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Let’s Break it Down | To Run the DEI Marathon, Pace Yourself and Have a Plan

Evelyn Carter, PhD
| President
Evelyn is a social psychologist and DEI expert focused on evolving and advancing the practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion.


CultureAmp recently released Understanding the DEI landscape, a report filled with insights from DEI leaders. The data geek in me was thrilled to dig in. Two findings stood out: 

  • 49% of companies have a strategic DEI plan in place; and
  • 71% of organizations focus on more than just the compliance aspects of DEI.

These findings are incredibly exciting — that means more than two-thirds of organizations are doing more than the bare minimum with DEI, and that almost half of companies are being strategic about their efforts.  

But, it also raises an important question: if only 49% of organizations have a strategic plan, how are the remaining organizations deciding which DEI initiatives will drive impact, and what that impact should be?

I often encounter organizations who are well-intentioned, but end up adopting a haphazard approach to DEI. They hear guidance that they “should” do training, or that their workforce “should” be more diverse, and they launch initiatives at their organization with the same amount of finesse as one has when throwing pasta against a wall. Leaders of these organizations are hoping that one of their initiatives will “stick” and lead to impact. But impact is impossible unless you are thoughtful about what your goals are, and your plan to achieve those goals.

My colleague Natalie Johnson, Paradigm Managing Director and co-founder, agrees. She often uses the analogy of training for a marathon to think about DEI goal-setting:

My goal is to run 26.2 miles. First, I need to make sure that goal is realistic. If I’m running 2 miles comfortably today and the marathon is in two weeks, I won’t get to my goal. If it’s in 6 months, I can probably get there! To achieve my goal, I have to do a few things I’m not doing now, and it’s not JUST about running more, it’s also about eating better, adjusting my schedule so I have time to run, and tracking my progress to make sure I’m improving. I need to create a plan to reach my goal, and make adjustments if my plan isn’t working.

Driving DEI impact is, in many ways, a marathon. Below, I break down ways that organizations typically go wrong when it comes to DEI strategy and goal-setting, and offer ideas for what to do instead.

Challenge 1: Companies set goals, but don’t align DEI initiatives to those goals.

Following George Floyd’s murder, many organizations made declarations of audacious goals to the tune of “our organization will double the representation of Black employees by 2024.” But how do you actualize these intentions? Many organizations turn first to DEI training: educating their employees on topics like unconscious bias, allyship, or anti-racism. While it’s right to invest in DEI education, it is a mistake to expect training — on its own — to increase representation. Organizations need to invest in a variety of changes, like creating a structured hiring process, new training for recruiters on how to source a more diverse pool of candidates, etc., if they really want to meet this goal.

Research suggests that initiatives that increase DEI accountability and reduce structural barriers to leadership have the strongest positive effect on representation. So, organizations that want to make progress on their DEI goals should think carefully about what outcomes they hope to see, and what initiatives they think will move the needle on those outcomes. By tailoring the intervention to the goal in mind, and measuring the impact along the way, companies are more likely to see the change they seek.

Challenge #2: Companies set unrealistic goals and fail to adjust accordingly.

I once worked with a company that wanted my guidance on setting their DEI goals. This company, like many, had especially low Black and Hispanic/Latine representation, and the leaders felt pressure to publicly commit to improve representation for these groups. They planned to announce this effort in a couple weeks at a company-wide meeting.

The goal they set sounded wonderful: “We will increase representation of Black folks from 5% to 7% over the next year.” However, as we started to dig in, I couldn’t see how that would be possible. First, meeting that goal would require the company to literally double the headcount of current Black employees — a daunting, but perhaps possible goal for a company with the structures in place. However, this company did not have any such structures: they didn’t collect candidate demographic data, the hiring process varied greatly from team-to-team, and many interviewers evaluated candidates based on nebulous concepts like “the beer test.” Under the best of circumstances, it would be hard to meet this organization’s goal, and they were not in the best of circumstances.

They had to adjust. The leaders used the setback as an opportunity to communicate about the reason they had to slow down, turning the moment into a learning opportunity for everyone. As we dug through their existing data to create realistic goals, leaders brought the team along, including having me join a company-wide Q&A. This transparency turned a goal that might have otherwise been performative and doomed to fail into one that was appropriately aspirational and achievable.

Challenge #3: Companies don’t set any goals at all!

CultureAmp’s survey found that 49% of companies have a strategic DEI plan in place. But, what about the 51% of companies that don’t? This too is a challenge I see often. Many companies avoid setting goals because they are afraid to fail: they worry that setting a goal and failing to meet it is worse than not setting a goal at all. This is wrong.

Goal setting is important: it organizes everyone around the goal, and makes everyone’s role in meeting that goal clear. Even if an organization doesn’t meet the expressed goals, the failure presents an opportunity to reflect on what went well, what didn’t, and adjust accordingly. Natalie’s marathon analogy helps illustrate this point:

If I don’t successfully run a marathon, after a few months of work I can guarantee I’ll be running farther than I was at the start (2 miles), and I can be proud of that. Maybe next year I can run a marathon, and in the meantime, I’ve made progress and I’ve learned a lot about what worked, and what didn’t, in my training.

Change happens via intentional effort over time, not overnight. Companies should aim to make change happen, and they should take it seriously when the change they sought doesn’t arrive. Embracing the process of setting goals, collecting data, and iterating, is what helps companies maintain momentum over time.

To drive DEI impact, companies need a strategic vision and plan for how to bring that vision to life. I hope that CultureAmp’s survey next year shows that 100% of companies have a DEI strategy — an audacious goal that I, personally, am committed to helping folks meet.

March 24, 2022

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