“You’ve got my support—whatever you need,” the CEO of the company proclaimed. That’s the sort of statement we would want to hear from a CEO—whatever the issue—right?
My heart sank; his newly appointed VP of Inclusion had just spent an hour taking the combined executive and senior management teams through her draft plan to advance the organization’s inclusion journey over the year. Her plan was impressive—it detailed how the company would form and charter employee resource groups, identify key performance indicators, and connect them to a thorough series of activities and events that would ensure that the company’s inclusion strategy would be woven into their existing overall objectives and plans. She spoke with grounded surety, beginning her presentation by saying, “What I am going to show you will only get better with your input. We need to create this plan together and there is no one way to get there. Each of us—each of you—needs to play a visible and distinct role in where we are going, and it’s up to you to choose how you will do that.”
So what was the problem? It was the CEO’s “whatever you need” comment. The VP of inclusion had just said, “Each of you needs to play a visible and distinct role…” Too often, “whatever you need…” is code for “I’m not sure what my role should be, so just tell me.”
C-suite players are sometimes unaware that their employees will scrutinize every action, word, and decision related to a company’s inclusion strategy. Seeing an executive support DEI&B is helpful, but not nearly as much as seeing them take a distinct, active role in leading the effort. When I heard CEOs make this kind of statement in the past, it usually meant that the person in the VP of Inclusion’s role would have to hold the CEO’s hands throughout the process, which is not ideal.
The CEO’s posture here should feel familiar to many of you, especially if you are a member of the dominant or insider group. Like this CEO, we’re sensitive enough to know that when it comes to DEI&B, we need to work with our colleagues from under-represented groups, and not take over the effort. We are also aware enough to know that there are things we don’t don’t see or experience in our workday worlds that our colleagues from other groups do experience, so we assume a more passive posture, hoping that doing so sends the right message.
Striking the right balance between naming and owning the organization’s commitment to DEI&B and lifting up and holding others accountable for their contribution to the effort can feel like threading a needle. When in doubt, choose ownership over “just tell me what to do…”
Share your expectations for achieving diversity representation goals, for example. Even better, re-formulate or expand your team in accordance with those goals, THEN invite others to do the same. More personally, accept the possibility that an element of unconscious bias may be at play in your thinking. When you discover those elements, talk about your discovery and what you will do about it.
Leading and sponsoring DEI&B is a leadership competency unlike any other. Acquiring the skill requires learning from the following experiences:
- Discovering our own (unconscious) mindsets: Examining one’s own lived experience when it comes to the messaging, socialization, and conditioning with respect to race, gender, sexual orientation, age, class, and ability. Each of us inherits programming—the issue isn’t if we have it but how it impacts our credibility as leaders.
- Misstepping: A developmental step in learning this leadership skill requires doing it wrong before knowing how to do it right. Once we become aware of our mindsets, we must practice catching ourselves reacting to a situation based on our conditioning in ways that are counter to our espoused DEI&B values. This takes insight and courage.
- Owning and Recovering: Learning to name our missteps and take steps to recover from them.
- Noticing and Intervening when others make similar missteps.
Here’s the catch—you can’t learn from an experience you don’t have. Notice if you have a tendency to not engage in some DEI&B activities because you don’t want to misstep. Step IN: leading in DEI&B doesn’t mean you have to do it perfectly. You will misstep, but when you do, own it and keep going.
We know how hard taking these sorts of risks can be, so we designed a special workshop on how to lead and sponsor DEI&B activities in your organizations. Our Leading and Sponsoring the DE&I Journey workshops—when delivered with teams of leaders all working in the same organization—can accelerate the experiential learning cycle and hyper-lift your organization’s engagement in the critical actions necessary to make the workplace an environment where everyone can thrive.
Effective DEI&B leaders don’t wait to do it perfectly; they take action and course correct as they go, humbly making amends and repairs when needed. Instead of asking, “Tell me what to do,” ask, “Do you have any feedback for me on my most recent DEI&B effort?”