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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Strategies to Change Your Corporate Culture

Getting started on your DEI Journey? Not sure where to begin? Here are a few missteps to avoid and ways Axxum Consulting can help.

Diversity Equity Inclusion

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) remains a major topic for business leaders. A recent survey of 500 HR decision makers and over 1000 employees found that DEI is one of the Top five priorities for companies in 2021. And why wouldn't it be? McKinsey reports have broadly been shared making the business case that companies in the top quartile in ethnic and gender diversity outperform bottom quartile peers by 36% and 25% above average profitability, respectively. In a separate report, BCG also found companies with above-average diversity produced a greater proportion of revenue from innovation (45% of total revenue coming from products or services launched in the last three years) than from companies with below average diversity (26%). This 19% innovation-related advantage translated into overall better financial performance, and possibly demonstrates an ability to adapt to shifting consumer demands. Retention issues extend beyond consumers, as employers are facing record-setting levels of resignations in the United States this year, with over 4.3 million Americans leaving their jobs in August. Furthermore, a Glassdoor Survey found more than three out of four job seekers and employees (76%) report that a diverse workforce is an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers, and nearly a third (32%) would not apply to a company lacking diversity amongst its workforce. As businesses look towards the future, those who are able to translate DEI commitment into representation and clear results will have a clear competitive advantage when competing for top talent and consistent consumer loyalty and engagement. While it can be daunting, the numbers speak for themselves. One of the biggest business imperatives facing companies will be DEI. This goes beyond just viewing it as an HR issue, and understanding the implications that DEI raises across entire enterprises. Taking a holistic approach must involve building competencies amongst leadership to address the questions that DEI raises and to play a role in taking on society's thorniest issues that DEI supporters aim to disrupt. Achieving results and tangible outcomes will be important, that's without question. Additionally, with so much collective focus on this issue, a real challenge will be for leaders to learn while minimizing harm to stakeholders who may already experience discrimination and feel marginalized. There isn't a perfect place to start, but there's enough cautionary tales and wisdom from past experiences to know missteps to avoid. Missteps to Avoid

  1. Avoid making empty promises or setting false expectations: In the wake of the George Floyd murder, hundreds of companies took to their platforms and pulpits to show their support for #BlacklivesMatter. But stating support doesn't automatically change the lived experiences of your employees, nor does it demonstrate a real commitment. A recent Forbes article highlighted the results from a July 2020 survey, where 49% of workers acknowledged that their companies addressed the George Floyd incident, and within the same survey, 64% of African American workers indicated racism as a problem within their own workplace. It's important for leaders to understand how pervasive DEI issues are and the various ways it impacts the experience of their employees. Starbucks faced backlash in 2020 following a leaked internal memo banned employees from wearing #BLM merchandise, shortly after the company had publicly announced donating $1 million to support racial-justice-oriented causes. The company eventually reversed the policy, going so far as making BLM t-shirts accessible to frontline employees, but this misstep and the criticism it caused could have been avoided.

  2. Avoid framing DEI as cost savings: There's a tendency for leaders to expect immediate impacts to their bottom line. Some even require it to continue sponsoring DEI-related programs. In reality the behavior change, and policy shifts required to improve representation and sense of inclusion takes time. Change management experts remind us that the change process and acceptance of change happens at different paces. Also, accountability and ownership of making the changes necessary across the entire enterprise require resources including time and energy from managers and employees that remove them from their day-to-day responsibilities. Therefore, as with any change, leaders should budget for and commit to making necessary resources available before, during and even after implementation to provide the level of support, guidance and motivation needed, in a timely manner.

  3. Avoid falling into big data traps: When handling ambiguity and difficult topics such as DEI, it can be tempting to resort to mining big datasets to lead the main investigation and make things tangible. Diving into data analysis without the right question, hypotheses, observations, or analytical ability ahead of time can lead to multiple traps that result in low quality solutions that don't improve employee experiences or that make matters worse. To avoid unhelpful data reservoirs and rabbit holes, go into the analysis with 1) alignment on the most important questions your leadership need to answer to have the confidence to chart a path forward 2) a clear DEI vision tied to strategic decisions to ensure you are spending time collecting the right data, and 3) a qualitative, and as needed disaggregated, understanding of employee experiences to contextualize data collected.

  4. Avoid narrowing solutions to peer benchmarks: Clients often ask for market landscape analyses and benchmarking to understand how their efforts compare with competitors to ensure they remain competitive. This is particularly difficult as most are in the early stages of exploring the full potential scope of DEI solutions. McKinsey estimates that $8 billion is spent on DEI training annually, and even with this level of investment there's limited research to suggest it leads to decrease in experienced harassment and workplace discrimination. If on a scale of 1-10, where ten represents the full potential we could reach in achieving positive DEI outcomes, then peers operating at three aren't the most inspiring benchmark. Instead, we need to be bold and seek to innovate, challenge precedence, and go beyond what is comfortable to really move the needle on DEI outcomes and improve employee experiences.

Our consultants at Axxum Consulting have deep expertise as it relates to facilitation, project management, and leadership coaching to support business leaders on their DEI journey. A few helpful starting points that we would leave you with today, include:

  • Employee engagement: Much of the wisdom shared so far has emphasized the importance of understanding the employee experience. Through facilitating open discussions with employee groups, leaders can begin to understand and even diagnose the root causes of major pain points acting as roadblocks to engagement and retention. We see this as a one of the critical first steps to building a broader strategy that prioritizes and centers what matters most to your employees. In our experience, it's important to trust that any red flags that a traditional deep review of your data, will come out and be more actionable stemming from the shared felt experiences, reflections, and expectations your employees would share in these discussions.

  • Vision Setting: To begin the change management process required to adopt behaviors and mindsets that support DEI efforts across the business, leaders must align on a compelling vision for why DEI matters specifically and uniquely to their company. When building the vision, it's important to move beyond platitudes or general statements that could feel like a sound bite from any leading company today. Discovering a unique purpose-driven vision requires embracing some of the more difficult and uncomfortable conversations that bring to surface true intentions and goals that will ultimately drive this effort. It's important to remember that DEI itself isn't a goal, but rather a vehicle or framework to attain broader goals that might range from innovation, greater team participation, increased employee retention and engagement, etc.

  • Executive Learning: Beyond written commitments in the form of company policies and statements, employees are also looking for leaders to model behaviors that are aligned with the underlying values and goals of DEI strategies. Building the cultural competence, amongst other skills, to speak authentically to DEI concerns and demands requires consistent learning and coaching among executives. It's important for executives to have brave spaces among one another to overcome initial hesitations when approaching topics that require adjusting established mental models.Only through active facilitation and practice can you ultimately decrease the risk of having a "cancel" moment. As coaches we start with topics within a leader's comfort zone to provide deep reflection of their existing model models before stretching into more complex questions overtime, challenging the narratives held around these sensitive and highly politicized topics and increasing tools to demonstrate empathy for those impacted.

What steps are you taking to navigate your DEI journey? We welcome you to share this article with peers and colleagues building an understanding of where to start, and contact Axxum Consulting’s team to further the conversation.


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