The Need for DEI Leaders and Systematic Implementation

While many organizations have made sincere efforts and invested significant resources to bring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) into their workplaces, few, if any, have succeeded at making DEI stick. In their haste to demonstrate a commitment to diversity, most organizations neglect to educate themselves about the breadth of DEI and its impact upon the workplace, and society in general, forging ahead without a cohesive plan. The result is that their DEI initiatives don’t have a long-term impact on organizational culture or systemic change. 

For more than two decades, we have worked as employees of and outside advisors to organizations and DEI professionals, interacting with hundreds of individuals who work in the DEI Discipline. We have regularly engaged with board members, executives, managers, and Human Resources staff about DEI at their organization. Through our experience, we’ve identified the common cause that explains why most DEI initiatives don’t translate into sustainable systemic change: The failure of organizations to empower qualified internal DEI Leaders to lead them in the systematic implementation of a well-conceived DEI strategic plan.

Passion for DEI Isn’t Enough 

Countless members of the DEI Discipline have told us how ill-prepared they feel they are to undertake a role focused on DEI. Several previously held unrelated positions before management tapped them to lead diversity efforts across the entire organization. Often, they found that they didn’t have the relevant experience or training to do their job. With no one within the organization equipped to mentor them or provide practical guidance, they frequently found themselves overwhelmed and alone at sea.

Passion for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) is not enough to become an effective DEI Leader. DEI expertise by itself will not enable a DEI professional to lead their organization where they seek to take it. Even DEI professionals who are knowledgeable about the discipline often lack the Organizational Intelligence and experience to systematically carry out DEI initiatives to ensure that they last.

Employees responsible for an organization’s DEI efforts often are unable to articulate what is important to their organization.  Failure to align DEI practices with an organization’s mission and goals is the single greatest reason why DEI initiatives flounder, never reaching their real potential. A DEI Leader must be able to identify what the organization cares about and connect the dots so that its decision-makers can understand the value of DEI and how it enables successful achievement of organizational objectives. 

A DEI Leader must be able to identify what the organization cares about and connect the dots so that its decision-makers can understand the value of DEI.

Evolving an organization to weave DEI into its DNA is a step-by-step process, led by a skilled internal “DEI Leader,” who facilitates systemic and sustainable change organically. This is achieved by leveraging organizational intelligence to meet an organization where it is in its understanding of DEI and using the organization’s own words to accomplish the mission, vision, and purpose it has already adopted.    

Well-versed in the Systemic DEI process, qualified DEI Leaders understand their organization’s strategic plan. They know how to use a pragmatic, business-oriented strategy that meets those in power where they are and teaches them how to facilitate the changes necessary to enable the organization’s work environment to become one of equity and inclusiveness, consciously weaving the principles and practices of DEI into the fabric of the organization. 

A DEI Leader also approaches their role from a holistic perspective, viewing every aspect of their work broadly and strategically, considering the current and future impact on the entire organization.  They understand how to systematically implement sustainable solutions built upon DEI values and concepts that strengthen the organization for both the short and the long term. 

Systemic DEI Includes Carefully Sequencing Initiatives

 Organizations from Main Street to Wall Street had been under pressure from their stakeholders to demonstrate that they are committed to DEI. Recently, there has been increasing pushback against DEI initiatives and programs, particularly on the political front. Some programs have even been discontinued.

Still, many, though certainly not all, organizations have openly acknowledged the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Having “discovered” DEI, and anxious to prove that they support it, these organizations dive right in.  Rather than take the time to evaluate where they are and create a DEI strategy integrated into their overall planning, they prioritize actions that easily translate into something noticeable by the organization’s employees and other stakeholders. 

These organizations and their leaders demand highly visible “quick wins” and pick “low-hanging fruit.” Instead of creating a plan, they default to a “check the box” mentality, gravitating to “one-offs” like DEI awareness events or contributions to charitable causes linked to persons of color and other marginalized groups. 

The design and timing of DEI initiatives determine their success in becoming part of the organization’s DNA.

By proceeding without a coherent plan that the whole organization understands, this haphazard approach not only undermines the effectiveness of the organization’s DEI efforts but can damage its brand identity as well. When an organization is seen as emphasizing short-term actions, not genuine long-term improvement, employees, and other stakeholders question the organization’s sincerity about DEI, dismissing shallow one-offs as “performative DEI.” 

The objective of DEI is not to secure momentary recognition. It is to create a Culture of Belonging – an inclusive workplace environment where all employees feel they are part of something bigger than themselves and, therefore, recognize and are recognized by the rest of the organization as equals. 

The design and timing of DEI initiatives determine their success in becoming part of the organization’s DNA. If they are introduced prematurely, before the organization is ready, they won’t stick and may even weaken DEI efforts. And if initiatives are not sustainable, they eventually fall by the wayside.

Our experience teaches that a Systemic DEI approach that includes careful sequencing of sustainable initiatives is indispensable to evolving an organization’s environment to include fostering a Culture of Belonging.  Systemic DEI is the deliberate, organized, and sustained actions necessary to educate organizations about the more than 20 dimensions of Diversity, their value, and help them to identify and adopt behaviors and practices that (1) bring traditionally excluded individuals and groups into processes, activities, and decision/policy-making in a way that shares power and ensures equal access to opportunities and resources (Inclusion) and (2) ensures fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all while striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some individuals and groups (Equity).

It is time for a new way of thinking about DEI – a holistic approach that weaves the principles and practices of genuine equity into the fabric of an organization.

Most organizations that profess a commitment to DEI lack a holistic and systematic approach to achieving it. Or, if they do have a plan, it is ineffective because it is not organic, strategic, or cohesive. As a result, there is no real prospect of DEI ever becoming an integral part of the organization’s overall culture. 

Cultural evolution is nothing new. Many businesses have, for example, sought to integrate a genuine culture of safety or customer service into how they operate. When an organization decides to adopt specific attributes as part of its overall culture, it recognizes that this takes planning, and that change does not happen overnight. The same is true of embracing DEI to create a culture of Belonging.

Holistic DEI

It has been 60 years since the 1964 Civil Rights Act became law. Still, the United States has yet to deliver on its promise of equality for everyone. As a nation, we take three steps forward and two steps back, barely treading water in a river of societal unrest exacerbated by growing tension over what “equality” means and how it should be realized. 

While much has been written about DEI, too many publications present a “one size fits all” approach that fails to consider each organization’s unique history and character. It is time for a new way of thinking – a holistic process that weaves the principles and practices of genuine equity into the fabric of organizations across the country. Structural systemic change led by qualified DEI Leaders is the keystone to achieving America’s promise of genuine equality.