The best teams I’ve ever led or been associated with were the most diverse teams – diverse in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, background, education, and experience.  Anyone can create a diverse team, but can you foster an inclusive environment? An environment where everyone feels they belong, and where everyone feels that their unique contribution is valued?

I had a very recent request from a former colleague to discuss Diversity and Inclusion.  It’s part of my mindmap that I created a while ago, so it was part of my plan to record a podcast episode on it somewhere down the road.  Yet, this one’s not necessarily an easy one to do, not in the current business environment.  There is an enormous amount of emotion surrounding race relations and how that’s being discussed throughout corporate America.  And yet we know that race is one of the more important aspects of diversity to consider in hiring and promoting.

I then came across an article on diversity and inclusion from Harvard Business School.  It was published just a few days ago on August 31st.  It discusses generally the lack of progress many corporations are making in this area.  Even if corporations are successful in hiring diverse talent, they’ve been having trouble retaining that talent.  That’s where the gap in inclusion appears.

Diversity Doesn’t Work without Inclusion

I first heard the following phrase a couple of years back from a former Starbucks executive.  He said at a conference, “diversity doesn’t work without inclusion.”  Now he may not have been the first to say it, but it was the first time I heard it, and I loved it.  The more I thought about it, the more it resonated with me.  I started to quote him and use it in my diversity speeches in my last couple of years as a corporate executive.  I’ve often said since that first time I heard it, anyone can hire or create a diverse team, but few can create a high performing team from it – where everyone feels included in the discussion, like they are a valued member of the team, and that they belong.

As if this wasn’t enough to convince me that I needed to talk about this now, I came across a diagram and article on Pinterest of all places, about Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.  I receive daily updates on various management and leadership topics from Pinterest, and I saw this Venn diagram with the three circles of diversity, inclusion, and equity – and the intersection of all three resulting in this state of “belonging.”

Although I fully understand this “equity” piece, I must tell you that this was not the way I heard it referred to for the last three plus decades – not in my industry and not when I listened to other corporations talk about it at conferences.  In fact, usually it’s referred to as D&I – diversity and inclusion.  As many of you know, there are D&I departments, people that hold D&I titles, or just simply, Chief Diversity Officer.

Equity refers to the norms, fundamentals, and policies that afford equal access to opportunities, more of the structure of the organization in terms of compensation systems, hiring, promotion, and advancement.   And that’s really the story line here.  If there is equity in the organization in terms of systems and structure, and diverse teams are created – diverse in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, experience, background, etc., then these first two ingredients have set the table so to speak.  They create the environment whereby inclusion and belonging can be the result.

So, you can create equitable systems and diverse teams and measure them, even though plenty of organizations still struggle with these.  Inclusion and belonging, however, are harder to measure.  Are individual’s opinions being heard, valued, and acted upon?  If they are, then those individuals will feel like they belong, like they are adding value, and they will have at least in part, an incentive to stay with the organization.  But if they don’t feel as if they are being heard, then they will feel excluded, not part of the team, and will most likely leave in the future.  And that’s to the detriment of the organization.

Why is Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion a Worthwhile Pursuit?

You may be wondering why is it that organizations embark on all of this?  Well, studies have shown more and more that those organizations that value equity, diversity, and inclusion, perform better in the long run.  They consistently produce top tier results, financially and otherwise.  And that brings me back to my premise.   Looking back after leading thousands of people and dozens of teams over 35 years, I have found that the best teams I’ve ever had, the ones that produced the best results, many of the members having gone on to be fantastic leaders and advanced significantly, were the most diverse teams.

Let me expand on one more thought here that may or may not be obvious, before I get into what I’ve done and seen in terms of creating diverse and inclusive teams.  I first heard the term diversity in a corporate setting back in the late 80s.  Yes, you heard me.  For those of you that may be somewhat newer to the workplace and think this is a new concept, it’s not.  D&I training and programs have been around for decades.  Your particular organization or industry may have been more or less advanced than others for sure, but corporations have been working on this for a while now.  And it’s certainly been elevated recently with commitments by corporate executives specifically for people of color.

Now that we have all the concepts described, I want to share with you what I’ve seen and done in terms of making progress with equity, diversity and inclusion.  I’m going to keep this simple and straightforward and organize it by actions you can take in each of these three areas – equity, diversity, and inclusion.  Some of these may seem basic to those that are further down the ED&I road, yet you have to do this right, before you can get to a more advanced stage and fully reap the benefits of a diverse and inclusive environment.


Establish hiring and advancement systems that are open and objective

You need to ensure that your management systems allow for anyone whom thinks they are qualified to apply for roles.  Maybe you need to ensure all jobs up to a certain level, maybe director and even executive-level roles, are open for those that are qualified to bid for the job, rather than just subjective selection and placement.  There is a reason organizations conduct talent reviews and go through the process of succession planning.  Part of talent development is to ensure critical jobs have a depth of talent to choose from.  There are no guarantees of course, and sometimes it’s better to open up the job to competition.  I put my bid in for the first VP job I ever had, and competed with two other internal candidates, who also bid for the job.  The senior executive team thought all of us were qualified, but wanted us to put our best self forward and demonstrate why we thought we were the best selection.

