Army, a key path to general officer is leadership time in maneuver units, which are frontline, combat-related postings. Were mentors directing/advising assignment to these units or to non-maneuver units?
In an equivalent civilian organization, it raises a question of the viability of a DEI platform. It is great to say you have one, however, what does it do in tangible terms? Does that platform promote viable, measurable objectives with critical drivers and measures of success? The point of my question to the GO was, how many general officers had been produced because of mentorship? The commensurate question of a civilian program is how many senior leaders had been developed through the DEI program in that organization?
The GO conceded more can be done, and will be done, to ensure that end-to-end development will be addressed. When asked what that means in practical terms, he explained that, from intake, onboarding, and then a more structured program, careers are reviewed in relevance to organization need and focus, and also expressed in terms to the mentee so that he or she understands what is in it for them. This aids in understanding how those DEI contributions are beneficial to the organization, while providing value to the military and guidance to the mentee.
In civilian organizations, that means from a top-level view, DEI must be viewed in a holistic sense: Are there incentives in place to reward meeting goals? Is there clarity of purpose that can be understood by all stakeholders involved? Not just from a DEI perspective, but from an entire organizational perspective, is the true value of DEI initiatives framed by success, or a fad that passes once the media attention subsides?
As the GO and I finished breakfast, he admitted that he had received more than nutritional nourishment. I conceded that I was sure that he had not intended to have this conversation, however, he had been candid in his assessment and views and admitted opportunity areas.
Our discussion revolved around the value that diverse candidates bring to the table, and an understanding that the overall contributions revolve around more than a headcount of an ethnic or gender group. It is important to Recognize the opportunity and then act upon the understanding that DEI brings value and impact to an organization only if it is nurtured. In the military, the journey continues.
The journey also continues in the civilian and corporate world. As a member of both the military and corporate world for over 30 years, I had an opportunity to observe, participate, and provide feedback. What this means is that focus, clarity, and sponsorship is more important than ever.
As the GO and I went our separate ways that morning, I began to reflect on that conversation. I still reflect on it more than 15 years later. It has only been in recent years that DEI has seemingly taken a direction that will have a solid and lasting impact. What has changed is that senior leaders are engaging the subject at the C-suite level. The value of DEI to organizations has begun to be quantified—measured in terms of long-term corporate benefit in the form of succession, proven leadership, and membership on corporate boards in a substantive fashion. DEI is a forefront conversation being the last agenda item before lunch. It is no longer speaking truth to power; it is discussing benefits and contribution to corporate success. The encouraging part of the conversation is that the conversation is occurring.