4 approaches to diversity and inclusion leadership

There’s no one-size-fits-all diversity and inclusion strategy. Here’s how four tech companies handle D&I — some with executive representation, some without.

Four approaches to diversity and inclusion leadership

Movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp and high-profile scandals at companies like Uber and Binary Capital have put the need for greater diversity and inclusion in tech in the spotlight. Diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies are no longer “nice to haves,” they’re a business imperative. If the research proving that diverse teams are more productive and innovative and that organizations with diverse leadership perform better and enjoy greater ROI aren’t convincing, the cautionary tales of tarnished brands and customer boycotts should provide impetus for tech companies to address diversity issues in their ranks.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all D&I strategy, there are some best practices — executive buy-in, employee commitment, and a strategic emphasis on D&I as a competitive advantage and business imperative, to name a few. Some organizations are seeing improvement by carving out an executive role in the form of a chief diversity and inclusion officer, while others are taking a grassroots approach with diversity and inclusion councils that draw from the workforce. Which is right for you? Here’s how four organizations are tackling D&I.

A company-wide diversity council

When recruiting and applicant tracking system (ATS) software company Lever’s head of diversity and inclusion left to become head of diversity, inclusion and belonging at Blend, Lever’s remaining executive team, including CMO Leela Srinivasan and VP of people Mike Bailen, faced a dilemma.

The company was founded with D&I as a core value, and it formed its first D&I task force in 2014. By November 2017, they were exactly where they wanted to be as a company, representation- and parity-wise. The question then became, Did they really need to hire a replacement?

“D&I has always been a bottom-up organizational and cultural value from the very founding of the company. From the start, we’ve wanted to make sure we had these diverse opinions, ideas, input and feedback, and so it’s been a groundswell within the organization,” says Srinivasan. “I’m the executive sponsor for one of our employee resource groups for women at Lever, the Leverettes. We realized that we weren’t in the minority anymore, so the question became, How do we proceed?”

Related video: How IT diversity helps workers thrive 

Looking back over the previous years, Srinivasan noted a need to further distribute D&I education and responsibilities. While there was incredible enthusiasm for getting involved in the day-to-day work of D&I at Lever, further education would be beneficial.

“We realized how often people raise their hands and say, ‘How do I get involved in this? What does this all mean? How can I make a difference, get more involved and understand the issues? And how can I hold myself and my colleagues accountable?’” she says. “We also noticed — and in no way did this hinder us, it was actually a wonderful thing, but it was something we observed — that at times it was easier to go straight to the top and say, ‘This is the head of D&I’s responsibility,’ and there was a demand for education on how to take even more personal responsibility for these issues.”

In response to that demand, the company decided to hold off hiring an executive. Instead, they set up a “diversity collective” that involves everyone at Lever and they carved out a director of employee experience role that will oversee D&I at Lever, among other responsibilities, Srinivasan says.

“We wanted to make sure we’re still getting together regularly, set a clear agenda, set goals and hit our targets, all the while making sure our people and our programs are as supportive, innovative and inclusive as possible so anyone who comes on board can thrive and be successful — the collective is a huge part of that,” says Srinivasan. Every employee is educated on how to identify when behaviors aren’t inclusive and is empowered to resolve it, she adds.

The collective isn’t focused solely on personal identity, but draws from different roles and departments across the company to make sure all professional viewpoints are represented, Bailen says.

“Within the collective, we have representation from sales, engineering, marketing, customer success — everywhere. That way, people can call out issues, identify tensions and obstacles from every area of the business and overcome these obstacles as a group,” he says.

For example, Srinivasan’s Leverettes focused an initiative on cross-functional empathy, she says. “That was one of our areas we identified; how to champion this concept of ‘XFE.’ How that manifested was we set up specific lunch tables, and encouraged people from different areas of the business to eat together — to talk about their challenges, their wins, how things looked from their perspective,” Srinivasan says. “Things like that seem so simple, but it gets increasingly difficult as the company gets bigger. Things like this can help continue the momentum as we grow and scale.”

This approach obviously doesn’t work for every organization, especially those that are just starting their D&I journey. Sometimes a high-level executive is necessary to formalize strategy, delegate responsibilities throughout the organization and ensure accountability. Uber, of course, is a prime example; after a slew of scandals, the exposure of its toxic culture, an investigation led by former Attorney General Eric Holder and the replacement of the majority of its executives, the company appointed Bo Young Lee as Chief Diversity Officer in January 2018.

D&I in the C-suite

C-suite buy-in and emphasis on D&I is important, but it takes continuous attention, effort and sustained commitment to make sure an executive-level D&I position isn’t just a figurehead, Srinivasan says.

“There’s so much more to it than just creating and filling a role. Sometimes companies hide behind the façade of having a head of D&I; what you have to understand is that it’s not going to change individual behaviors from day to day. There’s got to be acknowledgment of what the issues are, where there are problems, how to address them and then how to distribute the education, the action, the accountability all the way through the organization,” she says.

