Everywhere we turn, it seems, business leaders are talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, or DE&I. For many, it's the newest purpose to be added to companies that have been purpose driven since inception. For others, it may feel like the latest social requirement. But for anyone listening to the call, there's pressure to get it right.
Despite the pandemic-induced scattering of workforce that has made building any culture a challenge, 2022 is the year to build a culture of belonging, says LaTonya Wilkins, author of Leading Below the Surface: How to Build Real (and Psychologically Safe) Relationships with People Who Are Different from You, and founder of The Change Coaches where she works with executive leaders to create cultures of belonging.
"2021 was the year for awareness," Wilkins says. "2022 is the year to go deeper." Remaining on track with commitments is hard for organizations, she cautions. It will require dismantling many of the archetypes and paradigms held throughout the business world.
"This is where 50% of organizations are going to fall off."
Getting below the surface
"In my book, I start by talking about the dominant standard," Wilkins says. "One of the things that's always frustrated me is that when you look at leadership archetypes, there's really not a lot of leadership archetypes around inclusion or around how we treat people, around equity, around belonging."
Looking at the nutrition industry, Wilkins—whose resume includes a few years in talent management at Abbott Laboratories—points to the prominence of values like speed, decisiveness, innovation, meritocracy, relentlessness and obsession with the customer. "Those are the things they're going to use to define their culture. Again, it's this dominant standard." What's missing is diversity and inclusion, and one of the reasons for this, Wilkins says, is that there are too few knowledge perspectives representing people who are different. What's ultimately missing, then, is a sense of belonging.
Wilkins defines belonging as when an employee can walk into a workplace, look around and feel a home-like environment. "You feel like there're people that look like you. You feel like you have your own house on your own street, like the street was waiting for you and the house is waiting to be painted." Many teams and companies are lacking that, she says.
To get there means understanding the culture an organization already has, and then building belonging into it. "If you have a culture of innovation, you could easily build belonging into that, right? Is the innovation equitable? Does everyone have an opportunity to express their ideas?" she asks.
Understanding an organization's culture is not easy, however, and the culture is not always what leadership thinks it is.
"There's a surfaceness in organizational culture and that surfaceness is what we want it to be, not what it actually is," Wilkins says. To get below this surface, leaders first need to take a step back to observe and understand how the employees see the culture. It starts with listening.
"Let's explore how you interact with [individuals in the company]," Wilkins suggests. "Who are you inviting into meetings? Who is making the decisions in your organizations?" It's crucial to listen to individuals in diverse roles and from diverse backgrounds. And it might not happen on the first attempt. If people aren't speaking up, that may be what leaders need to listen to most, because building a culture of belonging means creating psychological safety for everyone in the organization.
Many of today's leading companies are old school, Wilkins says. These companies may be holding to dominant standards and lack the agility to keep up with everchanging cultures. "You really have to think about the artifacts in the organization," she says, referring to the articles of cultural relevance that emerge in ideas, systems and practices. For staff, the belonging journey begins before they even enter the company, she says, "so you want to make sure the artifacts are there."
The objective moves beyond diversity, then, and into changing work habits and expanding geographies. "The culture driven by those dominant values may be taking over and trumping the culture that [the company] needs to turn into to support remote work, to support hyper teams, to support being open to a new way of working," says Wilkins.
"Building a culture with shared principles and values across the globe is not easy," says Christopher Bylone, global director of diversity, equity and inclusion at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), an organization with more than 24,000 employees in approximately 60 countries. But he sees opportunity. If culture is challenged and diversity is lacking, tackling these simultaneously is a fresh opportunity. After all, he says, "It is not about overlaying DE&I onto existing culture; it is about embedding DE&I into the fabric of the corporate culture."
IFF does this with a code of conduct. Employees are expected to read it annually and are given trainings on specific sub-topics. The DE&I educational experiences are intended to assist individuals in fulfilling their commitments to the code, Bylone says. "Starting the conversation this way creates a relationship with the colleagues about a partnership, not power."
To inspire the IFF workforce, he says, the company holds a DE&I vision that states: "Your uniqueness unleashes our potential." "We genuinely believe that it is the uniqueness of each colleague that contributes to our overall success," Bylone says.
From commodity to inclusion
Lauren Tucker, CEO and founder at Do What Matters, a corporate training agency focused on inclusion and diversity for the advertising and marketing communication industry, leads the discussion with inclusion—going as far as switching up the acronym to IE&D. An inclusive workplace, she says, is one "where everybody feels that they can live up to their fullest potential and feel that their contributions are being appreciated by management as well as their colleagues." And this comes from building inclusion strategy into organizational strategy.
"Inclusion management is about getting the right people in the right jobs, elevating their relevant differences so that you can create products, services and content that are memorable, meaningful and remarkable to an increasingly multicultural, transcultural and global market," Tucker says.
