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Surviving and Thriving in a Season of Great Uncertainty and Great Opportunity

  • July 17, 2013

by Andrés T. Tapia – Business people standing on stairs

As I have been travelling around the U.S. and the world and engaging with many of you over dinners, conference interactions, consulting engagements, or wind downs over coffee, martinis, or pisco sours, it’s clear that we are all in a moment of great anticipation as well as angst in the diversity and inclusion field.

Many of our conversations have focused on how, for the last few years, in a celebrated way, the field has been undergoing transformative changes. A generation of pioneering leaders is retiring and moving on. A new generation with new voices is rising. What diversity and inclusion means is morphing real time. More and more companies, not-for-profits, and governmental agencies are pursuing diversity and inclusion as never before.

It’s indeed a time of great vitality and verve for the D&I field. But with these changes, diversity is encountering a paradoxical dynamic that can be best summed up in this royal way: “Diversity is dead. Long live diversity!”

Here’s how this is playing out. As more and more companies are declaring how important it is to address diversity, at the same time, like in other parts of business, diversity budgets aren’t growing or are being cut. This puts diversity and inclusion in a conundrum of having greater visibility, greater expectations, greater accountability—and fewer resources. As a result, diversity leaders are betwixt and between. There’s pride, and at times even euphoria, about the fact that the message is getting across that diversity is vital to the business. But that sugar high irrevocably preordains the sudden emotional crash that follows of “how are we going to get the work done?” How can we create a sustainable path?

Unprecedented complexity reigns in today’s diversity work. Thanks to our success in making the case that it’s not all just about race and gender but so many other diversity dimensions, we’re now headed down the path of diversity of one. We have, in addition, made the sale that it’s about a marketplace that is vastly diverse and global, clamoring for new types of products, services and ways of marketing and supporting them and that D&I has answers to those challenges and opportunities. And now we are even engaging in deeper work about how the success of operational strategies such as mergers and acquisitions, offshoring, regionalization, and globalization are also highly dependent on the internalization and application of D&I strategies and crosscultural dexterity and competence.

Our increasing success in making the case has taken us to a more complex field of uncertainty, in some ways of our own doing, about how to deliver the best strategies and solutions. In this our own competence gets tested because we now have been given the responsibility of handling the very things we had clamored for but really haven’t had to do before. It’s too late to heed the warning of be careful what you ask for. It’s now in our hands and we can’t give it back.

So, what’s the way forward? Here are six things you can do right now:

1. Collectively acknowledge the pain and uncertainty and then imagine the possibilities. One of the advantages of Diversity Best Practices’ conferences and networking opportunities is the chance to talk about this—about what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling. It’s therapeutic to lean on the community to share how you’re feeling and why. And then dream together.

2. Learn how to develop the key competencies of Next Generation Diversity. At DBP, we’ve been trumpeting the eight competencies that we believe are more important than ever for diversity practitioners to be able to lead in this new era. In particular, I encourage you to pay attention to the competency of influence. As quickly as you can, learn the skills and behaviors you need to develop to be influential.

We used to equate power and authority with the size of our budget and whether our teams were growing. Now, power comes through the ability to influence others to do what they would not have otherwise done were it not for our ability to see what’s in it for them in supporting D&I. This kind of influence increases the challenge of protecting your budget from crazy cuts as well as to more creatively to tap into other departments’ budgets to remain strong and healthy.

3. Develop an alliance mentality inside your organization. This is a specific way to be more influential. Determine how you can be of value to other departments, such as HR, research and development, and marketing. And I don’t mean just telling them what they need to do. Look at what they’ve already committed to doing and identify how diversity and inclusion can help them achieve these goals. By doing this, you can get the kind of executive support from the lines of business and support functions that will allow you to partner with them to tap into their resources to do the work that is beneficial to them.

4. Hone your position as a thought leader. In this really dynamic field of diversity and inclusion, where the best practices are getting calcified and there’s an urgent push to shape the next practices, new thinking is what is getting noticed in a corporate world that is rushing at a break-neck, Mach-speed pace. And this new thinking doesn’t necessarily have to be complex and deep. People clamor for clarity. They are looking for insight and wisdom that will lead to high-impact, simple, and actionable solutions. You need to provide this.

5. Sharpen your story-telling ability. Even as measurable accountabilities rise, don’t get so bogged down by the detailed PowerPoint that you miss the human aspect of this work. Float above it and discover the compelling story. In fact, data-grounded stories are the most powerful. Scan those rows and columns of numbers and see what storyline floats up connecting seemingly unrelated findings. Tell the story of what your organization can be if you really invest in diversity.

6. Become a Diversity Best Practices member and make the most of your membership. Our member conferences have become true, interdisciplinary learning communities of knowledge sharing and knowledge creation. Hold discussion groups around our thought-provoking white papers. Turn tough questions asked of you by executives and leaders into research topics our team can look into for you as part of your 30 hours of research.

DBP’s membership is geared toward helping you survive and thrive in these turbulent times. Membership is also not just for you, but also for a range of people across your organization. Forward-thinking member companies are already doing this and extending their impact within their organizations. It’s a simple and compelling value proposition: someone else is designing, developing, and delivering high-impact, world-class events and publications for you. You just need to show up and/or send those you want to influence.

The challenges we’re currently facing are not insurmountable. In fact, they present unprecedented opportunities. Together, as a community of diversity practitioners, we can learn and grow along the six ways outlined here—and as we do take our organizations into next generation diversity and inclusion.

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