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Episode 30: The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion

Originally posted on Call In Podcast

Hosted by Chris Riback & Dr. Alexandria White

Episode 30: The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion

A conversation with Dr. Ella F. Washington, Founder and CEO of Ellavate Solutions, and Professor of Practice at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business


Chris Riback: I'm Chris Riback. This is Call In with Dr. Alexandria White. We discuss business leadership in our time of social change when to call in, when to call out, and how to build sustainable business value today.

Before our conversation though, an ask from us to you. We hope you like these call in conversations. And if so, we'd appreciate if you take a moment, go to Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen, and if you're so moved, leave a five-star review. The ratings really matter. They go a long way to helping other people find the podcast.

Dr. Alexandria White: Our show is brought to you by Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, which is committed to a more diverse and inclusive future. Let's call in.

Chris Riback: Dr. Washington, thanks so much for joining us. We've been looking forward to the conversation.

Dr. Ella F. Washington: Thank you so much for having me. It's my pleasure to be here.

Chris Riback: So maybe we could start off with you telling us what is the necessary journey and why is it necessary?

Dr. Ella F. Washington: So the necessary journey is about diversity, equity, and inclusion. And the concept of journey is not a new one. We use it in so many places in our life, whether it's a fitness journey or a healing journey, or our career journey. So we're familiar with this concept of journey, but what I've found is that when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, many people would say it's a journey, but not really know what that entails. The fact that it takes time, the fact that the pathway may not be straightforward, the fact that there will be some things that happen on the journey that you don't plan for, and you have to figure out how to navigate it. And this concept of journey was one that I felt needed demystification for people to really understand what it was all about. The journey is necessary because if we are working towards a world that is more inclusive and equitable, we must go on this journey and we must be willing to put ourself in the uncomfortable space of learning, growing, and pushing ourselves to new heights when it comes to this work.

Dr. Alexandria White: Well, I am so glad that you said that. That it's a journey and people want to go on it. You consult with companies, organizations, people in higher education, but what if they don't want to go on the journey? What if they want a sprint instead of a marathon, Dr. Washington, and they want to check a box? So what do you say to those people that say, "Hey, I'm not here for this journey. I'm not here to change people's heart and minds, but we just got some metrics to make our boards, to make our board members happy." What do you say to them?

Dr. Ella F. Washington: I hear this all the time, implicitly and explicitly sometimes. And this is work at the end of the day. It's not going to happen overnight. And so the question that leaders must ask themselves is, "Am I committed or am I not?" If you're not, then the check the box metrics is probably as far as you're going to go. But if you are committed, then you must go on the journey. There is no gray area, truly. Either you are or you're not. And it's a hard pill to swallow for many leaders because many leaders have gotten to their positions of leadership based on their competence, based on their ability to get things done, usually quickly with great success. And with DEI, it's not as linear as that.

Your inputs don't always match your outputs, and that's frustrating. We want to get A on the test, we want the answers, we want to know that if we put our efforts towards something, we're going to get the desirable result. And in this particular journey, that's not always the case, not because we can't make progress, but it may take longer than we thought, or it might not come as easily as we thought. Maybe we create a new program that's DEI focused and it's not well received or well attended. And so those are the things that take true commitment as opposed to a check the box activity is just going to be that. It's just going to be check the box and it likely won't have any of the intended impact.

Chris Riback: To what extent do business leaders today come to you and say, "I understand there's a business case for DEI, I understand the business case. We don't have the business strategy, and we'd like your help." Versus business leaders coming to you and saying, "Hey, I know I'm supposed to do this and I know it's good because obviously it's better to have people included than not included. I don't necessarily see a business case. I don't know how this is going to really impact my bottom line. I think I should be doing it for inclusion purposes." So to what extent do they see a business case behind it or do they ask you about that?

Dr. Ella F. Washington: So this notion of a moral case or business case is one of the hottest topics, I feel like, that is ongoing in the world of DE&I, because there's a camp of people that believe that this work is morally inclined. That it is the right thing to do and nothing else matters other than it's the right thing to do for humanity purposes. There's another camp that believes that this is a business imperative and that at the end of the day, whether it's the right thing to do or not, we can debate, but what we can't debate is the business impact. And for me, I actually think that it is both and, it is a moral imperative and a business imperative. Truly, if we were just focused on the moral imperative, we know that throughout the course of history, people's passions rise and fall.

