“This is not a normal organizational or community leadership challenge.”
DEI is a C-Suite challenge, and it is a deceptively tough one. There are two key leadership questions that must be answered by the C-Suite and the C-Suite must avoid one critical challenge that naturally occurs.
I. Why? Making the Case for DEI
II. How? The Foundation for DEI
III. Avoiding the “Path to Mediocrity”
“This is not a normal organizational or community leadership challenge.”
DEI initiatives (diversity, equitability, inclusion) are extraordinarily difficult to lead for a number of reasons. They confront racism, which has been built into every aspect of American life for 500 years. The require change on individual, group, and systemic levels. They are emotionally charged. The organization must continue to pursue its primary mission while changing.
Along with the scope and complexity of the challenge, DEI initiatives require knowledge and capabilities that are not within the normal range of organizational leadership. In almost all cases organizations must “learn the way” – and that is a profoundly difficult challenge.
This article supports C-Suite engagement by focusing on two critical questions and how to avoid one critical and very common pitfall.
NOTE: DEI initiatives include issues beyond racism, but this site focuses on racism, so the term will appear here. However, the issues relating to racism also apply to the wider range of “isms” addressed by DEI initiatives and the strategies also apply.
There are two key questions in regard to successful DEI initiatives that need to be answered extremely well to be positioned for success.
That sounds simple. It’s not. The wrong answers for either question can make or break a DEI initiative. Each question requires disciplined thought by leadership. Racism has been built into every aspect of American life over 500 years – and that includes organizational life. DEI initiatives are tough sophisticated challenges.
DEI initiatives are complex and emotionally charged. They require committed and sustained C-Suite leadership – making good choices and modeling the way. The common pitfall is delegating too much responsibility too fast.
DEI initiatives are a different challenge for C-Suites than the normal organizational challenges and require a surprising amount of courage and stretching by C-Suites to lead them effectively. Fortunately, there are some critical success factors that can be pursued with confidence to avoid the pitfall and get on the path to excellence vs. the path to mediocrity.
“Have to” or ROI Decision?
Some business decisions are “have to” decisions. It feels like there is really no choice. For others it’s a question of return on investment (ROI). What’s worth the effort, risk, focus, resource allocation, lost opportunity cost, etc.” “Have to” decisions are threat driven decisions.
ROI decisions are vision led decisions. The type of decision makes all the difference. Clearly identifying the range of possible benefits (the return) not only positions the initiative as a value-add initiative, it also puts any risk in perspective. Risk is actually relatively low in well-led DEI initiatives, but it can feel more significant if not explored and “put in its place.”
Far too many decisions about DEI initiatives appear to be “have to” decisions. That type of decision usually leads to major disappointment. That disappointment is the result of several factors that can combine to easily undermine the initiative – a decision without an authentic commitment, a focus on guilt and shame vs. responsibility and power, a focus on programs vs. organization design, and a lack of healthy accountability and perseverance.
A “have to” decision also leads naturally to the abdication of authority and responsibility by senior executives and frequently the assignment of responsibility without authority or preparation. “Have to” decisions simply don’t have the inherent value that commands sufficient C-Suite engagement and attention.
Successful DEI initiatives will only result from robust ROI decisions. The key is to develop a realistic and honest set of moral and business cases and a vision of how they might look and how they might benefit the organization. That requires disciplined leadership and a well thought out process.
A ROI that justifies a commitment to a DEI initiative rests on 3-4 cases – a moral case, an internal business case, the national case, and possibly an external business case. The combination of these cases establishes the value for why to conduct a DEI initiative, but also supports “holding the course” over time.
DEI initiatives need to address individual. group, and systemic levels of the organization, including the culture. Each is “essential, but not sufficient.” Organization design provides the greatest leverage as well as the greatest support for sustained success.
It is also the level where the C-Suite needs to maintain focus and leadership. Organization design – structure, roles, relationships, competencies, processes, systems, etc. – simply requires senior executive leadership because of its systemic nature.
The danger in most DEI initiatives is that responsibility is delegated too quickly. Delegating too much responsibility too quickly sets up the next levels of leadership for serious trouble, particularly roles such as a Chief Diversity Officer or Diversity Council.
The key is obviously to create a web of aligned and prepared leaders that extends into the organization. The questions for the C-Suite are:
These are C-Suite strategies, but others will join the C-Suite in executing them appropriately at lower levels in the organization.
The Common Danger for the C-Suite. For DEI initiatives, the common danger for C-Suites is delegating too much responsibility too fast. Countering racism is simply too tough a challenge and operates on too many levels for the C-Suite to delegate too much responsibility too fast.
Three C-Suite Leadership Strategies for Avoiding Mediocrity
Strategy #1 Commit to the Lead Role & Confront the 3 “Guardians of the Threshold” –
Positioning to Lead the Journey
Strategy #2 Pursue the Critical Success Factors for Dealing with each of the 3 “Guardians
of the Threshold”
Strategy #3 “Model the Way” As Individuals and as a Team
Why Commit to Be Fully Present in the Lead Role?
The C-Suite needs to be fully present in order to actively lead DEI efforts – a level of leadership that is required because DEI initiatives involve change at the cultural and systemic levels as well as the group and individual levels. And that leadership needs to be obvious and sustained in order to match the difficulty and complexity of the challenge. It is the foundation on which the extended leadership throughout the organization depends.
