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Diversity is in the details

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By Danielle Lee
March 8, 2013

Deloitte University is 700,000 square feet of a sleek, technologically advanced, LEED Gold Level-certified campus located on 107 acres of Westlake, Texas.

Its intuitive design is meant to support DU’s mission of leadership development and firm innovation, with each element, down to the placement of outlets in the building’s 800 guest rooms and the filtration of natural light into its 35 classrooms, invisibly facilitating Big Ideas.

But at the March 4-5 launch of DU’s biggest one yet (since its opening a year and a half ago), the firm’s Leadership Center for Inclusion, details were surprisingly prevalent.

They aptly updated old idioms, as mentioned by Kimberly Davis, president of JPMorgan Chase Foundation and 30-year veteran of the financial services industry, in a women of color break-out session, one of several that ushered in the firm’s commitment to advancing a new definition of diversity in leadership.

Women of color might get past the proverbial glass ceilings, she said, but they are then met with cement at the mid-managerial level, and titanium at the senior ranks.

That these materials (20 percent of which were recycled and another 20 percent regionally extracted, processed and manufactured) were used to build DU is not a superficial correlation. In the age of Skype interviews and social media conversation, there were doubts about a brick-and-mortar center for learning—even from DU’s managing principal Diana O’Brien.

Now, of course, she’s one of the leadership development facility’s biggest advocates, proudly sharing the careful thought that went into the design of guest room shower heads and luggage racks and enthusiastically introducing the kitchen’s chef, who curated a seasonal menu sourced from local, humane farms.

“We built Deloitte University as a long-term commitment to development, not a variable,” she explained.

DU's touchscreen, the largest in North America, is a database of the firm's professionals and history.

“Deloitte University transformed our firm,” chief talent officer Jennifer Steinmann chimed in. “With the physical came with it the emotional experience, and creating bonds that are not created so easily virtually. We can talk about issues of inclusion and make sense of it. We’re committed to having the conversation.”

The conversations among Deloitte professionals, clients, academics and media participants throughout those two days—during sessions, in the speeches of the Big Four’s global leaders, and over locally grown spinach salads—were preliminary but intriguing.

Personal stories were shared to fundamentally address more general, profession-wide problems of diversity. One man recalled how the recruiter at his company used “articulate” as the first descriptor for an African American candidate, and Davis shared the time she received her own inadequate word when soliciting feedback from a boss on how she did in a self-described “bad” presentation: “fine.”

Neither party realized what was loaded in their language; the theme of another thought-provoking session that covered unconscious bias.

“We must stop the stereotype of being afraid to give women of color feedback,” Davis had continued. “When we talk about women of color, we always start with problems instead of opportunities. We need to reframe that discussion in the language of business.”

Updated language is at the foundation of Deloitte’s inclusion strategy, moving from the out-dated concept of mere diversity into the business case for including different ethnicities and sexual orientations, the disabled and war veterans, while addressing generational concerns like work-life balance, and integrating the firm’s landmark women’s initiative, created 20 years ago.

Deloitte's leaders, here in caricature form, shared their stories throughout the event.

This new business language can’t include “fine,” as a substitute for constructive, candid feedback. Instead, session participants recommended that mentors and sponsors contextualize recommendations in terms of what their protégés can do in the future, and that they are equipped with a toolkit of the right questions to ask.

Sponsorship was widely discussed as an integral part of an inclusive culture, for developing the diverse business leaders necessary—no longer for political correctness, but economic survival. Also broached was the necessity for these mentor matches to be made between people of different backgrounds.

In one session, a woman of color explained that her white male sponsors were unknown to the rest of her organization, which led colleagues to believe one black male leader had paved her path. This initiated a debate on the concept of sponsorship. Should sponsors always be visible advocates, prepared to publicly defend their mentees? Another participant took offense to the idea of having to “defend” a high potential that happened to be a woman of color, when a white male star might not require similar justification.

Polite debates were waged and probable solutions floated in every session, sparked by these anecdotal details. Words spoken or unspoken, roles given and taken, assumptions made and later remolded. The common starting point was speaking up, making your voice heard. “People don’t know what they don’t know,” mused the man who had to educate his recruiter on the offensiveness of referring to a black candidate as articulate, due to an inherent assumption that black men usually are not.

Verbalized solutions—by nature of the environment, sometimes abstract—were often rooted in education.

But DU and the DULC4I were not built on the theoretical.

The Leadership Center for Inclusion’s managing principal Christie Smith reminded attendees of that during her speech to close the event.

“[DULC4I] is not an intellectual endeavor, but an emotional petition to not be complacent, and strive to build a better world,” she explained with palpable emotion of her own. “This is not our job as leaders, but must be our calling…to build a culture where we all can thrive.”

For more of the DU Leadership Center for Inclusion's #IncludeMe conversation, check out my Twitter.

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