Knowledge Center

5 Executive Blindspots That Sabotage Their DEI Success

Mitch Shepard

Number 1

Orienting too strongly towards “knowing” versus “learning”

One of the conditions for success & innovation in any company or role is having the breathing room to learn. Vishen Lakhiani, CEO of Midvalley, sets the expectation that each employee (including him) should be spending 4-hours per week learning. This is part of their work time, not the thing they do after work. Kevin Hale, CEO & founder of Woofoo, required that every software engineer on his team spend one day per week answering customer support calls. Why would he pay high-salary engineers to answer the phones? Because it helped them learn, stay close to customer issues, and fix the most pressing issues quickly. Learning had a direct impact on their ability to innovate. They were profitable within months of bringing their product to market, and he chalks part of their rapid success up to the learning mindset that permeated the culture.

Executives sometimes forget to do their own learning. They learn what they need to learn to understand the industry & competitive landscape. They learn what they need to learn to demonstrate strong financial acumen. They learn how to lead people effectively. They are often strong in public speaking & business development because they have done their 10,000 hours of practice (as Malcolm Gladwell says). They understand the science or the technology that is at the heart of their business. They learn these things because they cannot survive without knowing them.

Executives must treat DEI with the same level of importance and urgency if they want to be successful in this arena.

As the Chinese proverb goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.” I think many of us feel overwhelmed by the amount of learning we have to do in order to get ourselves up to speed on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion — issues related to race, gender, LBGTQ+, visible & invisible disabilities, etc etc etc. There is A LOT that we are supposed to know these days in order to be effective human beings and leaders. But, slow and steady wins the race. My encouragement is to commit a certain amount of time to learn, every week. Before you know it, your level of acumen will be transformed — and so will your relationships and company culture!

I had a leader ask me the other day, How am I supposed to balance learning with leading? How would you coach me on that, Mitch? We talked about this for some time, but for the purposes of this article, I will bottom line it for you. It is important for people to see their leaders learning. Learning is part of leading.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, is a great example of this. Microsoft was known for being pretty cutthroat, prior to the promotion of Satya in 2014. Being “right” was deeply valued & rewarded, and it was not uncommon to see people pounding their fists on the table to get their point across. It is well documented that this culture grew in the early days of MS, under the leadership of Bill Gates, and continued to some degree through the Steve Balmer era. When Satya came in, he brought with him an emphasis on “Growth Mindset.” He did not simply tell others that they needed a growth mindset, he demonstrated it himself. Satya was on stage as a panelist at the biggest women-in-tech event, the Grace Hopper Conference, when he inadvertently showed his ignorance and bias, as related to women asking for raises. He misspoke. It was an innocent but obvious blunder (to the many women in the room), and his comments immediately went viral. Exposed and vulnerable, Satya had a choice. Deny or admit. He talks about going home to his daughter who scolded him for his ignorance. Instead of claiming that others “misunderstood” or that he “wasn’t that kind of guy,” he saw an opportunity to live into his purported commitment to a growth mindset. He admitted he had made a mistake, and used the experience to grow and teach others — publicly. The result? The collective hearts of women across the world opened to Satya. Instead of his error being a stain on his record or a chink in his armor, he was viewed as a brave and vulnerable ally.

Number 2

Being overly-focused on diversity, and under-focused on inclusion.

A recent McKinsey study found that “39% of all respondents say they have turned down or decided not to pursue a job because of perceived lack of inclusion at the organization.” That is a big number, especially considering the amount of time that leaders spend combing over resumes and interviewing candidates. For many millennial and Gen Z employees and job seekers, DEI in the workplace is not a preference, it is a requirement.

It is wonderful to see companies pouring more attention into attracting, hiring, and retaining diverse talent. Some companies are even proactively investing in diversifying the pipeline of the future by funding inner-city schools to close the budget gaps, providing mentoring opportunities in STEM for students who would not normally have access, reaching deeper into communities of color to provide internship opportunities, increasing recruiting efforts at HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges & Universities), or funding things like coding schools for women who have been out of the workforce. The list goes on! These are all important areas of focus. There is no denying that. However, one of the biggest predictors of a company’s ability to attract, hire, and retain diverse talent is the level of inclusion and health of the culture.