Even as we know three years ago, the rhetoric around DEI was very front and center, and now we're seeing that wane a bit. And this is what we've seen time and time again throughout the history. And so if we're just relying on people's morals, passions and feeling like it's the right thing to do and really being morally convicted, we're going to see that ebb and the flow. On the other side, if we only think about it from a business perspective, when we don't see those dollars and cents every single time that we've made a diverse hire, for example, then we start to question, "Well, is this really worth it?" So I think both must exist. You must understand how having a more diverse and inclusive culture creates a space for employees to thrive, employees to be at their best and ultimately for your business to perform better.

But you also have to understand how this work is in alignment with your values as an organization. And so you asked the percentage of leaders, I get people in both camps. I think the thing that leaders often need help with though is understanding that business bottom line. And so understanding how diversity is actually helping them, how inclusive teaming and an inclusive culture is actually helping them. And I'm okay with having that conversation because if there is curiosity and desire to understand more about it, let's dig into it. Let's see what the data shows us. Let's see how we can make that connection from a business perspective. I think that's the work of practitioners like myself to do.

Dr. Alexandria White: Speaking of people like you and I and my business partner at Reboot Excel, we go into companies, you do the work, you're by yourself sometimes Dr. Washington, and then there's people that work for the company and they're by themselves. And it's often put on one person, SVP of DEI, executive president of diversity, equity, and inclusion. That one person has a lot of stress on them and getting people to do things. But what do you think about the culture that it should be embedded into the culture and not just on that one person to be the DEI strategist for the company?

Dr. Ella F. Washington: So when I work with organizations, I'm very clear that this is a partnership. This is not me coming in from the outside fixing their problems and then going away. They partner with me and I'm very clear at the beginning of our engagement, what that partnership looks like and what it means. It means that they have to bring forth that data, they have to have certain conversations, they have to identify and bring forth the key stakeholders within the organization. So I set it up initially as a partnership, not that I am coming in as the surgeon doing the cut and then leaving. No, this is a journey together. And really it's their journey. I'm just here to help them. So I'm more of their coach as opposed to the person that's coming in and fixing everything. Because culture takes more than anyone consulting engagement to change.

It has to be embedded. One of the things that I talk about in my book, The Necessary Journey, is that successful DEI strategies must be both top down and bottom up. And I go through what that means at every level. So senior leaders certainly set the strategy from the top, and HR is usually the one who pushes forward that strategy, but it's really managers that are ones that can see how that strategy should be implemented every single day and they create the feedback loop from employees to the more senior leaders in saying what's working and what's not working. I think it's important for every single person in the organization, no matter if they've been there for 20 years or this is their second day on the job, it's important for every single person to see themselves as part of the journey, and not just conceptually, but for them to understand how they can contribute, whether they're grassroots efforts like employee resource groups they can contribute to, whether there is a comment box that they can give their perspective, whether it is leading their teams to be more inclusive if they are a people leader.

I think every single person in an organization not only must understand that they're part of this journey and they're a critical part, but also understand what's expected of them at every level in order to be aligned with the culture that the organization is trying to create to increase diversity, to encourage diversity of thought. And so I think far too often it is put on just the shoulders of one person or the diversity leader as opposed to it really being everyone's responsibility. So that's one of the main things that my work pushes forward.

Chris Riback: And could you get even more tactical on that point? Because I think you've hit at one of the potential blockages or obstacles, and not necessarily for nefarious reasons, for really practical reasons. Meaning you're talking about the importance of engaging the manager level and the line manager level, the folks who are really there. And you know as well as I do, they're really busy. They have line responsibilities. And so practically or tactically, what advice do you give businesses or what have you seen, even better if you've seen something that actually works in terms of engaging these line managers and how does it get best understood that this also is part of their line responsibilities?

Dr. Ella F. Washington: So it's a great question, and I acknowledge that managers are so busy, and even those who are well-intentioned often have a to-do list that is just insurmountable. And often when it comes to the work of inclusion and diversity and inequity, it falls to the bottom of the to-do list. And not because they're bad people or they don't care, but they have so many things on their plate and they are most concerned about those things that they're held responsible for and they're going to be held accountable for. So the first shift that has to be made is that you have to hold people accountable for the behaviors that you want to see. So you can't say, "We want to see you have more inclusive teaming behaviors," and that's not what's represented at all in their end of year performance review or in their bonus pool, et cetera.