Rectify inequities in compensation structure and relative pay

You need to review the data for all of the employees in your organization at a minimum, as part of the annual merit review process, and maybe as part of a mid-year equity adjustment review.  You need to look at the salary data for all your management employees – yes, all.  You can’t imagine what I found over the years when I personally examined the data from supervisors through vice presidents.  I found structural inequities amongst supervisory positions after being alerted by supervisors that were part of an advisory council I formed to cut through the layers of management and get at the real issues.  I also found significant and widespread pay discrepancies between males and females in the same roles, at the executive level and below.  I brought this to the attention of Compensation and HR after scrutinizing the data and started to ask questions.  I had authority to make adjustments and I directed HR to do so.  I moved the pay of several women in these roles to the same level, if not higher depending on the circumstances, of their male counterparts.

Line leaders need to believe in, own, and execute on ED&I

Now HR was the process owner, so why didn’t they take action previously?  I don’t know for sure, but it could have been the previously line leader didn’t support it.  This is the most important piece of advice I can provide here and elsewhere as part of this process and as part of being a leader in any aspect.  You have to lead.  You have to question.  You have to inquire and challenge, and then you have to take action.  Don’t leave it up to others.  Don’t defer to others.  Do the right thing.  Line leaders, who organizationally are responsible for the largest parts of any organization, own the hiring and promoting decisions, and are advised by HR, the process owner.  Desired outcomes will only result from line leaders at every level believing in, owning, and executing on the decisions to create diverse teams and ensure fairness in compensation.  Line leaders own diversity, just like they own everything else they are responsible for.  Diversity isn’t owned by the Chief Diversity Officer, nor the Diversity Council.


Senior executive commitment

The conditions upon which you can move forward of course, is for the corporation and senior executive team to commit to the principles and benefits of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.  And that requires education and training.  I’m going to assume for the purposes of this discussion that most of corporate America has done this and is committed.  I mean, there have been enough studies to illustrate the benefits, so who wouldn’t be committed?  Now if you work for a company that is less mature in this regard, then the next step applies.

Educate and train everyone

The purpose and expected benefits need to be clearly articulated with supporting data and open discussion.  Nobody likes something shoved down their throat, so it’s a fine line to walk to get the entirety of your workforce behind this without mandating it or simply telling them to make it happen.  Once this is done for the executive team and the Board of Directors, and the commitment is made, then it needs to become part of the company’s mission moving forward.  It needs to be communicated to the entire organization as a formal initiative.  Employees need to be part of both formal training and informal discussions to develop a shared understanding and common commitment to make progress.

Know and understand the data

Know your numbers.  Look, what gets measured gets done.  If you don’t know what your numbers are when it comes to the demographics of your executive team, management team, and your workforce, how can you make progress?  This is where diversity and inclusion departments and/or those in HR can help.  They are typically the owners of the hiring and promotional data.  First of all, the data needs to be captured and analyzed, going as far back in history as possible, so you can see progress or the lack thereof.  The executive team has to review the data as a matter of routine and conducting business, so they understand what progress has been made and needs to be made moving forward, as part of an overall commitment to D&I.

Communicate the data

You have to routinely and periodically communicate the data throughout the organization.  This goes beyond the quarterly report coming from HR or the D&I team.  How many people do you think will take the time to read that email and open the file to look at the data?  You, as the responsible executive or leader at any level, have to take the time to review that data on your own, share it with your team, bring it into the staff meeting, place it on the staff meeting agenda, discuss it, and then commit to making it better.  What’s important to the boss becomes important to the team.  How else do you think you’re going to enlist a team of advocates?

Commit to improve

Commit not just informally, but formally, through the structured goal system of the organization.  Now this is where it can get a bit dicey. I’m not a labor lawyer, so I’m going to stay away from arguments about quotas.  But again, what gets measured, gets done.  Remember that Affirmative Action laws have been around since the 1960s and have evolved since.  These laws were designed to ensure equal opportunity and access for minorities and females, which were the groups that were historically underrepresented and discriminated against in the workforce.  Corporations have made commitments through policies that gave hiring preferences to minorities and females as a result.  This is where I’ll stop and let you discuss the issue with your HR and/or Legal department.  Suffice it to say, you need to commit to improving the numbers, the diverse make-up of the organization.

Hire diverse talent at every level

I’ve led dozens of teams over a few decades, and I can’t tell you how many times I inherited an all-white male team, even my most recent assignment as a C-suite executive.  Every team I’ve ever had, every single one, became much more diverse on every scale than the one I started with, and results were better, every time.  Now I am a white male, and I had plenty of white males on my teams who were very talented.  Yet, if all that’s ever put in front of you in terms of candidates are white males with similar backgrounds, are you really being exposed to all the talent that’s out there?

