How Leaders Can Lay the Foundation for Diversity

Tamika Edwards Commentary

How Leaders Can Lay the Foundation for Diversity

In May 2020, the world witnessed the brutal murder of George Floyd. His death amplified a call for transparency and accountability in policing, laid bare an uncomfortable history of racial injustice in the United States and forced for-profit and nonprofit business leaders to examine the policies, procedures or unwritten rules that contribute to an organization’s inequitable practices.

With a bias for action, many leaders released internal and public statements condemning inequitable treatment and vowing to make changes. They also hired consultants to provide mandatory diversity training or created diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) roles within their organizations. And while some leaders made substantive steps toward more diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations, others did not move past their initial statements. They were stuck.

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As a justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) professional, I’ve talked with several for-profit and nonprofit leaders who want to get unstuck. They admit that the task overwhelms them and simply do not know where to start. Others receive so much pushback from their colleagues that they don’t want to bother. Some have asked for a step-by-step process to help them “fix” their organizations. There is not one. And really, that’s best. Because each organization is unique in its people, culture and history, a cookie-cutter plan hampers true, lasting change. And although there are no hard-and-fast rules, there is one universal truth when it comes to incorporating DEI throughout an organization: Leadership matters.

Leaders set the tone and inform the organization’s culture. Without emotionally intelligent and supportive leaders, it is impossible to embed DEI principles organization-wide. A diverse representation in the boardroom can make positive shifts within organizations because new perspectives provide a new way of solving problems.

Organizational psychologist and board consultant JoAnn McNutt says, “Diversity is about places, faces and voices. Having all three helps you mimic society and those you serve.” If organizations are serious about creating better representation on boards of directors, the following principles and practices will help leaders lay the proper foundation.

► Know your why. Many leaders set out to add racial and gender diversity because it looks good for the board. But without a clear understanding and strategic focus on why diverse representation is necessary for your board, adding racial and gender diversity is simply checking the box and tokenism. Instead, make sure you articulate your why and how diversity provides the creative friction you need to advance your mission.

► Intentionally expand your network. Does your network look like you? If not exactly like you, do you find yourself referring the same handful of people for every “diverse” position? If so, you should be intentional about expanding your network. How do you do that? See the next practice.

► Educate yourself. It is fine to ask others for help in navigating the DEI space, but you too have a responsibility to educate yourself. Educating yourself demonstrates that you genuinely care about moving the work forward and are invested in seeing it through.

► Seek constructive feedback. Emotionally intelligent leaders seek constructive feedback. The feedback allows them to course correct or dig deeper. This work is challenging because it reveals uncomfortable truths about ourselves. We thought we were the “good” ones, right? Reflect on feedback and do not personalize it. Grow from it.

► Acknowledge that embedding DEI is a shift and not a fix. When you incorporate DEI into every aspect of your organization, you are shifting an organization’s culture. That culture is made up of traditions and unwritten rules. Those behaviors and norms will not change overnight. You must do the work to make the shift. There will be times that it seems like nothing is happening. Stay the course. Be consistent. Be transparent and ...

► Hold yourself and other board leaders accountable. Define what accountability means for your organization. Do what you say you’re going to do. When you don’t do it, admit it and take steps to correct it. Be a part of the solution.

Tamika S. Edwards is special adviser to the CEO on diversity, equity, inclusion and engagement at Central Arkansas Water. She has more than 21 years of experience in social justice, public policy, government and community outreach.