Conferences Step Up Their Game

Three years ago I wrote a column about my pet peeves with diversity conferences. I received dozens of comments from diversity practitioners indicating they agreed with some of the issues I raised — too many consultants as speakers, way too many diversity vendors as attendees and the noticeable absence of business leader participation.

Since the article came out, some of you have asked if I’ve seen improvement. I am glad to say I’ve seen drastic improvement — kudos to the diversity conference organizers for continuously improving their events. Here are some of the items I’ve been glad to see in the diversity conferences I’ve attended in the last year.

Business leaders for diversity: Finally, we are seeing more and more business unit leaders at these diversity conferences as they have become enlightened about the business relevance of diversity. They have learned that diversity isn’t a mindset or an attitude but rather a competency that can be learned. Thus, more are coming to gain proficiency in leading a diverse workforce.

Even more impressive is seeing business leaders speak at such conferences. Recently, I saw the CEO of Sodexo describe how senior leaders are sponsoring more women and minorities to accelerate development. The vice president of information technology at Northern Trust outlined how the company’s ERGs add value to the business, and the vice president of business analytics at Capital One highlighted the benefits of hiring more military veterans.

Practitioners as speakers: Conference organizers seem to have realized their attendees prefer to hear from fellow practitioners — folks who are in the trenches every day like they are. These practitioners bring a perspective that tends to resonate with others.

I’ve noticed that when practitioners present, there is never a shortage of questions. Because audience members can relate, they are quick to ask how they overcame resistance, how they were able to allocate resources or simply, how they pulled it off. However, practitioners often lack broader experiences or an unbiased perspective.

That is why I love seeing sessions where a practitioner and a consultant team up to give a presentation. The practitioner provides a case study example, and the consultant provides external context.

Thought leaders vs. vendors: I’ve noticed vendors are being replaced by true thought leaders — folks who aren’t selling us their products, but rather are pushing us to think in new and innovative ways. These sessions are appealing because they are focused on helping the diversity and inclusion industry become more proactive as opposed to reactive.

One recent example is the focus on predicting the workplace of the future at a recent diversity conference. The agenda included futurist Jim Carroll talking about how globalization and health care issues will deeply impact organizations in the near future and the implication for today’s business leaders. At the same conference, innovation guru Don Tapscott warned the audience about how they need to think and act differently to keep up with a work environment that is speeding up, and one where creativity and innovation leaders will rule the corporate world. This kind of thinking will help diversity and business leaders stay ahead of the curve in an increasingly competitive business environment.

Invitation-only sessions: Another positive trend I’m seeing is conferences holding special sessions just for more senior diversity executives. These senior diversity leaders often have special challenges they must face to lead the diversity initiatives within their firms.

One conference recently held a special one-day advanced session that was only open to top diversity executives. By limiting the audience, each participant was assured he or she would have a place to talk about big issues. But even more valuable, participants had a venue where they could also talk about personal issues, share their stories and do so in an environment where they were not judged and didn’t feel threatened.

Overall, I’m encouraged by the evolution in diversity conferences I’ve seen in the past three years. Hopefully the trend will continue so we can continue to attend conferences that educate, challenge, inspire and nurture us.

Robert Rodriguez is president of DRR Advisors LLC, a management and diversity consulting firm, and author of Latino Talent. He can be reached at