From obligation to opportunity or “don’t just stand there – do something!”

From obligation to opportunity or “don’t just stand there – do something!”


It is not always easy to see who is “winning” in the newly high profile effort to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion in the American workplace. But it’s easy to see who continues to lose: the same people who have historically, habitually and continually been undervalued, underestimated and overlooked: women and people of color – none more than those who are Black and Latinx. Yes, even today with all the talk and all the announcements – systemic, long-term barriers to progress are very much still in place. You are a leader who can actually do something about it. And it’s not just an obligation – it’s an opportunity.

With all the cynical comments and low expectations — It can often sound like the most privileged people think they are the victims here, bearing the burden of change when the opposite is true by any measure. Be careful about the narrative that says this is just something you have to do. It is much, much more than that.

Lots of eyes are on you now to see what you will do to deliver on 2020 promises about diversity, equity and inclusion. Advocates, regulators, investors, employees and customers to name a few blocs of stakeholders. And then there is the simple matter of justice for all the wrongs we now cannot pretend not to see. Does your industry have a role to play in what’s next? Does your company ? Are you ready? It’s your move. (photo: Imagix Studio from a workshop we organized at WeWork. Foreground, Ashley Brown of Spin; background, Segun Idowu of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts)

Consider your role as a leader in this time to be a new kind of privilege. You get to take the conversation about diversity in your company or organization from one about obligation to one about opportunity. Without a hint of doubt, successful reckoning with a history of monochromatic, male dominance is now expected of a company like yours that aspires to be a category leader. Setting and reaching thoughtful DEI milestones is part of the new measure of excellence in every industry. At the same time, your new employees, partners and colleagues who bring life experiences and lenses you heretofore did not have will add value to your teams, guide you to better decisions, offer access to networks of valuable people and possibilities. And that is part of the equation. If you are the kind of leader who likes to think you skate not to where the puck is but to where it is going (thank you Wayne Gretzky) then you better not be skating without a diverse team in the twenty-first century USA.

For starters – here are some questions every leader should be asking today:

Are you convinced you are the right person to model and lead on the subject of diversity, equity and inclusion? And if not — how are you getting yourself ready and who are you empowering to stand beside you in front of your team?

Do you know the business case for doing better with diversity, equity and inclusion? the expectations of your customer base? the intentions of your regulators? the plans of your competitors? the requirements of your current and future employees?

Are you asking your team to try harder or are you exposing them to new ideas and innovations that will potentially lead you all to different outcomes?

Are you giving your team the resources to do what you keep saying you want them to do?

Do you have a handle on what areas of focus within your organization have the greatest need for increased DEI attention and which ones can give the greatest yield in terms of impact for your culture?

These are just a few of the questions I like to start with when having a conversation about strategy. Anyone can schedule a training or go all out to land a particular new hire or even board member. But few can truly chart a course for long term success; certainly not without answering these questions first.

Obligation is a weak fuel – but opportunity is entirely different. This is a wonderful time to be applying your talents and time to matters long neglected and exacerbated by our own hands whether we always knew it or not. I am not talking about passing this along to human resources or even a department with DEI in its name. I am talking about leadership. I am talking about action. To quote the line you have heard in many places for decades, “Don’t just stand there! Do something.”

Andy Tarsy is an advisor to leaders in business with a focus on what we now call diversity, equity and inclusion. His firm Emblem Strategic LLC helps ambitious clients align their vision and values with action that produces impact, distinction and advantage.

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