Ways to Reboot Your Diversity Council

It was toward the end of a 90-minute meeting for Adele, chairman of her company’s diversity council. So far the discussion had centered mostly on building and delivering bicycles to poor children in a nearby Hispanic community. Before that, they talked extensively about doing an Asian Heritage Week celebration in the cafeteria, featuring foods from various countries, and they were planning to discuss organizing employee marchers for a parade.

These efforts were fine and would produce good PR, but Adele couldn’t escape the feeling that this really wasn’t enough. Recently she’d heard from colleagues that women were leaving the company a lot faster than men, and that many underrepresented people were disengaged due to the lack of mobility up the ranks and a feeling of being tolerated as opposed to truly included. Further, many white males didn’t think the council represented their needs or views. They dismissed it as a club for underrepresented people.

Adele knew at this juncture in the company’s diversity journey it needed to fully engage and connect all the people in the organization, but she did not know where to begin. A few executives already had told her that getting more people to be and feel included seemed like the logical next step. Looking at her council, its skill levels and the activities it gravitated toward, however, she knew participants might not want to or be able to tackle other challenges. Feeling frustrated, Adele was quietly thinking of ways she could leave the council before her chairman term was up without looking like a quitter.

In this story, Adele is fictional, but her experience is real for many, because while the world has changed, some diversity councils have not.

Changing Expectations
Many American workplace diversity efforts saw the first light of day amidst the civil rights legislation of the ’60s. During the years that followed, diversity programs sprouted in companies across the U.S. According to a 1998 Fortune magazine and Society for Human Resource Management study, nearly 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies had a diversity program in place and another 8.9 percent were planning to institute one. In the latter part of the 20th century, many corporations formed advisory groups called diversity councils, designed to raise awareness about diversity and underscore the company’s commitment to build a more diverse workforce.

Back then a Fortune 500 company might only have a few African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, women or other minorities in professional positions. From these it picked some to form the council. The criteria for a position on these councils often consisted of three elements: participants had to belong to one of the underrepresented targeted identity groups, have clear company loyalty and have a passion for increasing diversity by bringing in diverse candidates. These council members, once assembled, often performed their work by staging programs that showcased the “food, flags and famous people” from the underrepresented groups to raise awareness about existing organizational diversity and to help attract more people from targeted groups into the employee base.

Today, however, it’s no longer just about getting people to see the company has diversity and getting more people from underrepresented groups to feel welcome to apply. It’s also about getting everyone working together, producing the maximum benefits for the company and the workforce in an increasingly competitive environment.

Organizations have added a host of topics beyond race and gender to the diversity and inclusion arena, such as leveraging global teams, mining diversity of thought and perspectives and engaging multiple generations in the workplace. In some organizations, all of these responsibilities may sit with one council. In other companies there are a variety of councils at the global, executive, division, business unit and other levels that focus on some or all of these topics. Regardless of how it’s done, yesterday’s criteria for selecting council members and preparing them for their role is no longer adequate for 21st century needs and challenges.

Old Criteria Never Dies
Yet, in some cases the old criteria is still used. Sahar Andrade, diversity and social media strategist for Sahar Consulting LLC, said, “some organizations are still following the old model of appointing people based on fierce loyalty to the company way, demographic identity and passion for bringing more people like them to the company, without regard to competencies needed to meet today’s needs.”

This is essentially what Angela Roseboro, senior vice president and chief diversity officer at Jones Lang LaSalle, found when she arrived two years ago. “We had many diversity councils basically doing their own thing,” she said. “After a while it became apparent that these were passionate people who cared about the company and wanted to help, but lacked the skills needed to drive the outcomes the company needed.”

Roseboro solved the problem by performing a reboot. First, she disbanded the diversity councils, prepared a strategy and identified the skills and capabilities she needed. Then she reassembled new councils with people who possessed the competencies needed to get the job done. Promotion rates for underrepresented talent went up, and leaders in the organization are now better trained in the skills needed to fully engage, lead and manage in an inclusive organization.

Andrade said that driven by the desire to have people in the diversity council who are fiercely loyal to the company way, organizations sometimes still “look for insiders who are completely bought into the company’s current way of doing things. These people tend to lack the objective perspective needed to see opportunities for improvement in a system they already deem flawless.” Appointing people who have an unintentional blindness to flaws leads to what Andrade calls “exclusionary councils” that lack the clarity of vision to see opportunities to drive more inclusiveness.

