Diversity As A Business Imperative? I Think Not.

There is a major fallacy in corporate America today. A dangerous one. One I've heard...sadly, I can't even count the number of times I've heard it. And every time I hear a CEO or Chief Diversity Officer say it in some form, I know - without a doubt - that women and people of color have not seen breakthrough progress in that organization. While the soundbites and accolades received through awards contribute to a company looking good on the outside, it can still be rotten on the inside. And many are just that. Rotten.

What I hear time and again sounds something like this...
"Diversity IS a business imperative in our organization, but it just takes time. We believe that we are making good directional progress."

I call foul.

If you connect those two statements, then diversity is NOT a business imperative in your organization. How do I know this?

As a former senior executive, when I think about a business imperative it conjures up a sense of urgency. An appetite for resolving the situation - quickly. Utilizing a collaborative effort and alignment by every employee because it's so very critical.

An example I often give as related to something being a business imperative is this:

If we thought a customer was at-risk (one who controlled, say, 25% of our business) and was threatening to discontinue SKUs (product lines), we would fire up the corporate jet and send a team to resolve the situation. ASAP. We would pull every resource possible. We'd study consumer data. We'd pull in our marketing folks. Our sales people would be planning special promos. HR would be making sure we had the right talent in the right places to keep this customer happy. Finance would be involved. Everybody would be ON IT.

And if that customer was your account, you'd be given three months to turn it around or you'd be gone. And THAT, my friends, is a business imperative.

The truth of the matter is that most companies in corporate America have not made diversity a true business imperative. They just haven't.

Because here's how it works: In most companies, line managers don't have any ownership when it comes to diversity. Everything related to diversity falls on the office of D&I or Human Resources. Usually these offices are understaffed, and that team has to try and use all their influence to somehow originate change in-and-of themselves.

It's time for us to stop kidding ourselves. Corporate America is nothing more than a reflection of society. And society is haywire as related to race relations. America wants to believe that we are beyond racism and sexism. We are not! In fact, when it comes to race relations, we have hit a new two-decade low.

As President Obama shared at the eulogy for the Honorable Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, S.C.,

...Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don't realize it, so that we're guarding against not just racial slurs, but we're also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal...

For too long...For too long we were blind of the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in our citizens...For too long we've been blind to the way past injustices shape the present...For too long.

And corporate America is the same.

Every CEO needs to think long and hard about the signals they're sending about D&I because the people who work in their organizations are the people living in society.

The conversation that Howard Schultz of Starbucks tried to start and got squelched needs to be had. And it must be led by CEOs. Just as Wal-Mart pulled all Confederate flags - that was a signal to society. Just as Brian Krzanich of Intel has drawn a line in the sand to say that they're going to right the ship as related to diversity (and devote $300 million to their diversity initiative).

CEOs must follow Krzanich's lead and DO SOMETHING. Put a stake in the ground and make diversity a true business imperative. They must join the small ranks of other CEOs who are changing the game by doing things like:

  • A cultural transformation initiative that is sticky and connected to the experiences of women and people of color
  • Town hall meetings where people openly talk about how bias & race disconnect impacts the organization's ability to be productive
  • A bold declaration by the CEO saying that diversity issues will be solved by a certain date
  • A definitive time period that rejects baby steps but demands significant leaps in representation of leaders who reflect the face of the shifting communities and consumers at all levels of the organization (from the boardroom to on down and back up)
  • Every line manager having D&I as key performance indicators that are weaved into their responsibilities as a core leadership expectation - not as an after-thought
  • Refusal to cut D&I budgets in times when the business is being stretched
  • Creating visible engagement between the chief diversity officer and the Board
  • A plan to ensure equal representation on the Board from top to bottom

So stop with, "It's going to take time." It doesn't take time. It IS time. Diversity is a business success imperative. Make it so.

"What we need to do is learn to respect and embrace our differences until our differences don't make a difference in how we are treated." -Yolanda King