Next-level inclusion

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In a previous article on next-level diversity, I wrote that it takes more than the CEO, the chief diversity officer, and the various visible diversity groups to maintain and promote a culture that appreciates diversity of thought. Yes, admittedly, the notion of diversity is easier than inclusion. Why? Because next-level inclusion is an “everyone” activity while diversity for many organizations primarily includes the recruitment team.

Diversity and inclusion are top priorities in today’s fast-paced and dynamic environment — especially as clients, customers, business partners and the employee pipeline include a broad spectrum of diverse characteristics. It is exciting to see the booths, marketing campaigns, social media posts and team members who are champions of diversity. Yet, what really happens after recruitment and onboarding? In many cases, the messaging does not match the day-to-day reality. The honeymoon varies, but it is not cost effective to recruit five diverse team members and lose four within three years to other career opportunities. This churn makes it difficult for leaders to maximize their team’s performance, anticipate disruption, and offer new solutions and services. The good news is that together we can decrease this drain on the organization’s resources with next-level inclusion.

A sense of belonging is needed to encourage team members of any background to offer feedback and their perspectives on the organization’s strategy for competitive differentiation. Inclusion means everyone and, by including everyone, everyone benefits. Imagine the benefits if the full team could suggest new course corrections, ideas to gain greater process efficiencies, and ways to generate more revenue. How would a modern financial system benefit the organization? How could processes such as record to report and source to pay be streamlined, automated and standardized? How can greater insights be harnessed from internal and external data? What are the scenarios to implement new regulations? How quickly does the organization respond to changing trends and customer requirements? Difficult questions, but people are at the core of the various answers. Inclusion is absolutely a strategic business imperative. It is uncomfortable and is as scary as the first day of school, but with every interaction, the awkwardness of meeting someone different eases more and more. The synergy of an inclusive team would generate the next million-dollar service or solution that individually the team members would most likely never consider.

The inclusion matrix

Many organizations have affinity groups using almost every characteristic imaginable. For example, groups for women’s initiatives or African American leaders usually promote a network of like individuals who are committed to a common goal of training and advancement. In these groups, the members enjoy the comfortable feeling of being around people similar to themselves. It is a group where the members can be their true authentic selves based on similar shared experiences. For many, the affinity groups are a way to cultivate a sense of belonging and community that are essential to retention initiatives.

Yet, I would submit that each of these groups would more proactively advance inclusion by adding “allies.” Why? Let’s use women’s initiatives as an example. At women’s conferences, the topics run the spectrum from emerging technologies to new regulations. And yes, there could be mindfulness topics and discussions about the glass ceiling and the pay disparity. These conferences are the perfect place for our male colleagues to join us to better understand the challenges that are unique to women. How do male colleagues manage female team members without an understanding of the unconscious biases that present obstacles to our promotion and advancement?

We all know women who have great careers, but what is equally compelling? The low number of women who are CEOs, sit on board seats, are CFOs, or are partners says that we have work to do. The numbers of other diverse characteristics add to the business case as well. Allyship could make the difference. It has worked in my career, and I believe allies would help improve retention numbers as well as the number of women who are promoted. By adding allies to the affinity groups, there are multiple opportunities for individual members to learn from one another in both formal and informal settings. Let’s loop everyone in so that no one feels disconnected and excluded. Next-level inclusion requires an inclusion matrix.

Everyone is a stakeholder

Tone at the top and executive commitment are essential ingredients in establishing an internal culture that enables and sustains an inclusive environment. The culture of an organization correlates to employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and, as a result, employee and customer retention. Very often, both employees and customers are seeking business relationships that prioritize diversity. This focus places a disproportionate weight on a checklist approach where recruiting one or two per group is deemed enough to satisfy the perceived requirement. However, as mentioned earlier, this is a vicious cycle because the one or two may not feel included, they leave, then the company again recruits one or two diverse team members and thus the cycle continues.

