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  • October 6, 2023

DIVERSITY MEANS BUSINESS: Fully Positioning DE&I as an Enabler to Achieving Enterprise Priorities

Editors’ Note: This is Part 2 of a four-part article series on Diversity’s reckoning moment. In Part 1, “Diversity’s Moment of Truth: The Path Forward Requires Transformation,” I named three priorities we need to address. Each of the next three posts, starting with this one, addresses one of these priorities.

  • Tangibly demonstrate DE&I’s business relevance. (This post.)
  • Address structural inclusion while still addressing behavioral inclusion.
  • Discover the role of diverse and inclusive teams as the primary platform for DE&I optimization.

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The context changes, but my question to those who have asked for help in becoming more diverse, equitable, and inclusive always is the same:

So what if you become more diverse and inclusive?

The answers roll in: It’s about living our values. Attracting the best talent. Optimizing talent performance. Some eke out that it’s about innovation and matching their customer base.

We must do better, much better with the answer. Sure, there is the end in itself of DE&I: organizations should be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive on their own merits. Right thing to do, a healthy reflection of the world we live in, attract the best talent.

But as much as many of us wish this would, and should, be enough, in the business world DE&I needs to also be seen as a means to an end. In fact, even more so than an end in itself. The currency of business – unlike that of nonprofits, advocacy groups, government, and schools is profits. What gets funded with substance is what delivers on this. The rest is seen as extracurricular activities – fun, even meaningful, but not at the core of the organization’s attention and primary budgeting prioritization.

In the business world, as much as so many would want it to not be so, without a compelling So What answer, DE&I cannot become enduring. This is why when a movement against DE&I makes inroads, like is happening now, it becomes a potential existential crisis.

In the business world, as much as so many would want it to not be so, without a compelling So What answer, DE&I cannot become enduring.

The answer we must drive with compelling and irrefutable evidence is that greater diversity, equity, and inclusion will enable companies to meet many of the organization’s priority and urgent commercial goals and metrics tied to the selling of goods and services. This utilitarian answer worries many in the field.

Yet, it does not make the case for DE&I any less powerful than the one that it’s the right thing to do. Because the means to greater business results becomes the means for investing more in DE&I. With a business outcome-based rationale, the sheer volume of resources that can be put against advancing a more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and sustainable culture is massive.

The means to greater business results becomes the means for investing more in DE&I.

Missing the Mark on Motivating People to Save

I flash back to the time in the 2000s when I was the first ever Chief Diversity Officer at the human resources and employee benefits consultancy Hewitt Associates. At my very first presentation in front of the executive team, I had a standard, best practices printout of a PowerPoint deck on their chairs. I opened with, “What you see in that document has vitally important concepts and data for how based on our values, the organization is not, but can, become more diverse and inclusive.”

As they started to flip through the document, I interrupted their action by adding, “…but today let’s not talk about that. Instead, let’s talk about so what if Hewitt becomes more diverse and inclusive. What difference will it make in our consulting for how to best optimize our clients’ human resources which is what they are paying us to do?” Quizzical looks darted about the room.

“Since we get paid to address the human resources, and since the human resources are diverse,” I continued, “are we addressing the implications of that diversity in our design and consulting on issues such as talent management as well as for benefits design around health management and retirement management?”

The answer in that moment was, No, we were not. But pulling on the business implications thread opened up a new train of thought that unraveled what was at the time a narrowly limited paradigm for addressing the workforce’s needs in long term savings, health management, and caring for their families. It invited not only new questions based on the expanded characterization of the workforce seen through the lens of diverse identities, experiences, and worldviews, but with that, it led to new designs and practical solutions which served talent so much more effectively. In return, this gave Hewitt a competitive advantage that added positively to its financial metrics.

Practically speaking what did that look like? For example, in Hewitt’s Retirement Benefits practice, together in partnership with Ariel Capital Management, we discovered that different demographic groups had different attitudes, beliefs, and practices toward long-term savings – the bedrock for making sure one has enough when one retires.

But in collaboration with the Communications practice, full of experts who knew how to motivate people to set aside a percentage of their salary every two weeks to end up having enough in the long term, they realized they knew how to motivate people who looked and thought like them. This meant they were missing meeting the full needs of everyone else. No surprise then that talent of color — even when controlling for salary as a factor – were less likely to participate in their company’s voluntary retirement plan. This was an indictment that Hewitt’s world-class expertise was limited in its effectiveness to reach all talent.         

They realized they knew how to motivate people who looked and thought like them. But missing meeting the full needs of everyone else.        

This realization led to an increased urgency to diversify the consultants in the practice plus learn about the Why for these different behaviors so they could create more differentiated approaches to address different long-term saving behavior personas informed by varying cultural worldviews and motivators. (For more specifics on the solution, see the “Why Differences Can Make Us Sicker and Poorer” chapter in my book, The Inclusion Paradox).

Going for a Ride

While the Hewitt example is in the people space, let’s bring the So What conversation into manufacturing.

A major car manufacturer — a long-time advocate of diversity and inclusion — had invited me to share with the executives the latest best practices in the field. After introductions, I opened the conversation with: “I’m aware you are seeking to engage in a talent discussion, and we will get to that. But I first would like to talk with you about cars and trucks … How are you doing with selling cars and trucks to Latinos?”

Several looks at that point were directed to the head of sales.

“Because I know how your competitors are doing,” I continued. “For one car model at one of them, one of four is sold to a Latino. For another, sixty percent of all new car sales are to Latinos.” Based on the head of sales’ body language, it was clear they were not even close to those numbers.

A year later, this conversation led to them going on a hiring spree for more Latino salespeople plus hiring an organization to deliver crosscultural sales training to all salespeople in over 100 dealerships in heavily Latino communities.

The DE&I Field Must Answer the Call

The answer to So What if you are more diverse and inclusive? matters big time. In this age of political polarization, mass distraction, and economic hard times, the right thing to do, as well as the talent imperative, this time around did not prove to be enough for DE&I to make it to many enterprises’ top three priorities list.

But if DE&I can be positioned as the key enabler to the very daily concerns business leaders have to grow into new markets, deepen penetration where they already are present, succeed in their big bet M&A, and increase margins then it cannot be seen as a distraction, a soft issue, a cost.

Today’s DE&I practitioners must be deft at framing the conversation this way over and over again. Not just by indicating a correlation between diversity and inclusion and business, but by showing there is causality.

Something much more difficult to achieve, but the conditions are ripe to do the work of gathering the data to be able to prove the case that diversity means business.

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