I heard a powerful story recently from a black female attorney, who worked at a nearly all-white law firm early in her career. She would often be pulled into interview loops to show that the company was “diverse” and to speak to her experience working there. She shared that depending on the day, and how she was feeling, she would sometimes lean over the desk and quietly issue a stark warning to the prospective hire, “I’m going to be honest with you. This place is not great. I do not recommend it.” This story stopped me in my tracks. I thought of all the leaders who pull women or people of color into interview loops, assuming that they are having a positive experience of the work environment — without assessing or asking about the degree to which they feel valued, heard, respected, and positive about their workplace.

Diversity, simply defined, is counting heads. Inclusion is making heads count. Inclusion is the degree to which people feel valued, respected, unleashed to contribute their talents, and a sense of belonging. One of my favorite friends and fellow DEI leaders, Amelia Ransom, summed it up perfectly in a recent conversation we had. She quipped, “Companies want 31 flavors of ice cream, but they don’t have a freezer to keep it cold.” Bingo.

The bottom line is this: we all have a job when it comes to building the habits & behaviors of inclusion, but we don’t have the same job. C-level leaders have a unique set of strategic and personal levers that only they can pull. The same is true for HR departments, recruiting teams, managers up and down the organization, and every individual contributor. It’s high time that organizations invest in ongoing development to help all of us work better across human complexities and aid employees in building effective habits — not just awareness of the issues.

Number 3

Putting DEI roadmaps in the hands of “The Diversity Council” (AKA: passionate volunteers)

I get it. Companies have never been under more pressure to “do more” in the areas of DEI. Seconds count. Your talent brand and current level of employee engagement depends, in part, on your ability to get better (and faster) results in diversity & inclusion. Employees are asking why is it taking so long? Why isn’t anything changing? They are beginning to think, talk is cheap — where is the action? In pressure-filled situations like this, it is tempting to turn to the most passionate employees who are beating down a path to your door and say some version of this: You’re right. We do need to do more. What do you think about starting (or joining) a diversity council? We would love for you all to come back to us with some recommendations.

And there you have it….a “Diversity Council” is born.

While the intentions behind these groups are positive, the impact can often be less than. The problems are many. Often, there is high passion but low expertise across grassroots diversity councils, which means they spend exorbitant amounts of time and cycles trying to figure out what should be done to advance progress in DEI. It’s not for naught. Diversity councils have been known to come back with some pretty amazing recommendations! But, more times than not, it is tough for people to prioritize their volunteer roles within a company when their day jobs are demanding. This can sometimes lead to the feeling that they are doing more than their fair share of the “office housework” (the unpaid labor)…sometimes without receiving much personal benefit, credit, and without seeing much change. Volunteers tend to be highly motivated by impact. Many folks who join ERG’s or Diversity Councils are happy to do so — even eager to do so — until they realize that progress is slow.

How can we solve this conundrum? Before you send passionate employees off and running, clarify roles. What is theirs to own or influence? What is yours to own, as the CEO? What lies in the hands of the executive team, the HR team, the recruiting team, the D&I team, and people managers up and down the company? I’ve seen it over a hundred times: a once passionate diversity council begins to feel demoralized (and possibly even resentful & frustrated) as slow or no progress is made. Much of this slow progress can be chalked up to three things: 1. Not having a clear roadmap (what are we going to do, why are we going to do it, what is our timeline, and how will we measure our success?) 2. Lack of role clarity regarding who owns what portion of the roadmap & how these various roles will coordinate and communicate. 3. Executive leaders not having enough ‘skin in the game’ and not willing to allocate enough budget. Executives invest money and time in things that matter to them, and to the success of the company. When employees start ERG groups or diversity councils, only to receive dismal funding, it sends an unintended & subtle message to employees: We say this is important, but we aren’t willing to show that this is important. And…even though we are investing time and money in other important priorities across the company, we expect you to do this work for free.

Would you put your product in the hands of passionate volunteers? No? Then you should not put your diversity goals in those hands (entirely) either.

Number 4

Lacking a strong narrative

Most executives are rather good, if not stellar, at rallying the troops around the business vision & goals. They talk to employees, shareholders, and investors about what is coming, and they instill confidence, excitement, and clarity with their words. This same passion and inspiring narrative are needed from CEOs (and everyone on an executive team) when they discuss their DEI initiatives. Many executives are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but few do a great job at articulating the reasons why. They overlook the importance of conveying that message in a genuine, strategic, and consistent way.

