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

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


It is not always easy to see who is “winning” in the high profile effort to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion in the American workplace, on campuses and in all kinds of organizations. 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 Hispanic/Latinx. Yes, even today with all the work, 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 even though it won’t make a difference. It is much, much more than that. Think about 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, college or organization from one about obligation and opportunity to one about excellence and advantage. Setting and reaching thoughtful DEI milestones is part of the new measure of excellence in every sector. At the same time, your new employees, students, partners and colleagues who bring life experiences and lenses you heretofore did not have will guide you to better decisions, open up new possibilities and bring your institution new advantages. And that is part of the equation. Diversity is a strength. Equity even moreso. 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, empowered and inspired team in the twenty-first century USA.

Lots of eyes are on you now to see what you will do to deliver on 2020 promises about diversity, equity and inclusion. Are you ready? It’s your move. (photo by Imagix Studio from a workshop we organized at WeWork. Foreground, Ashley Brown of Spin; background, Segun Idowu, then of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts)

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 preparing to stand beside you or instead of you, in front of your team?

Do you know the case for doing better as an institution with diversity, equity and inclusion? the expectations of your stakeholders inside and out? Can you make it with conviction and specifics?

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 better outcomes?

Are you giving your team access to 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?

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. I am talking about leadership. I am talking about action. The simple truth is many of our schools, workplaces and cultural institutions are stuck and out of ideas after a year or two of heightened energy and awareness. Do not let that happen. The stakes are too high. 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, education and government.

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