There are many thoughts on why this occurs, but I submit that the cycle continues because the diversity training and inclusion training are not lived authentically throughout the organization. I have met many amazing, charismatic leaders who truly believe in the benefits of inclusion, so when I see a LinkedIn post highlighting a job change from someone in their organization, I can’t help but ask the person, “Why are you leaving?” I really want to say, “Please stay,” “Can’t you stick it out?” or “Have you given your manager a chance to help you resolve the problem?” But I realize that it’s too late for those questions, and I usually just ask, “What happened?” This is usually when I hear the stories that the exit interviews will not be able to capture.

My summary after dozens of these and other discussions? There appears to be a disconnect between what the leaders say and what is reflected throughout the organization from middle management. Many diverse team members do not believe the company inclusion initiative is real when they hear of differences in the work assignments, promotions, performance ratings and salaries. And yes, I know — we are not supposed to talk about these things. Yet there are various internet sites where current and former employees alike can anonymously disclose these various details.

Middle management is accountable for generating revenue, implementing new methodologies, keeping expenses low, and maintaining customer relationships. It is quite possible that these managers are so busy just getting the work completed that they are not aware of their own unconscious bias or the disparity in their decision-making. Assuming the best, I suspect that many of these managers become responsible for others with training on the technical knowledge, quality assurance methodology and practice technology for their role, but not so much for people training. Effectively leading others requires a combination of mentoring, coaching and sponsorship such that various competencies are developed and enhanced. Yes, people concerns are just one more thing on the middle manager’s plate, yet this is too important an area to leave to instinct. When determining new ways of engaging customers, new strategies for partner engagement, and moving from traditional on-premise solutions to the cloud, there is no way to avoid people leadership. Our various middle management leaders must embrace the commitment of the senior leadership team. Training based on various scenarios, including anonymous exit interview notes, would offer practical lessons learned and best practices for managing a diverse team.

What else can we do? There are many options but a next-level inclusion idea is to foster a culture where everyone, top to bottom, is accountable for promoting and enabling inclusion. It’s in everyone’s performance plan, for example, to describe how you contribute to the organization’s core values and feeling of belonging for your team. I know firsthand that when everyone takes ownership, inclusion can result. How else would I explain joining CPA colleagues in Puerto Rico for their annual convention and feeling completely included despite being one of the few non-Spanish speakers onsite? Sure, it’s the “official duty” of the leadership team to check on the speakers at a conference, but when many attendees come over to ask if you need anything, it fosters a feeling of inclusion. I didn’t feel like an outsider. However, just as important was my individual accountability. I wanted to be included. Together, we built a bridge and met in the middle. Inclusion has individual and collective responsibilities.

What would happen if inside an organization, team members checked on each other? A culture of inclusion is not created with words alone — it takes a collective effort to make inclusion authentic. What if in addition to affinity groups based on our diverse characteristics, team members were encouraged to join groups based on interests and hobbies? In these groups, we would realize that we are more similar than not. Not only would this approach give everyone permission and less fear in seeking out others, but it would relieve the pressure on middle management to execute the diversity and inclusion strategy.

Inclusion takes a lot more effort than diversity. It takes commitment, inspiration, proactive initiatives, active communication, leaders who listen, leaders who work on their biases, training and accountability.

To get started on next-level inclusion:

  • Communicate the plan to live the mission, purpose and values of the organization and the accountability at the individual and management levels.
  • Ask for honest feedback on the culture of the organization and communicate transparently about the results and action plan.
  • Determine ways to promote individual and collective accountability for the inclusion culture and the organization’s core values. Making everyone responsible is a key way to align the messaging with the day-to-day life.
  • Encourage allies to join the affinity groups and create new groups based on hobbies and interests. Yes, both are needed. They serve different purposes.
  • Review what additional support and training can be provided to middle managers based on various scenarios and exit interviews.
  • Journey-map the employee experience of various employees from across the life cycle of hiring, day-to-day work assignments, performance reviews, promotions and leadership development. Courage is needed to identify the differences as this is definitely a risk management concern. But how else will the organization resolve the disparities and stop the drain of team members leaving just when they are fully trained? The map will highlight opportunities for training.
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Diversity and equality Gender discrimination Practice management Recruiting Kimberly Ellison-Taylor