Getting "DEI" Right - The C-Suite Challenge

Two Key Leadership Questions & One Critical Leadership Pitfall


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.



Parts I & II The Two Key Leadership Questions

Quick Intro


There are two key questions in regard to successful DEI initiatives that need to be answered extremely well to be positioned for success. 

  • Why do them? The case for committing.
  • How do we do them? Leading the required change


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. 


Part III  Avoiding the “Path to Mediocrity”

Quick Intro


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.


Part I

WHY?  Making the Case for DEI


“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.   


Part II

HOW?  The Foundation for DEI


It’s Primarily About Organization Design and Change Leadership

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. 


“Every organization is perfectly designed to get the outcomes it gets.”


The Danger

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. 


It Takes a Web of Leaders 

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:

  1. Who do we bring into the web?
  2. How much responsibility to we delegate to them?
  3. How do we ensure that they are aligned?
  4. How do we prepare them for this unusual assignment?
  5. How do we support them and hold them accountable in a healthy way?
  6. What is our role in the web once we have the others in place (“modeling the way”, barrier removal, resource allocation, etc.)?



Systemic Critical Success Factors (CSFs)

Leading the Required Change


These are C-Suite strategies, but others will join the C-Suite in executing them appropriately at lower levels in the organization.  

  1. Answer the “Why?” Question. Define the “business case” – why are we doing this – the possible good things if we do and the bad things if we don’t?
  1. Answer the “Where?” Question. Create a clear and compelling “vision of the desired state” that is worth pursuing (speaking to the head and the heart) – with the required core strategies (the hands). 
  1. Establish the Architecture. Develop the organization design required to execute the strategies and achieve the vision – fully integrating racism/DEI.  There will be individual and group change required, but there will also be systemic changes – from roles and relationships to policies, systems, and processes. 
  1. Put Clear and Compelling Plans in Place. These are plans that can provide direction, leadership credibility, and a basis for accountability
  1. Build “The Web.” Develop the extended leadership web(s) required to execute the strategies.  Leadership leverage stops where the leadership web stops.  This includes clear roles and healthy relationships – individually and in groups and teams.
  1. Prepare People for the Journey. Lay out the journey and what to expect – and prepare people for it.  This CSF is often overlooked – and that has consequences with a challenge like DEI.
  1. Build the Competencies Required. Focus on building the competencies required for success in the envisioned desired state – individual, group/team and systemic. 
  1. Connect People Through Communication. Ensure effective communications out (particularly in the beginning) and effective feedback loops (particularly as people implement the strategies). 
  1. Establish Healthy Institute a healthy process of accountability – the formal performance system and frequent/informal accountability “check-ins” for fast-cycle learning and response.
  1. Be Persistent and Resilient – Don’t Let Up. Racism has been built into our world for 500 years and even the best designed and led DEI initiatives will take time to be fully embedded.  The courage to engage the challenges needs to be joined by the persistence and resilience to “hold the course.”



Part III

Avoiding the “Path to Mediocrity”

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



Strategy #1

Commit to the Lead Role & Confront the Three

“Guardians of the Threshold”


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


Strategy #2

Pursue the Critical Success Factors (CSFs) for Dealing with the “Three Guardians of the Threshold”


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.



Strategy #3

“Model the Way” As Individuals and as a Team


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. 

  1. Be Conscious and Disciplined. Understand the importance of “modeling the way” and commit to consciously choosing the behaviors to model and the settings in which to model them.  People throughout the organization (and beyond) closely watch C-Suite members to see what is valued.
  1. Focus on Your Current Core Competencies. Focus on deploying the core competencies that you already have (90% of what’s required).  Your confidence builds the confidence in others. 
  1. Identify the New Competencies Needed and Develop them Rapidly. Identify the other 10% of specific competencies required – they may be new or simply deeper competencies.  Model total commitment to rapid competency development as others will need to follow your example (and they will).
  1. Beat Anxiety with Excitement and Confidence. Model excitement and “no fear” in going after the development of the new competencies and engaging the DEI challenges. 



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. 

  1. Ensure High DEI Visibility. Keep DEI on the C-Suite agenda (shows it is a priority and provides space to effectively address the issues).  People pay attention to what the C-Suite prioritizes and pays attention to.   
  1. Model Healthy Accountability. Frequent and informal “check-ins” with transparency within the C-Suite – and across the organization.  What do we have to celebrate (particularly progress and interim achievements);  what have we learned:  what will we keep doing, start doing or stop doing?  This reinforces DEI as a priority and fast cycle learning and calibrating action as the style.
  1. Challenge, Support and Remove Barriers. There will be barriers, and many will be cross-boundary and systemic (and some may be senior managers), which will require aligned confident action by the C-Suite. 
  1. Align with the Board. Make the business case (from moral to business) for DEI.  Educate the Board as necessary with roles as appropriate.  Stay aligned – progress, barriers, how the Board can add value, etc.  It may be important for the Board to be very involved or less involved, but don’t leave a vacuum.




“When the C-Suite wiggles, everyone else gets whiplash.”