Tucker and team use behavioral insights to inform the redesign of processes and systems in order to encourage desirable behaviors and changes. Conversely, they don't focus on things like white supremacy or anti-bias training, she says. "We focus on operational inefficiencies that foster exclusion and bias and subvert or corrode creativity and innovation that's required to drive growth in the 21st century."
The center point is talent, Tucker says. She points to a mid-20th century talent-abundance model that is inherently abusive. "When you look at the history of this country, we just abused talent one way or another. But that abusiveness came from a belief that talent was a commodity. They were workers. It was labor. They were interchangeable."
Too many business and political leaders are still locked in this 20th century paradigm, Tucker says. This fails in a century driven by knowledge, information, culture and service industries in which, she says, "Talent is central to the growth of the vast majority of companies driving the vast majority of our GDP." Even the manufacturing sector that remains in this country, Tucker points out, is increasingly dependent on a talented workforce that can operate ever more complicated machinery.
"So, we better wake up and realize that talent, and the nurturing and investment in and support and advancement of talent, is central to our prosperity and our standards of living in this country." Understanding how to manage people in a post-COVID world, where their priorities have changed, is paramount. "They're not defining themselves by what they do, but still want to engage in meaningful, purposeful work that takes in full account what they can offer as humans," Tucker says.
"We have to figure that out," she says. If we don't, we will lose good people. "What's happening is [that] employees are saying now, 'I have value, I can find all sorts of ways of exercising that value in a way that doesn't mean I have to stay in some toxic environment.'"
The business case for inclusion
Operational inefficiencies create bias, but the reverse is true, too: Bias creates inefficiency.
"If you can have a more inclusive environment, you can be more productive," says Terrance Irizarry, chief inclusive diversity officer at Danone North America. "We can look, in real measurable terms, at the impact that allowing me to be my true self has on my level of engagement in what I'm doing, and that is something that people can't deny—even if it's a small percentage." Because, he says, that small percentage grows exponentially as it converts to productivity. "Then I ask leaders, 'If that's the case, why wouldn't you do it?'"
As a family of brands, Danone looks outside for ways to elevate DE&I. But looking outside only works if a company has done work internally, Irizarry says. "You need to take care of your own house first," he says. "You can't go out and market to the Hispanic community but then have employees that'll say, 'Well, I'm a Hispanic employee, and I don't feel as though within my company we've created inclusion.' You need to make sure that the employees are not only aligned but are excited about the work that you're doing externally."
Brands need to enter the conversation sensibly, he warns. Don't go to your social media account and post Black Lives Matter if you haven't been in this conversation, he advises. "Just don't do it. And don't feel as though because you didn't make a statement fast enough that it's not suitable. I tell many companies outside that the risk of doing something that is not authentic or within your company culture is so high that it's not worth just trying to be reactive."
It has to be authentic, and it has to fall in step with everything the company does to get final product to consumers. Consumers are certainly noticing.
Irizarry doesn't believe "old school" values are an issue at Danone. The company is a century old, and DE&I is relatively new to its roster of values, he says. But it works. "We've been around for over 100 years, but being purpose driven has always been part of our organization," he says. "So even if diversity wasn't, even if racial equity wasn't, even if racial justice wasn't, being purpose driven was always there."
Staying on the path
Building diversity and equity into an organization must be modeled from the top, but it might not look the same in different departments and different locations with global teams and remote workers. "Sometimes CEOs, when they're doing their diversity goals for their company, they're trying to do a one-size-fits-all for the entire company," says Wilkins. "But it's okay to have team-focused goals."
Freedom to identify and address immediate goals is inclusion, after all, and companies are wise to give teams and branches the latitude to find their way, while they also provide guardrails so they don't stray too far from the company's purpose.
Tucker asks her clients where they want to go, and then focuses on how inclusion strategy, integrated within team and organizational strategy, can help them get there. The goal is to reduce resistance to change, she says. And it's high time. "We're almost a quarter into this century and we're still thinking 1950s. We've got to get our heads into what is needed to achieve our economic goals in this century."
"A solid mindset is 'global consistency, local relevance,'" IFF's Bylone says. "By this, I mean that there needs to be a globally consistent expectation communicated within the organization that having an inclusive culture is a must, not a 'nice to have.' By local relevance, I mean that each country/location will need to figure out how to make that happen in a cultural context."
The work now is to operationalize the concepts companies began doing for diversity and to integrate them to where they simply are the company culture, Irizarry says. "Once it's baked in, it becomes a leadership style attuned to differences and managing to those differences." It also becomes a recognition that to be agile and flexible depends on seeking individual uniqueness. "It becomes less about diversity and more about understanding that people are individuals, and to unlock that potential, this is what we want to do."
So, going deeper in 2022, as Wilkins suggests organizations must do to stay the course, calls for commitment and perseverance. "It means having a deeper reckoning about why diverse populations aren't finding a culture of belonging in your company." Maybe they're leaving or not coming in the first place—even when companies are providing remote work options and paying top dollar. "So, what is it? It's really doing that work. It's not abandoning it."
This story was featured in the Nutrition Business Journal Guest Editor Issue