On a recent episode of Narativ’s Leadership Story Talks Podcast, hosts Jerome Deroy and Julienne Ryan had the opportunity to speak with Bertina Ceccarelli and Susanne Tedrick, co-authors of Innovating for Diversity: Lessons from Top Companies Achieving Business Success through Inclusivity.
Bertina is the CEO of NPower, a non-profit dedicated to helping veterans and young adults from underserved communities build career success in the tech field. Susanne is an influential writer and speaker and the author of Women of Color in Tech: A Blueprint for Inspiring and Mentoring the Next Generation of Technology Innovators. Both women are dedicated to improving DEI outcomes in business with real, actionable solutions.
In this episode, Susanne and Bertina shared some of their own experiences with bringing greater diversity into the tech field and the pitfalls that cause so many DEI initiatives to fail. They also discussed how applying a lens of innovation to the push for diversity can be a game changer for a company’s DEI success.
Confronting a Culture of Compliance
Early in the episode, Jerome asked Susanne and Bertina why, with so much talk about DEI going on in the business world right now, the diversity metrics aren’t measuring up. The answer they’ve arrived at through their years of experience and the research for their book is that most DEI initiatives are coming from a place of compliance rather than care.
Susanne explained that when a DEI initiative is put into place entirely out of a desire to comply with a corporate directive, it results in a lot of box-checking to meet the bare minimum requirements of the initiative. While this may make the company’s efforts look good on paper, it often results in nothing really happening to improve diversity within the company.
Real DEI change only comes when people at every level of the company are genuinely devoted to improving diversity and inclusion.
“If you have no skin in the game, how likely are you to make investments or take the challenges?” Susanne said, before explaining that the box-checking compliance mindset has actually led to a lot of negative feelings about DEI on the whole—the exact opposite of the intended effect.
An Innovation Approach
Bertina and Susanne recognized one thing in common among companies that were able to move beyond simple compliance in their DEI efforts.
They noticed that while the leaders of many organizations were able to reach an understanding of the benefits of diversity on product development, performance, and innovation from a business standpoint, very few of them managed to look at the reverse—innovation as the lens through which a company approaches diversity.
Switching a compliance mindset to an innovation mindset would allow many companies to approach the question of diversity in a different way, helping them to better understand what isn’t working and which structures and systems are getting in the way of their success.
As they looked more closely into this idea, Bertina and Susanne were able to note that DEI often fails in companies for the same reason that innovation on the whole often fails. The problem is that in both cases, companies fail to ask the right questions to move beyond the “check the box” approach, thus failing to internalize the reasons why the initiative should be important to them in the first place.
Shifting the Mindset
At one point during the interview, Jerome asked about the process of figuring out a more effective approach to DEI. In particular, he wondered how Susanne and Bertina had gone about establishing enough trust with the companies they worked with that these leaders would be willing to speak about their failures as readily as they did.
The answer was fairly simple: by using their book’s framing of innovation, the question became less about the company’s failures and more about the risks they had taken in working to improve DEI for their company along with what they had learned from their missteps.
With that in mind, they made sure to mention that the companies they spoke with for the book were all those fully in line with the desire to improve DEI for their organization. They were the ones willing to take risks, make mistakes, and report back on what wasn’t working to achieve their goals.
This naturally led to Jerome’s next question about what companies that want to advance beyond box-checking can do to move up that starting line of real DEI improvement.
Bertina explained that the companies that do have success do so because they have a CEO who is unapologetic in their support for greater diversity initiatives, supported by a board of directors who are aligned with their goals. According to her though, that is not enough. The company also needs middle managers who are also personally invested in the mission of diversity.
How does the company get to this point? With a change of mindset and clarity of purpose.
The “Why” of DEI
To bring their company truly in line with DEI efforts, the leader needs to have a clear understanding of why DEI matters to them. If it is because there is outside cultural pressure and they want their company to have better optics, their initiative is unlikely to succeed. It is by either genuinely caring about diversity for the sake of the people involved or by realizing that they’re missing out on significant innovation and growth because of lack of diversity that a company will get on the right track to succeeding at DEI change.
Once the leaders can clearly communicate why DEI genuinely matters to them, it becomes a lot easier for the rest of the leadership team to understand why the company should invest the time and resources into doing it. With this clarity of purpose, it becomes a lot easier for even the most profit-motivated executives to put in the effort to create an initiative that works.
Of course, as Susanne pointed out, the companies with the most successful efforts overall were those that simply cared enough about inclusion and diversity at a human level that their passion drove them to get creative about new DEI solutions. The best innovation comes from genuine personal investment.
Models of Success
Near the end of the episode, the guests were asked to share one of their favorite stories from their book. Susanne talked about a CEO they met whose earnest desire to make his company more inclusive made him willing to take criticism about how his company’s actions might be alienating certain communities. His recognition of his mistake and willingness to fix it rather than pass blame led to greater success with later DEI efforts.
Bertina told a story about an initiative by Citi Bank that truly illustrated the benefits of dedicated DEI initiatives. The company found they were having a lot of success hiring veterans but that the training they were providing wasn’t quite giving these new hires the tools they needed to truly thrive. Through research, leadership figured out every level of training and support that was needed and included these findings in their apprenticeship program. In the end, veteran retention became the highest of any demographic.
Innovating for Diversity
To close out the episode, Bertina offered her final thoughts on what leaders can do to start on the road to DEI success. Taking a page from the Narativ playbook, she advised leaders to “have the courage to listen and be open to hearing something that is going to challenge your assumptions.”
If you would like to learn more about our guests and their book, Innovating for Diversity: Lessons from Top Companies Achieving Business Success through Inclusivity, you can check them out here.