“When the C-Suite wiggles, everyone else gets whiplash.”
It’s a “warrior challenge.” There are lots of definitions of warriors’ codes, but a simple and inclusive one that is appropriate here is that a warrior “engages fully and with purpose and excitement.” This is the opposite of the approach where the C-Suite sits back to see what others can make happen. A warrior approach is a full commitment of character and competence that is not diminished by fears of the experience or potential poor outcomes. It requires the courage to “be all in” in the face of a journey that will be full of unknowns and daunting tests. Everyone will look to see if the C-Suite is all in.
It also requires an openness to learning – rapidly. Countering racism and leading DEI initiatives is new ground. Very few people have been here before and there is a good deal to learn. Racism has been built into our lives for 500 years and it lives in our communities, our organizations and ourselves. And much of how it lives is invisible – at an unconscious level or invisible because we don’t know how to look.
Therefore, part of the challenge for C-Suites is to take the lead and model rapid deep learning about racism – how it lives in the execs in the C-Suite, how it lives in the C-Suite as a group, how it lives in the organization, and how it lives in the community. Remember. This learning is focused on a deep, complex, and emotionally charged topic. It is not the same as learning a skill or even a new role. It asks much more.
“Modeling the Way.” No one in the organization will miss this modeling if it is done with some intention and transparency. The C-Suite is essentially saying, “As an organization we are going into the unknown and we as the C-Suite are going first – with full commitment and confidence.” What others also hear – without it ever being said – is, “…and we expect you to follow us with full commitment.”
Who are these “Guardians of the Threshold”
A DEI initiative is a journey, not a project. And the tipping point is right at the beginning – at the threshold or beginning of the journey. That’s where the C-Suite encounters the three “guardians of the threshold.” In the classic myth of the heroic journey (which is the fundamental story of change) there are guardians of the threshold, which are designed to turn us back if we’re not ready for the journey. They are the first tests on the journey.
These three guardians are normal and natural, and they cannot be avoided, particularly in cases where the C-Suite is primarily white. When not confronted directly, and with a serious commitment to deal with them, they put the organization on the path to DEI mediocrity – at best. That is because they undermine C-Suite engagement and that is the end of any pursuit of excellence.
The Three Guardians – the First Challenges
Guardian #1 A Natural Indictment. An unavoidable sense of indictment for White people regarding racism
Guardian #2 Venturing into the Unknown & Potential Loss. The requirement to face a great deal of unknown and a range of potential losses – from large to small
Guardian #3 The Specter of Incompetence. Not being confident about having all the competencies required by the challenge
Having made the commitment to confront the three guardians of the threshold, the question then becomes, “How do we successfully deal them?”
The Basic CSFs for Each Guardian
Guardian #1: Acknowledge the Unavoidable Natural Indictment and Replace Any Guilt with the Power of Responsibility
The natural indictment is addressed by simply adopting a posture that “I’m not to blame for racism, but I am responsible as the CEO/member of the C-Suite for dealing effectively with it in our organization. I know this is one of the toughest challenges we will face and that we will need to take on a warrior approach to be successful. That is my commitment.” There is a great deal of power in taking responsibility to drive wise intentional action.
Guardian #2: Put the Unknown and Potential Loss in Perspective
There is no way to take all of the unknown out of the journey – there never is in significant change. However, when the C-Suite is committed to being out-front and visible in “modeling the way”, it makes a big difference as fear of the unknown shrinks.
First, when the C-Suit leads in developing the vision of the desired state, the core strategies to achieve it, the web of leaders to execute the strategies, and commits to building the competencies required for success the journey becomes much more “knowable” and people believe they can find their way.
Second, C-Suite leadership also decreases the fear of loss as the desired end state and journey clearly have lots of continuity and there are valuable benefits to be achieved. Addressing the potential losses directly – from potential privilege/advantage to self-image to threats to relationships with other white people – can dramatically decrease anxiety that is normal and natural to DEI initiatives.
Guardian #3: Focus on the 90% of Current Competencies and Define the 10% of New Competencies.
The reality in most cases is that the C-Suite already has 90% of the core competencies required for successful DEI initiatives because they are the competencies required for any successful organizational improvement effort. The 10% of new competencies required can be developed with confidence and model for others how the leaders confidently acquire new competencies to meet new challenges.
That is a powerful message to the organization about being confident effective leaders in a changing competitive world. Not only does it “model the way” and build credibility for leading the DEI initiative, it also builds the C-Suite’s leadership credibility in general. If fact, this is an exceptional opportunity to build that credibility.
C-Suites don’t have the time, energy, or resources to simply “do more” or “do something different.” It is critical to be able to focus with confidence on where the leverage is in modeling the way for the organization.
DEI initiatives are organizational design initiatives. But countering racism also brings with it major personal and group challenges. So, the leadership that the C-Suite must model is always a combination of personal, group, and organizational challenges. The systemic CSFs were covered in the “How?” (section II).
There are four CSFs noted for each category because they are always high impact, but they should not limit the focus if opportunities present themselves in a particular setting.
Individual C-Suite Members
“How do I deploy myself as a leader?” This is always a critical question for the C-Suite. In the case of countering racism, it is essential for the C-Suite to ask and answer that question as there is a tremendous amount of leverage in the answers.
The C-Suite as a Team
Everyone watches the C-Suite to see what’s really important. Fortunately, there are a few things the C-Suite can consistently do to effectively communicate the priorities.