During my time with The BlackNorth Initiative as the volunteer lead of the working engagement group, I met with and supported over 100 companies at the start of their journey towards ending anti-Black systemic racism. The murder of George Floyd had galvanized the global community to act on the injustice and imbalance in society and the workplace.
Each of the companies I worked with had signed a pledge to deliver on commitments designed to build a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture within their organizations. Many of the organizations, from large corporations to small start-ups in the private and public sectors, as well as not-for-profits and charities, were launching diversity, equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs for the first time. Together, we worked through a wide range of issues, challenges, and strategies to help them successfully navigate this new and complex process.
As the CEO of Achēv, I have continued to engage organizations and support their DEI initiatives. We have also launched our own DEI initiative at Achēv, and I am personally committed to building an inclusive culture where everyone feels they belong.
I would like to share a few things I have learned through my journey over the last few years.
1. Your first step is the right step.
This is a journey, and getting started is what really counts. You are likely doing this for the first time, so you might not get it right. What is important is moving forward. If you have a misstep, acknowledge it, learn from it, and move on.
2. Leaders need to lead.
To have the desired impact, this cannot just be an HR program. It must be a priority for the CEO if it is going to work. “Tone from the top”, as they say. Everyone, at every level, needs to see and feel the CEO’s commitment so it cascades throughout the organization.
3. It is about changing behaviours and how people use, or don’t use, their power.
Building an inclusive culture where everyone can belong requires behaviour changes at every level across an entire organization. This is particularly true for those with implicit and explicit positions of power and authority. These are the positions where behaviours will be closely examined, and can make the biggest impact – everyone needs to be engaged and on side.
4. Recognize this process for what it is – a transformation.
Creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture is a transformation, not simply a project with deliverables to be checked off. Changing how an organization thinks and does business is not a small undertaking. It requires a change-management approach, and, like any transformation, it takes time, needs champions, engages everyone, celebrates small wins, adjusts as needed, and has a clearly articulated vision for the future.
5. What gets measured, gets done.
Every organization I have worked with on DEI struggles with the topic of measurement. What do we measure? How do we measure? When do we measure? These are all common questions.
I give everyone the same advice – first you need to understand where you are today, before you can set your goals for tomorrow. Consider starting with a demographics survey – ask about specific characteristics, such as age, gender, sexual orientation, languages, cultural heritage, religion, and disabilities. It must be anonymous and results should only be shared on the aggregate data.
With that data, you can make decisions about what areas you want to focus on, and set some goals. I would urge you to consider engaging staff in these discussions. This will help you understand what matters to your employees, and what can be achieved.
And don’t be too hard on yourself – the first survey may not have a strong response rate. This is not unusual, and the response rate will increase each time you do it – provided staff feel safe in sharing the information, and they understand how it will be used.
Part of understanding where you are is not only captured through a demographic survey. You need to really understand what is happening across the organization – what does the staff experiencing looks like, what challenges and barriers are they experiencing, and where are things working.
To capture this information, focus groups or listening events across your organization can provide powerful feedback, and a great way to engage staff directly. To get the most out of these sessions, “safe spaces,” where employees feel comfortable to share, need to be created. These can be emotional discussions, and are best facilitated by a third party who knows how to handle these types of situations. Like the survey results, information should be collected and specific comments kept anonymous. Management needs to hear the results to inform key decisions, but it is essential that privacy is protected.
One last word of advice on listening. You need to be prepared to hear things that might challenge your understanding and beliefs about the culture of your organization. As a leader or people manager, it can be hard to come to terms with the realities of people’s experiences when they don’t match your own. But, it is a key step in the journey. You can’t fix something if you don’t know where it’s broken.
I know it isn’t always easy to know the right thing to do or where to start. Achēv is here to help. We offer inclusion and belonging training, and can facilitate listening events or focus groups. Please reach out if we can be of assistance.
Remember, the most important step is the first step.