So what gets measured gets done. So you have to put that as part of the measurement and evaluation of managers, because it's only fair that they put their very limited time and resources and attention to those things that they know will be measured. So that that's on the organization. I think from a manager perspective, it's important for them to understand. And I think practitioners like myself help them to connect these dots to understand that DEI is not just those big moments and those big conversations that we have, DEI is every single day. It's the way that we encourage diversity of thought in our team meetings. It's the way that we try to drive inclusive decision making versus unilateral decision making. It's the way that we think about is there equity in the amount of feedback that I'm giving, or is there equity in how work is getting assigned on my team?

And so the things that I just mentioned, all of those are actually directly within the wheelhouse of a manager. Those things, for the most part, are not within HR or not within senior leaders. You decide who gets what work on your team. You decide how your team meetings are ran. You decide how decisions at your level are being made, how much input you get from your team members versus not. How much transparency you give your team members versus not. And so those are all ways that managers not only can be active in the DEI journey, but it's also things that can be done in conjunction with what they're doing every single day. One of the biggest secrets, it shouldn't be a secret at all, is that a lot of DEI work is actually just good management. There's elevated conversation when it comes to issues of identity.

And so I'm not saying it's all the same, but when you get down to it, making a person from a diverse background feel included, it's going to be a lot of the same behaviors that you should be doing to make everyone feel included. And maybe you help a person to be seen for their unique identities, but shouldn't you be making feel everyone feels seen for who they are as unique individuals? And so again, we can get into specifics around certain identity conversations and having knowledge of those things is certainly important. But the core behaviors that we're trying to drive in our managers and in our organizations more broadly, it's just good management.

Dr. Alexandria White: Excellent, excellent. Dr. Washington. Wonderful standing ovation. However, we work with people that just because they've been at a company for 10 or 15 years, or they have a title, they feel that they've got the leadership thing down pat. And sometimes they don't, especially when it comes to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. So can you speak to the role of training and education for people who say, "Oh, I've been doing this for years. I think I know how to handle someone who is transitioning. I'm a leader. I'm an SVP." And so, what is the role of training and education for a more diverse and inclusive workplace when you have people that feel that they've got it, or I might not necessarily need training on this.

Dr. Ella F. Washington: I think it goes back to what is the organization incentivizing? Because if they've made it to that SVP level, that has nothing to do, in many organizations, with how inclusive a leader they are.

Dr. Alexandria White: Correct.

Dr. Ella F. Washington: And a lot of organizations, how good of a people leader they are, it really has to do with maybe they've gotten results. And so a lot of organizations have to go through this redefining process of what does it mean to be a leader at this organization? Maybe in the past it meant that you are hitting all of your metrics for our clients. However, moving forward, it's going to mean that and you are a certain type of people leader. And I've worked with many organizations that are in that process are really grappling with the fact that they have not been holding leadership accountable for inclusive leadership and for the behaviors that they want to see.

And so it's a transition point for many organizations. Now, if this is an organization that has been incentivizing that, then if that leader says that, "I don't need training, I know how to do it." I would say, "Great, tell me about a time when. Tell me you've done it." And if you do have those strong skills, how do we amplify those great things that you've done to be a beacon of light and example for other leaders? Because if it does so happen that they don't need the training because they do it beautifully, let's bring them along in the process, have them be ambassadors of those great behaviors that they're doing. Because I guarantee you, everyone in the organization is not doing just those things, certainly not through osmosis. They do have to be learned. So maybe they're part of the training committee if they're doing such a good job.

Dr. Alexandria White: They're so great.

Dr. Ella F. Washington: This is not work that it should be exclusionary in nature. If they have a great idea or something, they're already doing great, I always amplify those bright spots, what we call them in the organization and say, "How can we replicate them?" If you are doing great with the marketing department, being inclusive and going after new customers and all of your team members feel like this is the best organization ever, let's amplify that. How do we get that same feeling and that same feather in those same behaviors throughout the organization?

Chris Riback: I just think it's important to make clear for the record, Dr. Washington, that I don't think I've ever gotten a standing ovation from Dr. White. And so the fact that in 15 minutes you've gotten what has taken me years to try to attain, I'm really impressed by everything that you're doing and I'm feeling really humbled as well. Among your lines that I just loved that you said a couple of moments ago, that so much of this, it's just good management. I'm listening to you, and it's so much of it is, it's just good management. It's just understanding people. It's just trying to think about how do you get the best out of everyone or anyone?

