- By: Brian Paulen
Workplace diversity is certainly not a new concern for businesses, but it is one that continues to hover near the top of many organizations’ agendas. Beyond just being the “right thing to do,” various studies have shown that paying attention to diversity makes good business sense. For example, companies that exhibit gender and ethnic diversity are, respectively, 15 percent and 35 percent more likely to outperform those that don't. They bring in more sales revenue, more customers, and higher profits.
Another reason it remains a top strategic priority: It is far from an easy fix. This is clear from my own experience, and also from many conversations I’ve had with clients and peers in other organizations.
My profession – consulting – is well known for significant work-life integration issues due to extensive travel and intense project pressures. Typically, this is associated with the challenge of retaining women as they advance in their careers – but balance is a concern for everyone, and particularly important to younger generations in today’s workforce.
Diversity is about more than addressing work-life integration. For us, it is about having the diverse experience and perspective necessary to challenge the status quo, think through issues in different ways, and solve tough business problems. About 18 months ago, we started to look more closely at the diversity of our organization. Our self-examination became a tipping point for doing something meaningful to address the challenges we faced with diversity and inclusion. But the more we looked at the issue, the more we recognized that it is hard to have diversity without a strong sense of inclusion—that is, not only having diverse perspectives at the table but ensuring those perspectives are encouraged and embraced. To quote diversity expert Vernā Myers, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Indeed, a study by Shell and the Human Capital Institute found that having diverse teams alone is not enough to drive business value. For example, diverse teams without strong leaders who can ensure the right culture were not as inclusive. Rather, diverse teams drive business performance when certain conditions – such as the presence of inclusive behaviors and balanced diversity (members do not group themselves into diversity sub-groups)– are present. Other research by the Center for Talent Innovation backs up that finding, suggesting that without inclusion, there is often a diversity backlash.
I chose to take on a national leadership role in helping West Monroe strengthen its foundation of inclusion, for several reasons. First, I think having a man in this role sends a strong signal that diversity and inclusion is not just a gender issue, and that it is everyone’s responsibility to contribute to a culture of inclusion – especially those who make up the “majority.” Second, as someone who has spent a number of years as a leader in consulting organizations, these are issues I have long thought about. I have listened to clients talk about wanting more diversity on their delivery teams and getting the diverse thoughts that those bring. I have also seen the best and brightest talent leave organizations simply because, for one reason or another, they didn’t see a home for themselves. And finally, I see a lot of individuals caring genuinely about inclusion and diversity and I want to find ways to have a broader impact across the firm.
We are now 18 months into this journey, and I want to share a few principles and lessons learned that I think will be beneficial to others in the Seattle-area business community – in any industry – who may be navigating the same challenges.
Seek independent and expert perspectives. We enlisted Catalyst, a specialist in accelerating progress through workplace inclusion, to help us gather and assess feedback from many angles – employees, leaders, clients, people who had left our firm, competitors. Catalyst was able to filter and prioritize the feedback for us, based on its experience in the area, and help us figure out the next steps. If we had done this on our own, we may not have received honest feedback or gone down the right paths.
Make all leaders accountable. An Inclusion & Diversity (I&D) leadership role can help organize activity, but it accomplishes nothing if business leaders do not set the right tone from the top. We started by challenging all our directors (more than 80 people) to take ownership for an inclusive workforce. Led by an outside expert, our directors talked about unconscious bias and inadvertent workplace actions, and each one drafted a personal list of actions for making the people around them feel more included.
Form a council of volunteers. With the right level of support from leadership, a council of interested employees will innovate and take responsibility for developing initiatives, communicating, and gathering and analyzing feedback from the organization. At West Monroe, we made sure this was a diverse group of employees who shared their own experiences and perspectives, ensuring our path forward was inclusive and initiatives are people-driven. This can also provide opportunities for employees to take a leadership role, as well as a bridge toward eventually establishing a formal I&D function.
Encourage grassroots initiative. Tackling inclusion and diversity requires both top-down leadership and bottom-up initiative. I see a lot of this, but one of the best examples was when one of our consultants, concerned about the perception and impact of fasting during Ramadan, invited her colleagues to participate with her– with very positive results.
Target operations, not just policies. It might seem instinctive to start with policies and values statements, and those are important. But words on paper don’t always translate to desired actions. We have acquired several firms over the past five years (which is how I joined West Monroe in 2014). In our analysis, we heard from some people who had joined through acquisition that we aren’t always open to new ideas and ways of working, and that made them feel like outsiders. This feedback prompted us to look at how we welcome and integrate new people into our organization.