Despite greater awareness surrounding the benefits of diverse leadership -- including increased creativity and innovation -- women, people of color, people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ individuals are still absent from the majority of executive-level positions. More and more companies are trying to change that by looking inward. 

Building diversity and inclusion into a company culture begins with a lot of abstract ideas. Leaders must be acutely aware of the implicit ways they make decisions or assumptions to become more self-aware, empathetic and humble. But while these are essential steps, they can seem intangible to business leaders who are used to concrete plans and hard numbers.

In order to learn about actionable changes executives can make today to prioritize diversity and inclusion in their companies, I spoke with Cara Pelletier, director of diversity, equality and belonging for HR technology provider Ultimate Software.

Pelletier shared about the powerful concept of "allyship" as an important tool in diversity and inclusion efforts. Since allies recognize the oppression of underrepresented groups and support efforts to promote inclusion, executive allies lend this support from positions of power in an organization, which is key.

Pelletier has learned that executive allyship is essential to help to expand Ultimate's diversity initiatives.

"Allyship has become somewhat of a controversial subject as people debate the line between aid and appropriation," she says, "but executives and the more privileged individuals who hold the power need to be part of the solution." There are ways leadership can be involved "by advocating with employees without speaking for them."

How to Be An Effective Ally

Before leaders implement new D&I initiatives, it's important to have an understanding of what positive allyship is and isn't. "Allyship should never be about exploitation or speaking for a group that you aren't a part of," explains Pelletier. "Instead, it's about using your power to create space for underrepresented groups and then stepping back and letting them inhabit and run that space."

From there, specific initiatives and practices can help weave empathy and empowerment into the workplace. 

1. Reframe the message.

Companies should consider the way they talk about inclusion to make sure they're encouraging everyone to be part of the solution. For example, Ultimate Software uses the term "belonging" instead of "inclusion."

"There is an important difference between inclusion and belonging. While inclusion implies that you have to be invited, belonging happens when your authentic self is welcomed and celebrated," says Pelletier. While it seems like a small change, she explains that it can help open up these conversations to anyone who is interested in affecting change. 

Reframing can help to engage executive leaders who have the power to amplify the voices of those who are typically underrepresented and enact change in an organization.

2. Encourage communities of interest.

Communities of interest are employee resource groups that give members of an underrepresented group the time and space to discuss their experiences with support from the organization.

But the job of organizing them and communicating their work to the wider company shouldn't fall only on underrepresented groups, says Pelletier. "It works well when each of these groups has an executive sponsor who helps establish it, provides a budget and then empowers employees to lead from there."

3. Demonstrate meaningful commitment from leadership.

Change starts at the top. Leadership -- including founders and CEOs -- sets the tone for the entire organization. This is especially true when it comes to building a more inclusive workplace.

When CEOs make a vocal commitment to value diversity and encourage open conversation, it can encourage meaningful change at all levels. "Whether it's sending a company-wide email, supporting unconscious bias training or taking a pledge through an organization like CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, these steps can rally the company around a shared focus," says Pelletier. 

4. Move beyond "check the box" D&I conversations.

Diversity and inclusion conversations must transcend routine "check the box" initiatives that limit them to a quarterly all-hands update or an annual workshop. It's important to expand the number of places where inclusion can be discussed to help these conversations exist outside of their normal silos.

"It's not about forcing employees to have these conversations at work, but instead creating that space where underrepresented groups can share their experiences organically and other employees can listen," says Pelletier.

Create room in ongoing meetings, newsletters or other methods of communication for diversity and inclusion concerns or initiatives to be heard if needed, without mandating it.

As companies look for new ways to start these important conversations and answer questions, they must always keep the larger goal in mind. Diversity and inclusion initiatives should ultimately be about creating safe spaces for those who need it and then stepping back to listen to their experiences and amplifying their voices in their own words.

And above all, these efforts must receive support from a company's leaders and decision-makers, says Pelletier. "Real, sustainable change can happen in an organization when passionate people engage with allies and leaders."