During the intensity of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and subsequent focus on equity within corporate America, I, like many white business leaders, found myself grappling with a personal reckoning. Two years later, I'm still very much in the throes of this. But one thing I know for sure: Upholding diversity, equity, and inclusion is a life's work.
In business, we often focus on actions at the organizational level, and this makes sense -- it is a sure way to affect progress throughout the company. But often overlooked is action and ownership at the team and individual levels.
There is a comfort in acting at the systemic level, in adopting policies and processes crafted by multiple hands. Such actions are important, but they're not the only ones that matter. Attention and investment in enterprise-level progress is really the minimum amount of engagement, and what sometimes feels harder is the individual introspection and growth necessary to become a DEI-focused leader.
When faced with this complicated task, I have observed even the most compassionate, brilliant minds fall prey to paralysis. Leaders get mired down by fear: of coming across wrong, of seeming ignorant or worse, of revealing mistakes or missteps. I've seen it in colleagues and clients, and I've felt it myself. The fear can make personal action feel risky and daunting. Especially with a heavy workload, it's tempting to think that contribution to organizational DEI goals is enough.
In reality, personal action doesn't have to be highly visible, or warrant an all-company announcement. It can constitute checking in on a team member. Or showing up with more vulnerability. Or taking the time to read and comment on an article shared in Slack. Or admitting you have a blind spot. Personal action is everyday action.
I'm constantly reminding myself and my clients of four fundamental ideas to hold top of mind when putting in the personal work of DEI.
Listen to be changed.
The more you engage in this work, the more you find yourself in increasingly difficult discussions. Even the best listeners might fall prey to listening to change others, feeling we are right, and needing to build the case for those around us to see the light. And that feeling is compounded when the conversation feels personal, and is an attack on who you are. If we choose to take on a beginner's mindset, the fear of being called out starts to feel less like a personal attack and more like a natural progression of our own learning journey. We all have blind spots. When I feel my defensiveness and pride rising, I try to refocus myself on what I'm hearing rather than how to reply, and take the time and due diligence to process thoughtfully. Not every conversation has to result in agreement in order to move forward in a productive way.
Identify root causes.
To do the work of making an organization equitable is to understand how nuanced and interdependent matters of DEI are, and to address them with a granular focus. What good is a diverse staff if unique, divergent perspectives are not welcomed? What good are hiring metrics if retention rates are dismal? A good starting place is to consider the organic community structures (such as unofficial employee resource groups) that have sprung up, and what they suggest for the support employees may need from the organization. Finding new ways to look at data can also help -- such as themes across exit interviews, or pay disparity beyond gender.
Focus on impact, not just intention.
Assuming positive intent is a fundamental principle in building a more inclusive culture. And yet, it's not enough to have good intentions, not enough for your heart to be in the right place. The impact of our actions on the individuals we intended them for is the best measure of success. If we follow the platinum rule of treating others the way they want to be treated, the only way to know how to treat others is to ask them. Missteps and mistakes are unavoidable, even if we mean well. By building up our resilience to discomfort, we can learn to focus outward on the people we are interacting with, versus inward on our bruised egos.
Remember there is no end point to this work.
The pressure to make visible progress on DEI has led many leaders to take swift actions that might look good in the moment -- publishing bold statements of commitment to racial equity, creating new positions to hire in and promote people of color, requiring unconscious bias training -- but could have negative consequences if it's treated as a check-the-box exercise. While setting and meeting goals is an important way to measure progress and stay motivated, this work is not just a "this year" priority that then gets delegated to HR. Leaders who care -- truly care -- make diversity, equity, and inclusion a critical lens through which to view the world. These leaders do the hard, uncomfortable work of becoming a better leader every day, not to hit a certain goal, but to fundamentally change how they navigate the world -- and to make a dent in changing it.
That's walking the walk. And every day, we have the chance to take another step forward.