Diversity Intelligence - The Next Level is Here

The word "Diversity" has been used and sometimes overused without definition or explanation. It is the unfortunate side effect of the lack of understanding, funding, implementation, legislation, and practice that came with Affirmative Action. Yes that AA word that gives many people bad vibes and yet most can't explain what is Affirmative Action. Advocates for Diversity have largely struggled with gaining agreement on improved employee practices when in fact the last iteration of this movement - Affirmative Action had been so poorly mishandled and misunderstood.

Affirmative Action was a great start.

In 2018, writer Hua Hsu wrote an eloquent article in the New Yorker titled, "The Rise and Fall of Affirmative Action. In this piece Hsu points out that, "Affirmative Action has never been adequately defined." The framework of Affirmative Action can be seen in U.S. history shortly after the great depression in the early 1930s as President Franklin D. Roosevelt crafted "The New Deal". Policy began reflecting the ideas of equity in employment as early as 1935 in the terminology of the National Labor Relations Act.  Yes in 1935 when the U.S. was segregated and not motivated to make sweeping changes, laws began documenting equity in employment. Many (and some would argue most) organizations failed to comply with the NLR Act of 1935. As life would continue to happen in the U.S. - WWII, the Cold War, and the rise of Civil Rights advocacy, employment expectations, needs, and demands changed. 

The Civil Rights movement collided with the times and inequality was being addressed in classrooms, healthcare, and beyond. While many physically fought the changes, as R&B recording artist Sam Cooke promised in 1964, "A Change is Gonna Come" and it did. With progress comes penalty; with growth, there are growing pains. The changes happened but without unified ideas about the changes, Affirmative Action took a hit. What was meant to serve as a policy of inclusion at all levels of employment from hiring practices, to employee development and opportunities, became the scapegoat for employment/organizational failures disconnected to Affirmative Action. 

The Misnomer about Affirmative Action
Affirmative Action was largely thought to be an employment practice (or in the case of education, in the application process) of either lowering the standards of admissions or acceptance for people of color. Additionally it was largely thought that Affirmative Action overlooked qualified white applicants to give without merit opportunities to people of color. It hurts me to write those myths because in my own research through the years, the ideas about what Affirmative Action is and isn't haven't shifted much. We have become victims of bad definitions and implementations of change.

Retiring Affirmative Action
I believe we should retire Affirmative Action - it's a vehicle that came off the assembly line in the 1960s - and that car has died on us too many times. There is better knowledge, technology, needs out there that the 1960s model cannot address. In 2019, a 1960s model won't work. I hope however that I can convince you that a 2019 model for equity and inclusion is needed.

What Inspires Socioeconomic Models
In times of civil unrest it has become a natural reaction to address the shortcomings of our present existence. Affirmative Action sought to address racial inequality seen at various levels of society - in education, employment, housing, healthcare, etc. Leaders (both big and small) recognized that our past created an imbalance for all people. The imbalance of our past would serve to hinder our success moving forward as a nation. The United States cannot remain the strongest nation by working to destroy or degrade our own talent. It is ignorant and short-sighted to accept the talents and contributions from only one segment of the population in order to advance us all. Most people - especially our leaders understand that we cannot have succession planning when we've been suppressing people. 

The Mid 1990s
Another collision occurred in both the courtrooms and the board rooms - the rise of litigation that challenged employment inequities and practices in the United States. Large corporations became the targets in courtrooms and society took note. The rise of the new terminology of Diversity and Inclusion became new "corporate speak". Unfortunately it was used like Affirmative Action to address a society collision and was not explained well. 

I'm As Guilty As Everyone Else
I jumped into the fray in the late 1990s with all of my fireball energy resigned to influence change. In retrospect, the fatal flaw in my fervor was not stopping to gain agreement of what is and is not Diversity & Inclusion. I had this perfect idea in my head that I thought everyone could see and that everyone would buy into to. I, along with many of my colleagues have never been more wrong. What follows are my lessons of D&I and what I hope will be the start of a dialogue along these ideas.

D&I is not The Answer, but it is the Truth
If you're a basketball player you know that Allen Iverson was deemed "The Answer" and Paul Pierce was famously nicknamed by Shaquille O'Neal as "The Truth". I make this basketball analogy for one very important reason - both players were electric and important to the game - but in the case of Paul Pierce, he was a force that provided the best fit for his team to win a championship. The now Dr. Shaquille O'Neal has commented several times about the reason he named Pierce "The Truth" and it was for his ability to produce, lead, and accomplish the biggest goals. That's where Diversity & Inclusion hits a crossroad with the path to take - or should I say several paths. Often times without gained agreement, a D&I practitioner endeavors to trailblaze their ideas about D&I. Gaining agreement about the right solutions, hence the right ways to apply D&I in an organization is the fundamental first step in the beginning. 

You Can't PowerPoint People Into Changing
Fortunately and unfortunately the rise of technology gave people the power of the presentation pen in the form of MS PowerPoint. Yes people began getting their points across in a ton of wordy slides that for the most part weren't even aesthetically pleasing. Leading a D&I change initiative takes many skills. Most will tell you it's communication. As a degreed professional, I will tell you it takes an educator influence to communicate change. Thank goodness we didn't PowerPoint students K-12 to death while teaching them fundamentals. A slide presentation (no matter how pretty it is) cannot influence a change initiative. The first big mistake - allowing D&I professionals to poorly implement new ideas about D&I through ineffective methods. One of the first tasks I did as a Diversity Consultant in the early 2000s was to help a company ditch the slides. Change initiatives require education not stand alone persuasion.

