Across America and around the globe, people of all different walks of life are mixing together. Even so, it still takes some finesse and deliberate choice to create an environment where everyone is welcome and heard. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Kelley Cornish, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at TD Bank, to dissect just what business leaders need to do to create an open, cohesive and innovative workspace.

Variety benefits business of any size

Executives and business leaders often rightly tout that diversity and inclusion brings more perspectives to the table, thereby helping with analysis, critical thinking and innovation. But Cornish asserts it also makes workers more engaged, which then leads to better communication and trust around sensitive topics. Plus, from the advocacy and outreach perspective, having a pronounced diversity and inclusion agenda from leadership helps attract talent. Younger generations, she says, are especially looking for organizations that "walk the walk".

Step 1: Give up the idea of doing it for protocol

According to Cornish, one of the biggest barriers to real diversity and inclusion work is the tendency to get stuck in compliance or "window dressing" mode--that is, you basically just try to make sure you've got people in place where they need to be, just for policy's sake. To take it to the next level, you have to treat diversity and inclusion as a strategic business imperative.

Step 2: Open your mind

Cornish says the speed of today's busy work culture prompts people to take the easy road and try to fill needs with people who have similar ways of thinking, looking for talent through people they already know. But even within homogeneous groups, you can work toward variety and accepting alternate points of view.

"We really encourage people to look around the table and see, is there healthy debate? Or do you have people around you agreeing with everything you say? If that's the case, that's not true leadership, [because] people are going to do what they think [the leader wants] them to do. And I don't think that's creating the best atmosphere for innovation, which in turn, does not drive business results as well as they could. At TD, we place the same value on delivering our success in the area of diversity and inclusion as we do with our strategic business objectives."

Cornish adds that, to bring more people into a group through more open-minded thinking, you usually have to have some sort of catalyst, whatever that might be.

Step 3: Get both the management and workforce on board with you.

"To get movement [on diversity and inclusion] quickly," says Cornish, "you really need for [support] to come from the top. [You need your CEO] to go out and make a declaration that, 'This is who we are, this is what we believe and this is how we will do business.' Simultaneously, you need the workforce to be able to mobilize and say, 'We support this, we support that, this is an area of work that I want to get involved with.'"

Step 3: Pick your people.

In some companies, Cornish says, employees will work on diversity and inclusion part time. That's problematic because, with their attention and resources divided, they often have difficulty getting the traction they need for real cultural change in and outside of the business. Additionally, legislation related to diversity and inclusion is fast-moving. Cornish advises selecting one or more experts who are dedicated to diversity and inclusion to stay on top of it all and get better results.

"You have to have someone, if you're a very small company, that has their eye on the different moving pieces around this whole platform of diversity and inclusion, and if you're a very large and mature organization, you definitely need a team of people that are dedicated to it. And when you have that team, they have to collaborate with the other parts of the business to make sure that you stay on top of being that best of the best organization around diversity and inclusion."

Step 4: Develop your policy/strategy.

Many companies resist working on diversity and inclusion because they think they have to start from scratch. But Cornish claims that, much of the time, companies actually have much of what they need to formulate good policy. They just need to flesh it out. For example, look at areas such as

  • EEO policy
  • Sexual harassment policy
  • How you allow people to be engaged in areas like volunteer programs
  • Employment engagement surveys
  • Hiring processes
  • Accommodations

However you develop your strategy, it should be comprehensive and measurable, including easy-to-understand action items.

Step 5: Encourage alliances.

"There is a push for different voices to be heard from different subgroups and different communities and different populations," Cornish says. "[At TD], we look for [people of various backgrounds] to have a voice, [and] for the voice that's speaking, we also look for allies from the other groups to really say, 'We're all one here. We're all going to come together.'

Experience is everything

Cornish's last piece of advice? Make the worker experience your priority.

"If you were to hire someone and have a conversation with them a year down the line, what would you want them to say about their experience with the organization? I really would challenge [leaders] to really think short-term and long-term about what they want their employee experience to be, and as they craft that vision, think very broadly about who the employee is."