My sixth-grade science teacher, Mr. Davis, was a bit eccentric, which made for some great quotable moments. Often, as we started a lab assignment, he would declare, “Take your time, but hurry!” followed by a chuckle at his own statement. The class would then collectively roll our eyes, grab our materials, and get to work.
But, I think Mr. Davis might have a beaker of wisdom for leaders who want to create more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive organizations. Hear me out.
Following the murder of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, America finally seemed to begin an overdue racial reckoning with its 400 years of deeply ingrained injustices. Corporate statements were crafted. New DEI positions were created. Donations were made. Listening tours and training sessions were held.
Leaders acted. Swiftly.
In many cases, the flurry of DEI-related activity in 2020 has been healthy and productive. And in many other cases, it’s just been a lot of activity and, at times, counterproductive. Based on what I’m seeing and experiencing with CEOs, people leaders, and DEI leaders across industries, Mr. Davis’ quote keeps coming to mind. To rephrase his advice, as leaders look to advance DEI efforts in 2021, I’d say, “Slow your roll and act with urgency.” We need both.
Slow Your Roll
Amid all the action, it’s vital to do some deeper work. One DEI leader recently said to me, quoting her Georgetown professor, “You gotta feel it to heal it.” DEI efforts cannot just be full of intellectual pursuits and business cases. It’s not just about setting representative demographic targets, starting a mentoring program, or recruiting at HBCUs. Leaders need to feel it. They need to feel what people in their organization feel, with as much empathy as possible. Before action, we recommend that leadership teams slow their roll with three steps:
- Awareness: Where and how do we need to go beyond the surface to discover deeper truths?
- Acknowledgment: What truths are we proud of? What challenges must we candidly acknowledge?
- Aspiration: What do we aspire to be? Do we have the courage and conviction to make it happen?
When leaders become more aware of the concerns of employees, particularly underrepresented employees, and acknowledge – candidly acknowledge – how leaders have contributed to or caused these challenges, there is potential for real change.
Without awareness and acknowledgment, it’s all lip service. And these types of DEI efforts can be more harmful than helpful, resulting in check-the-box activities that reinforce the views of many employees that “leaders just don’t get it.” Likewise, without a courageous aspiration, without a clear ambition of what will be different, leaders aren’t ready for action. An aspiration should inspire and make it abundantly clear that the organization is serious about effecting real change.
Act With Urgency
As your leadership team slows its roll and commits to awareness, acknowledgment, and aspiration, you can still act with urgency. “Slow your roll and act with urgency” is a paradox leaders must embrace. Here are two helpful questions to guide your effort:
- Action: What will we do to persistently drive meaningful change?
- Accomplishment: In what tangible ways are we making progress and demonstrating growth?
Get tangible. Chart out a three-year roadmap. Treat DEI like all business imperatives. And if it is imperative, then be relentless as leaders to get clear on what you’re going to do and how you’re going to measure it. Many times throughout 2020 we’ve heard something like, “Yeah, we’ve had a lot of good conversations, but it’s not leading to action yet.” How can leaders make sure that 2021 isn’t full of dialogue without action?
The leaders who most effectively lead their organizations on this journey can only do it because they are committed to their own personal journey. If leaders can’t identify how they have become more aware about others who are different from them, or acknowledge where they have messed up, or can’t articulate their own personal aspiration of how they want to be a more equitable and inclusive leader, then I have small hopes for the broader organization.
So, for leaders out there who are committed to get personal, here are the same steps, this time with different pronouns.
Personally, I regularly discover some truths I’m proud of, and also have my fair share of challenges I must acknowledge. It’s a constant journey, and I invite you as a leader to commit to the journey as well.