With that context, what about the pushback? I mean, you hear it, you see it as much as anybody, I'm sure. You see it from certain public officials and politicians. You see it from certain business leaders across our society saying that DEI is fill in the blank. Taking our eye off the ball is just something that's in fashion right now and is just trying to make certain people happy. How do you engage with pushback? How do you engage with it constructively? And what guidance would you give leaders who maybe feel like they ought to be taking this path, but maybe they're concerned about pushback that they might get from local politicians or from employees?

Dr. Ella F. Washington: So the main thing that I tried to do when I engage in these conversations is understand what the pushback is about. What is it grounded in? Is it grounded in fact, or is it grounded in rhetoric that they may have picked up without having a real understanding of what it is? Secondly, I would ask what's the fear? What is the fear that they're really grappling with? Because a lot of times people are pushing back on this work because they're truly afraid of, what about me? I call them the what about me-isms. So is this a fear that we're really going to run out of money as a company if we support our ERG groups? Or is this a fear that if we support these efforts for diversity and inclusion, that's going to push me out in some way? And so I think having those tough conversations about what is it that we're really talking about, what is it that we're really challenging against, is the level of conversation that needs to be happening.

In my book, Shannon Schuyler talks very candidly about how at PWC, she's had conversations with leaders who are often white and male, that challenge, "Why are we doing all this diversity work?" And that, "What about me-isms," come up. And instead of leaning away or brushing that conversation under the rug, she says, "Okay, let's have the conversation. Let's look at the data and look at the fact that there hasn't been equity and in sometimes inclusion in our company." And so we're working towards that because it is the right thing to do, because it's our values, but that doesn't mean there's not a place for you here, and this is how you can get involved and this is how we need your help.

And so leaning into those conversations instead of stirring away from them can often lead people who have true questions to at least have a deeper understanding of why we're doing the work. People who just want to be obstinate, well, they'll be obstinate anyways and I think that in the best cultures, they find themselves no longer fitting in. If the organization is truly moving in a different direction, then maybe that's not the organization for them.

Dr. Alexandria White: So you talked about three years ago. Three years ago, DEI was the buzzword. I remember on LinkedIn having data that there's like a 200% increase of diversity on their website. There was a plethora of job openings and things like that. And so when we've covered our time together, we've talked about pushback. How do you see the field of DEI evolving over the next decade? And what new challenges and opportunities do you anticipate that might appear?

Dr. Ella F. Washington: I think that the future of DEI will continue to evolve. It must, because as long as humans are evolving, we will continue to need to evolve the way we see our place in the workplace. It's great. It's a good thing. So we're now thinking about Gen-Z in the workplace and what that will mean and what they need differently than previous generations to feel like they can thrive in the workplace. We're also grappling with the very real changes that artificial intelligence, things like chat GPT, are bringing to our world and specifically our world of work. And we need to be thinking about, "Okay, how will this have an impact when we think about inclusion and equity?" We're also now at the place where hybrid world is here to stay. And so when we're thinking about workplaces, it's no longer just thinking about brick and mortar, four walls of a workplace.

It's very much, for most, organizations hybrid. And so how do we make sure that they're not inequities in how we're evaluating performance or having team members develop connections on hybrid teams or even people's voice being heard. And so there's lots to do. It's interesting because I always say I hope the conversation moves past the things that we've been grappling with for forever, such as our basic challenges around race, our basic challenges around gender, because there's so much other work to be done. And so those are the things that I see really at the forefront of our continued conversations and certainly how politics has now played a role in what some organizations can do around DEI. State laws and precedents that are being put forth, they will have an impact. And so I think that is also the future of DEI, is making sure that you understand what's happening in your state and how that has an influence in what you can and cannot do from a legal perspective.

Chris Riback: And that's why, as you said before, it's a journey and that's why your book is called “The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion”. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts from the book and thoughts from your work. Dr. White, anything else that you've got for Dr. Washington?

Dr. Alexandria White: Thank you so much for sharing this space with us, with your expertise and advice and intellect. Thank you so much, Dr. Washington.

Dr. Ella F. Washington: Thank you both for having me. It's been a pleasure.

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