Companies also may accidently short circuit the diversity council’s ability to be a true engine for inclusivity by only staffing it with people who are passionate about change while excluding people who are in favor of the status quo. As counterintuitive as that may sound, it’s reasonable when considering the goals of inclusivity. If a council is to be more than just a representative of change to benefit formerly underrepresented groups and instead be a promoter that drives the creation of a company where everyone is a fully engaged participant, from the formerly underrepresented to the formerly overrepresented, it must entertain and consider all perspectives.

“If a council does not have a full range of diversity of thought, it just becomes a modern day politically correct body of people who all agree on the need to change for the benefit of a small cross-section of the company’s workforce. It loses its ability to represent the overall organization’s larger community,” Andrade said.

To get on the right track and create diversity councils that meet today’s needs for inclusivity, organizations likely will need to rethink council purpose, participants and structure.

A 21st Century Diversity Council Reboot
In addition to the important and oft-repeated advice about engaging CEO participation and managers, what follows are seven additional steps diversity executives can follow to bring a 1970s-based diversity council into the 21st century:

Take a pause. Like Roseboro, don’t be afraid to pull the emergency cord and stop the train if it is clearly headed in the wrong direction. This can be a short or long pause. It’s often better to stop and retool than try to change directions while barreling down the path 100 miles per hour with the wrong crew or a crew that has not been properly prepared on board.

Assess needs. As Roseboro did when she arrived at Jones Lang LaSalle, take a long, hard look at what the organization needs, and determine what types of competencies are needed to execute the strategy. “After looking at our needs and type of organization, I realized I needed influencers and people who really understood how functional areas worked and what was required to change them,” Roseboro said. In addition to passion, representation of social identities and a desire to serve, people need the right competencies to get the job done.

Bring in the company dissenter. Look for people who don’t necessarily serve the company’s current brand of Kool Aid. These people are seldom the only ones who have contrarian views, and they will bring needed perspectives that will be missed by a body of people enamored with “the way we do things around here.” Avoid having a council full of people who are trying to convince everyone inside and outside the company about how wonderful everything is.

Bring in the change resister. Again, this person is often not alone and in many organizations may represent the majority. These are people who like the status quo and believe the company may be changing too much in ways they don’t like to please underrepresented voices. Their presence can offer sobering reflections that when addressed build and communicate actions in a more inclusive way as opposed to having a forced change feeling. Diversity councils in a company that is predominantly composed of and led by straight, non-disabled white men in their 50s or older can fail to be truly inclusive without that voice at the table.

Err on the side of substance over optics. Pick council participants because they have the skills, perspectives, abilities and qualities needed, not just because of external representation. While optics can be good, they are only meaningful when packaged with substance. When optics in the absence of skill or ability are used as criteria, it can have a negative backlash. “When women see a woman who appears to lack substance leading an effort in a company that is trying to appear friendlier to women as leaders, what generally happens is that they see it as a ruse that undermines qualified women as tokens,” Andrade said. Focus on the competencies.

Train council members. Roseboro ran three-day strategy sessions. Other companies provide key skill training through their organizational development groups.

Establish success metrics. Measure advancements in inclusion, not just awareness activities. Give people the information they need to know where they are, where they are going and how to measure progress in their journey toward greater inclusion.

After following these steps, it’s important to sustain momentum. “Every year I ask myself why we need this council,” Roseboro said. As goals change, make sure the diversity council’s strategy and member competencies remain relevant to the task. To do this, diversity executives must remain attuned to changing business conditions and strategies.

Diversity councils have been serving corporations since the last century. In the past, they were tools to raise awareness about people in the organization and send out a message that invited others from small but growing underrepresented pools to participate or join. Today, in a global, competitive, diverse workforce environment, traditional diversity-increasing councils are being asked to become inclusion-increasing councils.

In the future, the name of this body may change to reflect its new role in corporations and become the inclusion council. That may help to more clearly define its role and purpose in the minds of leadership and the workforce. That renaming ceremony, however, can wait. What cannot wait is the need to retool and reload councils to perform the role required now. That role is driving organizations — composed of diverse people with similarities, differences and resulting tensions in a global economy — into engines of maximum production that engage and leverage everything offered by everyone in the workforce.

Joe Santana is president of Joseph Santana LLC, a diversity and inclusion consulting practice. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.