The other day I was on a call, and the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion came up. I could feel myself sliding into that uneasy zone where you no longer know whether anyone wants to hear your perspective. To try and break the ice, I half-heartedly joked, “Well no one wants to hear from a white male about diversity.” A female colleague immediately stopped me and said, “No, you are precisely the group that needs to talk more about diversity.”
Her response surprised me. I had been sure that the only viewpoints that mattered were voices from diverse groups. My colleague went on to explain that she didn’t need me to share my empathy or support, what she needed to hear was what am I doing, as a leader, to build a more diverse workforce? What are my goals in doing so? Why does diversity matter to me and my organization, and what have I learned?
My friend is right! As members of a majority, let us not offer bromides and flattery. Our empathy rings hollow because there is no true way to understand the minority’s perspective. Yet, as my friend suggests, we can describe what we are going to do to move this initiative forward.
Be a Part of the Conversation
Here are some ways to describe what you are doing about diversity, equity, and inclusion in your own leadership efforts and organizationally.
- Explain what you have learned. Describe a genuine moment where you have seen things differently and where your perspective has changed for the better. Clarify what changed your mind. The Irish author George Bernard Shaw once said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
- Describe how and why diversity will make your organization better. Every organization will benefit from diverse perspectives. True learning comes in the application of a concept; so, demonstrate commitment by clearly articulating how diversity will improve key areas such as innovation, process flow, customer experience, etc.
- Avoid quotas and reputationally-driven goals. A female colleague was once offered a board position and she asked why the invitation had been extended. The president callously replied to her, “We need your demographic.”[i] That is the wrong answer and the wrong perspective. Our mandate is to grow and learn, not to create quotas for perceived reputational benefits.
- Describe your personal leadership goals. For example, are you finding that most of your social interactions primarily involve men? How are you changing that? If you oversee a lot of meetings, how are you ensuring that diverse populations have a meaningful way to contribute and share their thoughts? Are you actively acknowledging contributions from minority voices?
- Establish your organizational goals. For example, in making hiring decisions does the nod go to the diverse candidate when all other criteria are equal. Does your organization sponsor employee resource groups for minorities? Are you using analytics to examine whether minority populations are properly represented in your pool of high performers? Are diverse voices part of your employee surveys and feedback gathering efforts?
As I reflect on my colleague’s advice, I am grateful for her encouragement. I had felt that I was in a no-win situation, and that no one wanted to hear from me. Today I still find myself hanging back and letting others voice their perspectives about diversity and inclusion, but now, I am prepared to step in and explain what I am striving to do in this context. I now feel like I can be a part of the conversation.