It’s important for executive leaders, especially the CEO, to contemplate and articulate their reasons why.

Why do I personally care about diversity, equity, and inclusion? When I ask this question to executives, I’ve heard all kinds of heartfelt answers, such as “I grew up watching the hardships my mother faced, working in the post office. The heat she took from her male colleagues.” Or “I have always had a strong value around fairness and equality — it’s just the right thing to do. It’s part of my core values.” Or “I have a _____ (race) child or _______(race) spouse. I have been witness to the assumptions that are made about them. It’s not right.”

Why do I strategically care about diversity, equity, and inclusion? What is the business case? When I ask this question to executives, I can tell in a nanosecond if they are just saying the right things or if they believe what they are saying. Employees can smell sincerity too. I have seen many examples of executives who have the business case in their bones — they know it inside and out — but they do not communicate it in a way that is compelling or consistent across their teams & organizations.

I’ve heard executives say things like: “We will cure cancer faster if we have scientists from different backgrounds,” “We will make better business decisions if we bring different people & perspectives to the table,” “We will be more innovative,” “We will be more successful at hiring diverse talent if candidates see others who look like them in the ranks of leadership,” or “Our teams will be more productive and engaged if team members feel valued, respected and empowered to contribute.” Executives have a lot to say when asked about the business case for DEI, but often when you ask people one or two levels down, the business case is murkier.

Executives may also wrongly assume that people care about diversity for the same reasons they do, or that they care at all. We forget that every human being has a WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) living in the front or back of their mind. We forget to ask them why they care. We forget to facilitate the discussions that drive clarity around their WIIFM and help them connect the dots between their own behaviors and better team performance.

Executive leaders (outside of HR or D&I functions) need to convey on a consistent basis, the heartfelt (human) and the strategic reasons for having a roadmap and goals related to DEI. Vulnerability and transparency build trust.

Number 5

Allowing toxic behavior to persist.

It’s like Uncle Bob at the Thanksgiving dinner table. He says offensive things. He turns people off. Everyone rolls their eyes (literally or figuratively), but the person at the head of the table allows the behavior to continue. Everyone makes excuses for him — he’s old-school, don’t mind him, he’s always been that way, you can’t take him personally, just ignore him. There is an at-work version of Uncle Bob, too. It’s the senior executive or mid-level manager who is wickedly smart & good at their job, who has one fatal flaw: that they’re an offensive jerk. They intimidate others or leave bodies in their wake. This affects a company’s ability to grow junior talent, leverage different ideas, make great decisions, and create high-performance team environments. Sometimes people even quit because of jerks like this. It turns out that when people are treated horribly, they tend to shut down, exercise caution, subtly sabotage decisions because their voices & expertise were not heard, or leave the company entirely for greener pastures.

Perhaps you recognize this scenario. The at-work version of Uncle Bob interrupts or speaks over others, dominates the conversation, acts arrogant, intimidates more junior people (albeit unintentionally) as they try to share their point of view, or uses a tone that implies other ideas or other people are stupid. People notice, even though they ‘roll with it’. They also notice when the leader at the head of the table, so to speak, does not intervene to stop it. Often, when someone is courageous enough to point out the behavior (most likely in the meeting-after-the-meeting), they hear the same types of excuses…he’s old-school, don’t mind him, he’s always been that way, you can’t take him personally, just ignore him. Or, my personal favorite, there is nothing we can do, he’s a high performer.

The unintended message that leaders send when they allow this type of behavior to persist is that some people are above the law. Ask just about any woman or person of color (certain colors more than others), if they are allowed to act this way, and still have a job. You will hear a resounding NO. They would be correct.

The dots leaders sometimes do not connect, to their detriment, is that people watch what you do and what you do not do. Your actions (or lack of action) have an exponential impact. Turning a blind eye to toxic behavior ultimately sends the message that some leaders are above the law, which can lead to frustration, exhaustion, cynicism, and even higher-than-desirable turnover. Allowing behavior like this to persist (from anyone) has extremely negative consequences on both morale and innovation.