Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) is an increasingly hot topic for businesses.
In her talk, Erica explains how approaching DEI as a strategic business priority is the way to make meaningful and sustainable progress. She shares:
Erica Santoni is a Principal on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team at Intuit, and she is based in Mountain View, California. A former BCG consultant and corporate strategist, Erica leverages her business strategy toolkit to develop evidence-based solutions to promote workplace equity. Prior to Intuit, Erica has covered multiple roles across Europe and the US, working at Vodafone, General Electric, VMware, Catalyst, and BCG. Erica holds an MBA from Harvard Business School with focus on Leadership and Human Capital Management.
Hi, my name is Erica Santoni and today I would like to share with you why Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is a business imperative for your organization, and how to go about developing and executing your DEI strategy while avoiding the most common mistakes I have seen companies make across industries. If you are about to leave this because you think this does not apply to you or your company, I invite you to reconsider: DEI cuts across all business functions and industries, so I am sure you’ll find insights applicable to your role and team as well.
So let’s start with the first and most important takeaway.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is a business imperative, a critical business priority for any organization.
DEI is not only - and most importantly - the right thing to do, but is also a business imperative.
I would like to share with you a couple of different ways you can think about it.
First off, the problem DEI initiatives are trying to solve is deeply rooted in the business systems of an organization. Bias is embedded in the key business processes and practices - from recruiting to marketing, to product development, and so on. It is only rational to expect this problem to be tackled by changing the business systems.
Another way to think about why DEI is a business imperative is to look at the impact it has on the entire ecosystem of business stakeholders - employees, customers, and communities.
An inclusive working environment enables all employees to thrive, and it positively correlates with higher engagement, higher wellbeing, and lower employee turnover. From a customer perspective, DEI enables organizations to be better equipped to meet the unique needs of different customer groups. And as far as the broader society in which the business operates is concerned, people are increasingly invested in societal issues and expect companies to do the same.
Not fully grasping how DEI is inevitably a critical business matter is at the basis of the three most common types of mistakes I have seen businesses make with regards to DEI efforts.
The first one is not doing anything, somehow thinking DEI falls outside the purview of the business.
Unfortunately, there is no neutrality: this approach fails to recognize how biases are inevitably part of the business systems and by not doing anything, we are automatically enabling inequitable outcomes.
The second type of mistake is to acknowledge some sort of overlap between DEI and the business, but only at a surface level and mostly focused on public perception. This is the case of companies that fall into the trap of the so-called performative DEI. They over-index on donations and public statements in support of a certain cause but fail to do the hard work required to make meaningful change.
The last type of mistake is when companies do acknowledge DEI as a business priority, but then they don’t put all the right efforts in place for that to become a reality. They organize one-off trainings and conversations, but then they stop. While those initiatives can be a good starting point to raise awareness on the topic of DEI, research says they really don’t move the needle by themselves.
And this brings us to the second part of our conversation: how to develop and implement a sound DEI strategy.
Let’s start with a business strategy framework.
You probably are already familiar with this business strategy pyramid or a version of it. The core elements are the why, the purpose of your business, the “how” you plan to address the “why” - which is the strategy definition step, and the “what” you plan to do specifically - this is your strategy execution.
Ok, now let’s add a DEI lens, starting from the business purpose.
As you develop your DEI strategy, you need to be very clear on how it connects to the broader vision, mission, and values of the business. Making that connection explicit will be important to create long-lasting support across the whole business. DEI is not something that happens on the side but it’s foundational to the company as a whole to fulfil its purpose.
Moving on to the strategy definition phase, there are 3 key elements of a sound DEI strategy. First, it must be rooted in data and evidence. Second, it must span across Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion - which may sound redundant, but in a minute I’ll explain why it is not. And third, it must encompass all key stakeholders.
Let’s start with data. Data is a foundational element in the strategy definition phase as well as in the strategy execution phase as it helps create a baseline, identify key priorities, set goals and measure progress. If you work at a global company, data can also help you customize your DEI strategy for different geographies. It is important to highlight that also qualitative data is important and directly speaking with your employees, your customers, and broader communities will be fundamental to complement the quantitative data. Very similarly to what you do with customer interviews or deep empathy sessions when you are designing and developing a new product.
The mistake to avoid from a data perspective is to just rely on the data you already have available. DEI efforts require you to gather new data categories - for example, track your employees feeling of inclusion and belonging - as well as to look at your usual data from a different angle - for example, breaking down your NPS on the basis of the gender of the respondents.
Ensuring your strategy spans across the three elements of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion may sound redundant, but I am highlighting this because a mistake some companies make is to focus on Diversity only. Representation is very important, but cannot be pursued in a silo. True Diversity cannot exist and be durable if there is no Equity if there is no Inclusion. Because you end up having a bit of a “revolving door” effect. You try to hire more and more of the employee groups who are underrepresented at your company, only to see them leave at even higher rates because they don’t feel they belong and cannot see themselves succeed at your company. Also, Inclusion, while very important, is not enough by itself. As an employee, I might feel included and feel like I belong, but only at the lowest level of the organization. Only with Equity, which ensures the playing field is level, I will be able to succeed. The three pieces must be pursued together.
Lastly, you want to make sure your strategy is holistic and cuts across all the different stakeholders. The mistake to avoid is to think this is only an HR matter or focusing only on internal efforts. We already touched upon the “why” all stakeholders must be involved, now let’s look at the different levers that can be pulled. Which is also a great segway into the execution piece.
Efforts focused on employees - current and prospective - are mainly around organizational levers: think about hiring, onboarding, performance evaluation, learning & development, and so on.
Efforts for our customers' span across the way products are designed and marketed, as well as the businesses we work with to make it happen.
And efforts for the broader community cut across government relations, partnerships and initiatives for community impact.
The initiatives to execute the DEI strategy will be spanning across all these levers. Let’s not forget about the critical enablers though, which are needed in the implementation phase. These are the traditional change management elements you would expect to leverage for any other implementation effort.
Think of communication strategy, dedicated workstreams, steering Committee, PMO, leadership support, and so on. The key mistake to avoid is seeing these enablers as the end goal. While extremely important, they are means to an end, not the end goal.
Well, I hope you liked this short session focused on DEI as a strategic business imperative. If you have questions or you’d like to connect, feel free to do so on LinkedIn.