One of my favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes is: “There is nothing more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” And I am just going to come out and say it: Most diversity and inclusion initiatives fall into the former category: sincere ignorance. They look and sound great. They are usually well-meaning too. But a vast number of these initiatives prove ineffective or fail within a year or two. Why? Sincere ignorance: Start talking to the people who put them together, and more often than not you realize that the details and depth of strategic thinking behind them is as thin as the paper they are printed on.
This is not surprising when you consider that most diversity and inclusion initiatives are developed to comply with corporate governance and self-regulation (often under the heading “Corporate Social Responsibility” or CSR). For example, in most workplaces, these initiatives are usually poorly funded tactical inclusion initiatives disconnected from broader, more substantial, and well-funded general training programs. They may be well meaning, but they are misguided in their approaches.
They are also often outdated in their ideas. They cater to the status quo. They assume existing and potential employees targeted by these programs must change to fit into the current workplace culture. They ask and answer one question: How can we acquire, train, and change diverse employees for them to succeed and thrive in our culture? If we keep asking that question – or any question – over and over again, why should we expect a different result?
As Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg stated in the Harvard Business Review, this is exactly why companies are bad at figuring out what their problems are and end up solving for the wrong things: “What they struggle with, it turns out, is not solving problems but figuring out what the problems are. In surveys of 106 C-suite executives who represented 91 private and public-sector companies in 17 countries, I found that a full 85% strongly agreed or agreed that their organizations were bad at problem diagnosis, and 87% strongly agreed or agreed that this flaw carried significant costs. Fewer than one in 10 said they were unaffected by the issue. The pattern is clear: Spurred by a penchant for action, managers tend to switch quickly into solution mode without checking whether they really understand the problem.”
What we need to do, argues Wedell-Wedellsborg, is reframe the problem. Actually, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, the problem starts with using the word “problem.” Diversity and inclusion should be about “opportunity” – specifically growth opportunity.
Here are five ways to rethink and reinvent the way you lead diversity and inclusion as a growth strategy:
1. Move diversity and inclusion out of human resources.
By and large, diversity and inclusion initiatives focus only on recruitment, reputation management, and “checking off the boxes.” That does not make them bad. It just makes them limited. But what really limits them is where they live: in HR and CSR – on the fringe and disconnected from enterprise wide growth opportunities. As a result, initiatives such as employee resource groups (ERGs) – are viewed as cost centers (expenses), rather than as profit centers (investments) to drive influence in the workplace and growth in the marketplace. What we need is a mindset for renewal, reinvention, and growth by moving diversity and inclusion where it belongs: in the center of the organization.
2. Know what opportunity diversity and inclusion solves for.
I review corporate diversity and inclusion plans for companies all the time. Most believe in their hearts that the implementation will make the company better inside and a more competitive outside. Good! That’s what a diversity and inclusion plan should do. But when I ask the executives what their plans solve for, they often say “diversity and inclusion.” That’s as tautological as you get. You must be able to answer the following question in a few words: Why do people need your plan, and what is the opportunity it is solving for? Can you answer this? Most leaders cannot and, as a result, have no idea how big the opportunity gaps are let alone which ones need to be solved for first. That’s how companies end up solving for the wrong things at the wrong time – thus widening opportunity gaps
3. Solve for respect not recognition.
I find more companies using diversity and inclusion plans solely to get recognized on a top 100 diversity management list. We need to stop solving and looking for recognition and start thinking about and earning respect from the actual people in our workplaces and marketplaces – to give them influence over the growth of the company. Simply put, people invest in respect. Stop creating a bunch of programmatic initiatives to serve your company’s needs for compliance and start working to gain that respect by actually recognizing and listening to the people whose respect you want to earn and unique differences you desire to value.
4. Think mosaic not melting pot.
The days of taking a one-size-fits-all approach are over, never to exist again. Our goal as leaders is to convert the melting pot of differences into a mosaic that fuels strategies for growth, innovation, and opportunity to maximize the full potential of people, brands, and businesses. Diversity and inclusion must be about understanding your identity and the identities of all people. Only then can we be courageous enough to steer away from like-mindedness through assimilating people’s differences (melting pot) and towards like-mindedness through honoring those differences (mosaic). To do this, initiatives designed for “cultural competency” aren’t enough. Diversity and inclusion requires diverse and non-diverse leaders to work together to create a culture that embraces diversity of thought and deploys the required best practices, development tools, and resources to maximize talent engagement, advancement, workplace performance, and overall satisfaction.
How well do you practice diversity of thought? Take the following assessment and find out.
5. Move people to the center of your organization’s growth strategy.
When diversity and inclusion initiatives are weak, one-off tactical approaches without strategy or follow-up and little depth, the result is some initial success followed by an immediate flat line or regression. The work may have started with the best intentions –valuing individual listening to the unique needs of diverse populations—but once they see success, it’s not about inclusion anymore. It’s about just getting out there to sell, sell, sell. Leadership must support diverse populations – activating and leveraging their full potential – while avoiding any tension that may disrupt engagement, their overall performance, and thus growth. That’s what happens when you fail to operationalize diversity and inclusion by moving people to the center of your growth strategy – when all employees (not just diverse populations) are disconnected from being influential.
All that requires leaders to take ownership of an innovation mentality mindset. Growth strategies are becoming less about the business defining the individual and more about the individual defining the business. You can focus representation, reputation management, and abide by the right metrics, but without thinking about individuals you were thinking about the business defining the individual, not the individual defining the business. Through the innovation mentality, we embrace the transparency, trust, individuality, risk, social responsibility, entrepreneurial mindset, passion, and promise to be a community-minded leader in the workplace, and much, much more.