So how do you do this?  First, define what’s expected in terms of diversity.  In other words, accept nothing less than improvement across all categories – race, gender, background.  Partner with HR on recruiting, hiring, and promoting.  You need to recruit diverse talent at the entry level, so you start to have a pool of talent to choose from over the long term.  It will take years to move this diverse talent through the organization, so you’ve also got to hire external talent into higher level positions in order to accelerate the initiative.  All the companies that I’ve been part of had both the formal, entry level programs, and did direct external hiring at higher levels as well.

There is an abundance of diverse talent at universities, technical and vocational schools.  Work with your local universities and specialty colleges to create new programs for both technical and managerial talent to serve as a pipeline for future hiring.  Get your HR and recruiting departments to flood your inbox with diverse talent every time a job opens up.

Now let me be crystal clear on something here.  I never hired anyone that I thought was unqualified for a job.  I always hired the person I thought was best for the job.  Through the help of HR, I educated myself and exposed my teams to female and minority talent both inside and external to the organization.

Ensure your interview teams are diverse.  Let me share an example.  I worked in an industry that was largely white male for a long time, although that’s changed significantly over the last ten years.  We were trying to improve diversity at the first line supervisor level with little success.  My team of senior leaders kept making excuses for not being able to hire women, people of color, and non-traditional supervisors – those from a related industry.  After digging in, I found out that the interview teams were all white males with traditional backgrounds, having come up through the ranks in our industry, and they were looking for people exactly like them.  Whether we told them or not what we were looking for didn’t matter.  They believed the best supervisors were like them.  We subsequently changed up the interview team and made it more diverse.

Hopefully I’ve given you a few ideas about how to create a diverse team.  Now let’s move on to inclusion.  How do you as a leader, create an inclusive environment?  I mean now that you’ve created a diverse team, and if you believe that a diverse team is best, how will you extract the most value from that team?


Value everyone’s unique contribution

Everyone you hired or inherited, everyone on the team, has something to bring to the table – experience, skills, knowledge.  Tap it.  Tease out, both individually and more importantly, within the team setting, what each of your team members’ contributions are.  Provide the opportunity in various venues for them to share their thoughts, ideas, actions, and results.

Ensure all voices are heard

Nobody gets to be a wallflower.  Not even by choice.  If you are an engaged leader, your job is to engage everyone.  I mean, why would you want to leave anyone out?  If someone is quiet in a meeting, prompt them.  What do you think about this topic?  What are your ideas?  What actions would you take?  It could be that they are having a bad day and their mind is elsewhere, so check in with them one-on-one if need be, and build confidence in them by telling them you want to hear from them during staff and other business meetings.

Implement ideas and actions from each and every member of the team

If you tell your team members that you want to hear from them, and then never take them up, implement, or support any of their ideas, do you think they will stay engaged?  Go out of your way to support their perspective.  Make sure their idea shows up in new policies, practices, procedures and tools.  Give them the floor to present what they’re doing in their departments and with their teams that demonstrates value to the larger team.

Assign responsibilities equitably for key projects and tasks

If only a couple of your team members get all the high-profile projects, how do you think the rest of the team will feel?  Now don’t get me wrong, there are some team members that are stronger than others, and you need to ensure you make assignments with confidence that they’ll be executed successfully.  So, start out smaller with some folks and tell them one-on-one, that you want to see them be successful, and that you will continue to assign more important tasks to them as you see them successfully lead and accomplish what you’ve delegated to them.

Call out and recognize contributions by each and every team member, consistently

Recognizing, one-on-one and in a group setting, the contributions that each team member makes is critical.  It not only builds their confidence; it strengthens the entire team as everyone feeds on each other’s contributions and successes.  People want to belong, and nothing makes them feel like they belong more than either a simple pat on the back in front of their peers, or a promotion to a key role as a result of their consistently good track record on delivering.

The State of “Belonging”

If you take all of these actions, do you think this state of “belonging” will result?  Chances are, that you will be a better leader, have a stronger team, and be producing better outcomes.  You will have moved the needle on diversity and inclusion – afforded opportunities to those deserving of them, improved the quality of decisions and solutions, and produced better business results.

One of the things I’m most proud of during my career, were both the teams and the individuals I was able to provide opportunities to, that have achieved immense success today.  I had incredibly diverse teams.  I hired people of color when others overlooked them.  I hired some of the first women ever into line leadership and executive roles.  I hired and promoted non-traditional talent when others told me not to.  I gave chances to people that I saw had potential, even when they may not have seen the potential in themselves.

Many of these people are senior executives today, or they run their own businesses, or went on to other incredible successes.  We all learned to work together as an effective team.  I still have people email me today about the great teams and successes we had.  These memories are the best of my career.  They always bring a smile to my face.

Check out my latest podcast episode of this critical topic right here!