Sara Jones, CEO of Inclusion Pro says that leaders need to begin shifting D&I narratives ASAP.

Utah Business

Sara Jones, CEO of Inclusion Pro says that leaders need to begin shifting D&I narratives ASAP.

To make real progress, we should be shifting D&I narratives

I was inspired to write this piece after reading about an award given to a leader who “tirelessly fought for equity” on top of her full-time job. I deeply understand and appreciate the worthiness of honoring her work. Early in my career, I was that employee―passionate, giving, and selfless, as I went above and beyond my job description to advocate for diversity and inclusion. But we rarely address how emotionally exhausting and draining this can be on an individual.

To help counter this exhaustion, I want you to consider how we talk about people who do D&I work. There’s a misconception that D&I professionals are indefatigable advocates for good. This perpetuates a narrative that D&I work is an exercise similar to charity―something one does for free, out of the goodness of one’s heart.  And the moral narrative doesn’t stop there.

This “good” and “bad” narrative is reflected in how we perceive leaders as they engage in conversations about diversity and inclusion. If a leader says the “wrong” thing, they are ill-informed and bad.  If a leader says the “right” thing, they are compassionate and good. This binary “angel or devil” framework presents a difficult challenge for leaders. If I were a leader in this situation, I would feel guarded and reactive―a mindset that makes it more difficult to engage in meaningful change.

The good/bad narrative also shows up like this: after I explain the strategic benefits of D&I to an executive team, there will be a thoughtful pause.  And then a leader will speak up and say: “Most importantly, D&I is the right thing to do.” I understand this verbal posturing because we all have positive intent. But ask any failed startup founder: positive intent to run a business never made it succeed.  Commitment, strategy, and action are the key elements of success. Diversity, inclusion, equity, and equality have always been the right thing to do―AND also the smart thing to do for growing businesses. 

Consider what happens when we shift this narrative to one of learning and growth.  Our world is changing and evolving.  To stay competitive, our businesses need to change and evolve as well.  The human experience is full of mistakes. Learning and growth are uncomfortable.  The reason D&I is one of the hardest professions is that it’s both strategic and emotional at the same time. Shifting mindsets is one of the most difficult tasks because it is based on emotional work. To create meaningful change, leaders have to undergo their own personal transformation.  True transformation is messy, difficult work, and the payoff is not immediate. 

My favorite consulting experiences happen when executive teams are humble enough to experience personal transformation. In a recent keynote, I spoke about how the leaders who transform: 

  • Reflect on their beliefs on inclusion
  • Understand how their leadership style limits or expands inclusion
  • Access the great ideas of their team members
  • Expand their personal trust networks 
  • Nurture different leaders and leadership styles
  • Increase team performance and business outcomes

The most effective leaders are those who see where our world is headed and can lead their company into a global economy.  The fact is that people of color are the global majority and women are half of the global population. If D&I is the “right” thing to do, it’s because strategic leaders are always thinking about success in a larger context beyond just the ROI of their company. Company owners should absolutely expect that the leaders they hire to run their departments and business have the skills and competencies to lead diverse, high-performing teams. 

Notice how shifting the narrative through this strategic lens now brings your D&I work into a sharper focus. In the older paradigm of D&I being a “good cause,” many top leaders in a company might consider D&I as “optional” or “nice to have.”  By shifting D&I as core to the business, leaders now have a business imperative to build their own skills and capacity as a smart choice for strategic growth. These skills enable everyone to thrive and do their best, most innovative work. Notice how the efforts of a few tireless advocates in the organization are spread across the whole organization―energizing everyone to contribute to an inclusive and innovative culture.

Like all effective business practices, D&I is an investment and requires a solid strategy — starting with the board and senior leadership team. Top leaders are critical to any strategy  that impacts revenue, marketing, product, and customer/employee experience. And while D&I professionals shouldn’t be expected to take on the role of social justice warrior, an effective D&I strategy aligns social justice to a company’s core business competencies and conviction.

Sara Jones is CEO of InclusionPro. She draws from over 20 years of professional experience in technology, business development, law, and leadership. InclusionPro works across a range of industries including technology, engineering, materials manufacturing, financial/venture firms, human resources, legal services, health care, higher education, e-commerce, consumer products, distribution, and non-profit organizations. Jones, who was adopted from South Korea at age three, grew up as one of few Asians in a predominantly white community, and in her professional life, has often been one of few women leaders. These experiences helped her develop a profound and personal understanding of the value of diverse perspectives. Over 2 million people have watched her TED talk on transracial adoption. Jones was previously CEO of ApplicantPro, VP of Strategic Development at Patent Law Works, head of business development at School Improvement Network, and began her career as a patent attorney, becoming a partner at Workman Nydegger. She has advocated throughout her career for the benefits of greater diversity in our companies, boardrooms, and circles of power. Jones is a Co-founder of Women Tech Council (WTC), a national organization focused on the economic impact of women in driving high growth for the technology sector. She also serves on the Utah State Workforce Development Board, Board of Trustees for Intermountain Healthcare Salt Lake Valley Hospitals, and the Executive Board of Silicon Slopes. Jones was honored as a Distinguished Alumni from the University of Utah (2021), a Utah Business Magazine CEO of the Year (2019), received a Distinguished Alumni award from the University of Utah College of Engineering (2017), and was a Utah Innovation Awardee. Jones has a J.D. from BYU and a B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Utah.  Sara Jones received the 2024 Kirk Englehardt Business Ethics Award from Utah Valley University Center for the Study of Ethics. Watch her lecture here.