How You Budget is How You'll Prioritize
If you've ever been in a board room while a company's largest initiative for the year is being discussed, you know the largest investments attract the largest amount of resources. 

A Diversity & Inclusion initiative impacts the company horizontally, not vertically.

Somehow D&I budgets are applied vertically, however the work is expected horizontally. How does that work? It bears repeating in a different way.

Many companies budget D&I as an expense without a return (an expense of doing business not connected directly to a product or service) and then tout high expectations for D&I to do what it is not financially positioned to do in the budget. My most favorite example is when I consulted with a company who was actually paying the VP of Diversity & Inclusion more than the budget allocation for the year. Yes you heard that right. The individual pocketed more money for being the VP then the company allocated for the other thousands of employees to benefit from D&I. Now doesn't that sound disingenuous!

The question of how much does it cost to implement a D&I change initiative will receive different answers depending on the company. Change initiatives are never a one size fits all concept. I will suggest that the person requesting the budget for D&I better have some experience with monetizing D&I at budget allocation time. Notice I didn't say calculating the costs. I went steps further to suggest that in D&I budgeting monetization must be articulated and rooted in the allocation.

Remember the past failures of Affirmative Action were to express the change initiative like we should do this because it's good (for goodness sake). D&I deserves more advanced thinking - the change initiative can become a profit center for the organization. This is not a new concept - it is actually asking talent to be at the center of the organization (regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual preference, etc.). Yet somehow we've lost the idea of finding and applying the best talent and have allowed the layers of misunderstanding associated with D&I initiatives to run the show. This is one concept that budgeting must get right.

Title with a Position
Another common practice during the rise of D&I was to assign a D&I leader who had very little influence in the organization. The worst travesty was giving an executive title to a person who did not have executive power. Sadly, some in that role failed to see the folly in the action. A C-suite role should be positioned and allowed to weigh in on executive decisions impacting the entire organization. The problem with some Chief Diversity Officers is that they had powerful titles, and powerless voices in the C-suite. That means the look of D&I priorities happened without the actual priority. We've been duped in many cases. And in many cases the duped D&I professionals didn't even see their misuse in the organization. No they ran around trying to PowerPoint people to death with D&I ideas; gave quotes for the media; attended all of the D&I related events to show a presence and they thought they were making a measurable difference. Watch out - I said measurable and therein lies the disconnect. Creating the look of an executive role equally positioned with other major functions of the organization like operations, finance, etc. did more harm to the organization - quietly.

Let's Talk Numbers
D&I is a horizontal function within an organization that when measured only looks at vertical outcomes in part of an organization. One of the greatest gifts of my doctoral program was Phillips ROI model that taught performance experts how to measure success beyond the surface. Let me be clear - most professionals that are good (to great) at measuring a change initiative's success do not work in corporate - they've gone into consulting. Most in-house employees do not know how to establish measurements for change initiatives.

You can only improve what you can measure.

The most compelling question I ask a D&I professional - how do you know you've made a (positive or negative) difference in your organization. Most point to anecdotal evidence of hiring stats. While those may be internal goals, how do those numbers impact the organization's goals? I've heard crickets so many times; they just don't have an answer. First let me say I believe it's great to interview and hire a more diverse workforce. But (and there's always a but) that's not enough to survive time. In time, those numbers don't matter if the company begins to fail at meeting their goals. When we fail to connect D&I outcomes with business outcomes we leave D&I programs vulnerable come budget time. I've never seen an allocation go to a department that cannot connect the financial need to the expected outcome. It just doesn't work that way. The CFO in the company thinks this way - and the D&I leader(s) better have a response.

Revisiting Horizontal Change
One of the toughest challenges in change initiatives is to impact organizational change. Diversity is rarely accepted as horizontal by virtue of budget allocations, activities, measurements for success, and leadership. Instead of asking the D&I initiative to be a change agent, we must require D&I to be a catalyst for a corporation's evolution. D&I can create a new beginning with future-thinking employees at all levels of an organization. D&I as the ability to advance ideas about products, services, customers, customer service, supply chain, and beyond. We do a disservice when we try to apply a layer of new ideas over the old thinking.

Rewiring the circuit board is what creates a new spark.

I've seen D&I implemented poorly and well in various parts of the globe. I'm proud to have taken part in the transformation of thinking about what D&I can do for an organization, employees, stakeholders, and customers. We are bigger than allowing a big idea to languish in a small pond. Diversity and Intelligence requires future thinking and resources to evolve to the next level. You can inspire evolution, or wait for revolution. Either way, the world will change. If you elect to participate in the change, evolution becomes a beautiful thing.

I've worked in this space for over 20 years in a variety of capacities. 

Mand: An utterance aimed at producing an effect or result.

We can demand, reprimand, and command a change initiative but that's not evolution, that is a pre-step of revolution. Change requires everyone and an expertise that many companies do not allow or allocate in the budget. It's time to get serious about D&I and how it can literally change the corporate life of a company. I'm proposing we take D&I to the next level - Diversity Intelligence. I would love to hear your thoughts. How has your company contributed to the future model of its corporate life?

1 comment

  • I got to re-read that about 10 more times, take notes and break down each paragraph, then get back with you.

    Great job. WHOOP

    Edward Tarlton

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