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Today’s workplaces are focused on more than just the bottom line. Many employees, customers, and investors want to feel as though they are contributing to a socially responsible company. They want to feel included by the organization – and they understand that now is the right time to assess the ability of company leaders to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion in the organization.

With a brighter spotlight on DEI, company leaders should also reflect on their own abilities to guide this work, identify areas in which they need to improve, and prepare to lead the charge. Pause and reflect on the following five questions as you engage in DEI leadership at work.  

  1. Do you know your WHY for DEI?

Leaders should care about DEI, even after they leave work every day. You don’t have to identify as a member of an underrepresented community to have a compelling personal reason. You should ask yourself about your own DEI journey – and what it is in your personal life that drives you to want to do this work in your professional life. Consider how DEI fits into your personal values. Individuals authentically committed to this work are the ones interested in breaking out of homogeneous personal communities to build cross-cultural relationships and understand the experiences of people from different backgrounds.  

2. Are you comfortable talking about DEI issues?

It’s important to get comfortable with the idea of frequently communicating about DEI issues. Leaders are often so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they are paralyzed into ineffective communication around DEI. Do you usually keep DEI talks general and vague with your teams? Practice being as clear and specific as possible. Instead of saying “We need to increase diversity in our company,” try “We plan to increase representation of women directors and Black executives in our Los Angeles HQ office by doing these three things differently.” Remember, the only way to get more comfortable speaking about DEI is by building the necessary muscle. And don’t worry, no one has all the answers. Let your team know when you don’t know something, and then commit to learning more. The more you address these topics with a spirit of openness and growth, the more others will follow. You’ll find yourself uncomfortable at times, but lean into it and try the Harvard Business Review’s practical tips on talking about DEI.

3. How much time do you spend learning about current & historical social issues?

Deloitte research identified “cultural intelligence” as a signature trait of inclusive leadership. At a deeper level, inclusive leaders’ thirst for learning means that they are also motivated to deepen their cultural understanding. With the abundance of podcasts, books, and articles available, it’s easy to find information on most DEI topics. Instead of waiting for others to send resources – or leaning too heavily on the women, people of color, people with disabilities, and LGBT individuals in your workforce to educate you – doing a simple search can provide insight into the issues in your industry and your community. You’ll also discover ways in which other companies have made progress – or mistakes to learn from – along their DEI journey.

4. Are you willing to hold other leaders accountable for DEI progress and impact?

How do leaders in your organization challenge each other to make a bigger impact? It’s important to be able to ask critical questions of one another to ensure that DEI actions are focused on impact instead of intention. It’s imperative that the CEO frequently hold other executives accountable. This may include tying executive compensation to DEI results, as more companies have been saying they’ll do – but this is a very complex undertaking. The jury is still out on whether it’s effective, because you may not be able to accurately measure the ultimate goals of “inclusion” and good culture and decision-making. That said, it is important to set & communicate goals, and the near-term steps that each employee should take to achieve them. Get alignment first at the top, and then cascade those goals to middle managers and the entire organization.

5. Are you still asking for the business case for DEI to be made?

It’s important to identify the business case for DEI for your company early on, to communicate it, and then move along in your DEI journey. You will need to make ongoing reference to it in communications to employees, customers, investors, and other stakeholders – but it’s important to get past the point where leaders are still asking for the proof of DEI benefits. 

As you build your business case, remember that stating it from a purely financial point of view may communicate the idea that profit is the only lever that pushes your company into DEI work, and this message is likely to backfire. Instead, consider more than profit as you make your business case:

  • Draw on communities to define success.
  • Tie social capital to outcomes (e.g., lower employee turnover), not intentions.
  • Use different tactics to convince, such as focusing on culture and company values, and drawing on empathy instead of focusing on profit.
  • Bring in factors other than profit, such as reputation, community trust, a sustainable workforce, and longevity.
  • Use your business case as a powerful tool to defend DEI work.

The five questions outlined above are great to ask and reflect on in any stage of your DEI journey. With organizational leaders at the forefront of DEI work for their company, they should take a moment to answer these questions and help identify some areas of personal growth as they move their company forward.

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The Editor

Ngozi Okeh is an experienced leader with a history of driving efforts to conceptualize, define, assess and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as strategic business processes. Ngozi is currently the Director of DEI at a leading marketing technology company where she develops and executes enterprise-wide DEI initiatives through rigorous strategic planning efforts, community partnerships, leadership collaboration, strategy evaluation, and careful management of communication and buy-in as well as policies and procedures.  Previously, she worked at an independent mortgage bank, where… View Profile