Inspiring Leadership with Diversity, Inclusion & Cultural Competence

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Reward without the Risk: Why Some are Disillusioned About Diversity & Inclusion

By Leah Smiley

Over the last couple of weeks, I spoke with two different organizations who were embarking on a diversity journey. In both cases, I alerted the teams about the risks of diversity and inclusion– not from the perspective of forgoing to implement a strategy, but from the vantage point of exercising caution during execution.

You see, everyone gets excited about the benefits, or rewards, that can be reaped from diversity and inclusion. You can satisfy different constituent groups, enter new markets, increase revenues, outperform your competitors, reduce the potential for lawsuits, increase innovation, improve teamwork and synergy, and much more. However, there’s a catch. In the words of Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, “It is better to first get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats, and then figure out where to drive.”

We are learning that race or gender alone (i.e., because someone is black or a woman) is not a good indicator as to whether this individual will serve as a great Chief Diversity Officer. One needs to lead with knowledge of the organizational culture and goals, as well as understand standard business practices, industry trends, data, laws, and other dimensions of diversity. They must also be skilled at getting people to buy into the business case, and helping managers to adjust their objectives to achieve diverse and inclusive goals. Accordingly, one’s passion for diversity has to go beyond desiring fairness and equity toward getting strategic organizational outcomes.

While I hate to sound like the negative nanny, the reality is that there are a lot of risks involved while implementing diversity and inclusion efforts. For instance, you can have a:

  • Facial policy. This is where it appears that you value diversity because you have a diversity officer, statements and policies about diversity, but underneath the surface, there is no real effort or commitment toward achieving parity and inclusion for all. Your organization is still getting sued for ridiculous stuff, and the blame (for why things aren’t working) is passed around.
  • Disjointed effort. This is where everyone does their own thing. You have a disability unit, Affirmative Action officer, multicultural marketing unit, legal department, supplier diversity officer and more, but nothing is coordinated and turf wars are customary.
  • Slow moving machine. This is where staff or leadership changes result in a set-back for your effort. It can also occur when the planning team takes too long to develop a plan or the plan is so big that no progress is ever made toward accomplishing the goals.

Meanwhile, these efforts are wasting resources:  Time, Treasury and Talent. Additionally, employees and managers are becoming disillusioned about the benefits of diversity and inclusion.

So how do you really get the rewards? First, you need to assess what’s not working and what is working. Second, ask your employees, suppliers and partners for their input. Find out what they hear firsthand from customers/students and competitors. Third, engage leadership in creating new ideas. Present your findings one person at a time. Get their input. Then adjust your new diversity strategy to exploit opportunities. Make sure the goals are easily obtainable. Fourth, communicate the changes in direction to key stakeholders but share successes with all employees. Fifth, assess your progress in 6-months and again, in one year.

It’s OK to say that things aren’t working. The key is not to become immobilized because of this fact; take action– decisive, strategic and immediate action.


By Leah Smiley, President of the Society for Diversity. For more information about the Society for Diversity, the #1 professional association for diversity and inclusion, log onto

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