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Utah Business

Executives and DEI experts need to better align in order to create real change when it comes to diversity & inclusion in the workplace.

There’s an organizational problem with diversity & inclusion in the workplace

Bloomberg recently reported that the percentage of companies in the S&P 500 with chief diversity officers increased from 47 percent in 2018 to 53 percent in 2020.  While many business leaders see this as a dramatic improvement in increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in corporate America, I see far too many leaders who believe that simply hiring a head of diversity will solve their DEI concerns. 

On the flip side, many DEI practitioners take on these new roles and soon realize they aren’t empowered to make the kind of impact they hoped to have on the business.  Executives genuinely believe they are solving a core business problem by hiring a new DEI leader, but the complexity of issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion often leaves both executives and DEI practitioners frustrated when instead they should be aligned on mission and purpose.

This problem is a classic chicken and egg dilemma:

Executive’s Dilemma:  Many executives have no first-hand experience of a high-functioning DEI role. They see the role as someone (often a person of color) who knows more than they do about compliance standards around diversity, equity, and inclusion. While often well intended, executives haven’t witnessed DEI as a true value-creation strategy that’s core to their business. As a result, executives often see this hire as a pure cost to the company and thusly leave the DEI function highly understaffed and underutilized. 

DEI Practitioner Dilemma:  Formal training for DEI roles has not existed until recently, so most DEI practitioners come from other career disciplines such as HR, communications, marketing, legal, etc. In their previous disciplines, these professionals had clear business objectives and metrics guiding their decisions. Yet even if they wanted to operate within a set of DEI metrics, diversity leaders often have to begin far below those expectations to fix underlying cultural issues within a company. In other words, DEI practitioners are unable to operate to true business-driven DEI metrics in the current environment.    

I empathize with both executives and DEI leaders―this conundrum reminds me of the early years of agile development and product management when companies struggled to know the most effective use and positioning of a product manager. Many people transitioned to product managers from another area of business without formal training, because it didn’t really exist back then. Product management is a blend of technology, marketing, and user experience, so sometimes the role sat in engineering, marketing, or strategy. But when the role wasn’t understood or valued,  the product manager would often end up just managing the backlog and their skills languished without impact. Today, most executives understand how critical a product management role is to their business, but it took them a while to get there. I believe the same holds true for DEI professionals.

So how do executives and DEI practitioners align on creating value-driven DEI strategy?  Fundamentally, they need to agree on the meaningful change they will work toward.  For example, do executives expect that DEI will actually impact their core business decisions, change their leadership demographics, and influence interactions within the organization? It’s important to note that a DEI practitioner can only make as much meaningful change as executives will allow for. 

In order to successfully navigate through DEI changes, businesses must both support executives and DEI practitioners, says Jennifer Sorensen, an organizational development consultant. “Organizational alignment is key for sustainable DEI success that is genuine and authentic.” 

 “Historically, DEI has been viewed as a separate organizational initiative, and frankly, not in the realm of strategy. I find executives are energized when they uncover how DEI aligns with their existing organizational strategy and culture. When aligned, the strategic value of DEI becomes clear, and it is a more sustainable approach for the whole organization. DEI becomes embedded into ‘the way we do things around here,’ and supports the fulfillment of the organization’s mission. ” 

When organizations are misaligned, leaders, DEI practitioners, and employees may feel an “authenticity gap.”  The authenticity gap is the space where there is a misalignment in behaviors that can positively impact change toward greater diversity, inclusion, and equity. Leaders can learn how to fix this, but unless the alignment gap is faced and addressed, organizations often get stuck. 

“At the end of the day, I find most executives genuinely want to lead in ways that honor and respect others,” says Sorensen. “The steps to get there may look a little different for each organization. This is where skilled organizational development and change management expertise comes in―to support the organization in accomplishing its goals while keeping a human-centered focus.” 

When executives and organizations are aligned, meaningful change is possible. Much of this foundational work can be done before hiring a DEI role. This allows your DEI practitioner to hit the ground running instead of slogging through a lack of leadership alignment. 

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.