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The past two years have been rife with necessary and uncomfortable conversations about race, class, values, gender and so much more. In business, some people have shied away from engaging, while others have jumped into these discussions, to their great advantage.
In many ways, the success of a company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion can be measured by the level of discomfort in board rooms and across the C-suite.
Uncertainty on faces around the senior leadership table. Deep breaths taken in reaction to the challenge of upending “business as usual.” The twitch on a colleague’s face that only appears when one’s deeply held sense of what is orderly has been threatened.
These are the hallmarks of an organization on a productive path to meaningfully improving equity, diversity and inclusion across its workplace. As is the case with business growth, satisfaction is an impediment to progress in the context of diversity and inclusion. Discomfort is how you know you are on the right path.
Business success is traditionally seen through the lens of successfully meeting targets, driving market share and revenue growth. EDI can be measured in the same way, but, unlike revenue growth, EDI efforts take time and may not be immediately reflected in quarterly results. That means two things: traditional indicators of success are not enough, and EDI must be understood as a long-term strategic bet — a unique facet of corporate strategy, one that can provide enormous, if not immediate, advantage.
How does a company consistently embrace discomfort and sustain efforts aimed at EDI when there may not be any quick, bottom-line payback?
The answer lies in a marriage of effective strategy and governance.
- It starts at the top. Board chairs and CEOs must create an environment of psychological safety where difficult and “wicked” questions can be asked and answered. How has the company benefited from colonialism? How does the current revenue model rely on equity gaps? Where does the company’s narrative about itself diverge from the realities of how people are hired and promoted within the organization?
Members of these tables who are not white, straight and male must be able to share their experiences that challenge a company’s record — and do so without being met with counterarguments, explanations or apologies. Sometimes, an outside facilitator is needed to keep the discussion moving and honest.
- Don’t guess. Data and research play a crucial role. A company’s workforce, supplier and customer census data need to be a part of the conversation to ensure the realities of the current situation are properly understood.
It can also be productive to bring in speakers to share experiences and perspectives that are otherwise unrepresented. For example, few companies have many people with disabilities in the ranks of their senior leadership teams or among their directors, yet 22 per cent of Canada’s population aged 15 and over identify as having a disability. The actual number is believed to be even higher. Is your company serving this population well and are you learning from their customer and employment experiences? Do you even know?
Beyond simply being an input for strategic planning, this data is a means to address immediate gaps in the diversity of C-suite perspectives compared to those of customers, employees and other stakeholders. Though not as effective as hearing from a diverse and fully inclusive team, having research data that reflects these otherwise missing experiences, and measuring the equity gaps from all levels of an organization, can inform meaningful targets and adequate plans to meet them.
- Write it down. Success of any kind is never achieved without sound strategy reflected in a written plan. The same holds true when it comes to improving diversity and inclusion. Stand-alone pledges and commitments made in the moment typically lack good grounding in corporate strategy, as well as the necessary resources. It is the deep roots of diversity and inclusion reflected in the company’s strategic plan that bear fruit.
Whether in the middle of a multi-year plan or at the outset of a strategic planning cycle, diversity and inclusion must be embedded in the company’s core success strategies, whether the pillar is focused on growth, quality or resilience. A strategic plan will only be revisited or include diversity targets with determined leadership. After nearly two years of hard pivots demanded by a public health emergency, companies have the bandwidth and know-how to accommodate new demands placed on performance, with strong leadership at the helm.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that there is no uniform experience of anything. Even a virus with no understanding of human differences impacts people dissimilarly. The pandemic has also revealed that the best disaster planning begins and ends with building up an organization’s resilience. Preparedness informed by our experience with SARS in 2002 only went so far in 2021. The climate events of today are not predictors of the climate events of tomorrow. And it’s impossible to predict what other high-consequence, low-probability black swan event may swim our way.
Ultimately, businesses that choose to pursue meaningful progress on EDI and are deliberate about it are the ones that will succeed. If a business is going to serve the largest consumer base possible, attract the best talent, minimize its burden on society and the planet, and succeed in the face of dynamic and unpredictable threats, it will only do so with the widest range of perspectives available to it.
We find ourselves in a moment where our businesses require an all-hands-on-deck approach to EDI and where far too many vital perspectives are still excluded. Yet the leaders of many organizations opt for the path of least resistance, shrinking away from discomfort in the belief that difficult conversations are an unfortunate byproduct, rather than a marker of progress, on EDI. These leaders are missing the point.
The enormity of this challenge and its disruptiveness should make you feel uncomfortable. It’s an indication you fully appreciate the extent of the changes required and the opportunities that lie ahead.
Keep your pride in progress close but keep your feelings of discomfort closer.