A D&I executive can help define goals, targets, areas for improvement and then develop strategies around that, says Tarsha McCormick, head of diversity and inclusion at ThoughtWorks. But it’s up to the rest of the organization to execute on that strategy.

“It depends on the individual organization how to best structure themselves, obviously — but whether there’s an executive at the top who directs this, or not, it really should be the responsibility of the entire organization to execute that strategy and make D&I a priority,” McCormick says. In her role, she’s responsible for information gathering, prioritizing and then setting strategy, as well as long- and short-term goals and initiatives and holding everyone accountable for meeting those goals.

A D&I leader adjacent to the C-suite

At HR software company Namely, while the diversity and inclusion initiatives are led by employee volunteers from across the organization, it was the chief people officer and the internal HR team who spearheaded them, says CEO Matt Straz.

“With the growing attention to issues like diversity, pay equity and harassment, teams are starting to prioritize D&I earlier and earlier,” Straz says. “Diversity was part of our mission and a core value from the day I started the company — so, at half the size of some larger companies that are just starting to understand the importance of this, we have a D&I team in place. These are issues that have a direct impact on your culture, and as such, they can make or break your business.”

Straz brought Julie Li, senior director of people operations, to Namely from Citi, where she worked on the global diversity team. She works closely with Namely’s chief people officer to drive a number of HR initiatives, including D&I, though to her, the work itself speaks louder than any proper title.

“I thought it was a great sign that Namely had this structure in place from the beginning,” Li says. “When I was asked to come on board here, we discussed how this would work and whether we needed to have a formal CDIO, as well as if I wanted to take that on. My belief is that, while I’m happy to own that work, the title isn’t necessary. I think if there are people dedicated to pushing these initiatives forward, whether it’s a CDIO, a CPO, the CHRO, great. But every single employee should have that same desire to build a culture of diversity and inclusion. So I’m focused on making sure that part of our mission and values is strategic, and then driving that with policy and processes,” Li says.

She also works in concert with Namely’s workforce diversity council that was formed by Namely employees. “This was a completely organic, grassroots effort from our employees. We have a group that’s made up of at least one person from each department, and a senior advisor. They work to bring in speakers, plan activities, develop and deliver information and listening sessions, addressing issues from the employee standpoint. Interestingly enough, the senior advisor is our head of legal, but that’s because he was interested in the work, not because of his official role, but it’s been very helpful to have that perspective,” Li says. The company also recently set up employee resource groups and plans to include D&I questions in their next employee engagement survey.

Employee-driven D&I

Being headquartered in Salt Lake City hasn’t deterred learning management platform company Instructure from doing whatever it takes to improve on the diversity of its workforce. In fact, it’s pushed them to try even harder, says Jeff Weber, senior vice president of people and places. Instructure recently announced they’ve committed to the Parity Pledge, which challenges companies to interview at least one qualified woman candidate for each VP-level role and higher to increase representation of women in leadership, and the company has made a host of other policy and process changes for 2018.

While there’s significant executive buy-in at the executive level, Instructure’s D&I council is distributed through the entire workforce, and is tasked with addressing how to improve diverse recruiting, foster inclusion and support the company’s offices worldwide, says Becky Frost, senior director of communications for Instructure.

“One of our core values is openness, and diversity and inclusion is definitely part of that. It doesn’t start or end with one person, or one group,” says Frost. “We believe you need executive sponsorship but that it has to be embedded in the DNA of the company. We have advocates in all our teams that communicate up the chain when there’s issues; gathering feedback, talking about what’s working and what’s not as we expand to Sydney, London, Chicago, and back home in Salt Lake,” she says.

Each Instructure office has its own unique culture, so there are different issues and challenges in each location, she adds. Publishing diversity statistics on the Instructure blog helps to hold everyone accountable across the organization.

“We’re publishing our stats to the blog every year now so that we can see where we were, how we’re doing and celebrate when we’re succeeding,” says Frost. “What’s been incredibly encouraging is to hear that our candidates are asking for these changes — even from a white, male software engineer in the middle of the U.S., one of the first questions they’re asking us when they interview is, ‘What are you doing about diversity?’” she says.

The public accountability can be frightening, Weber says, but it’s an important piece of demonstrating commitment to diversity and inclusion, and he hopes to serve as an inspiration for other companies who are struggling with the same issues.

“It’s not easy to make these changes, and it’s not easy to go out there and say, ‘Our stats aren’t great — we’re struggling with this, too,’” Weber says. “But we’re putting ourselves out there because it’s absolutely the right thing to do and we want to show that you don’t have to be perfect. These things take time, trial and error. But look, if we can do this, here in Salt Lake City, anyone can do it. No excuses,” he says.

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