January 31st, 2023 By Bonnie Smith
I’m heading into this year with renewed energy, and hope companies will approach DEI with bold change. I took the first week of January to rest, and I’m taking this last week to empower.
Throughout my 20+ year career in marketing communications, I was often “the one”—the one chosen to be in the room to represent the very few people of color in my office, or quite literally, “the one Black person” in the entire office in a non-administrative role.
It was during ADCOLOR 2022 that I reflected on the trajectory of my experience, and without hesitation, I want to share with you that not a whole lot has changed.
I don’t take this statement lightly.
I’m thrilled to see conferences that build connections and develop organic pipelines of talent recruitment — places where young, creative professionals can be a part of a movement, where “safe spaces” for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities and allies exist. Often, these places are where brands tout their (largely) internal DEI initiatives and inspire audiences with charismatic leaders sharing stories of personal and professional journeys. At ADCOLOR specifically, the in-person audience is roughly 55% Black, and in total, almost 85% represented by people of color, overwhelmingly female.
The enthusiasm and sheer joy of audiences attending these events is nothing short of infectious. As they look around the panels, social events, and keynotes – they see themselves – who they are and who they want to be.
They see possibility.
They see opportunity.
They see a future.
But I know something. Many, not all, will return to the office where they are “the one” or “one of a few.” And I know that sense of possibility will not flourish. Through cultural barriers, limited development, and lack of managerial guidance, many will feel discouraged and see no alternative but to leave and start over at another company.
Over the years, I’ve heard colleagues with genuinely good intentions lament the lack of diverse talent in their recruitment and leadership pipelines and express frustration over a revolving door of colleagues. Yet, when you attend these types of industry events, you are swept into a world where it feels unimaginable these challenges exist. What’s the disconnect?
Elevating DEI has never been more successful, and that’s a win. But elevating DEI through glorifying language, siloed programmatic initiatives, mandatory workshops, and recruitment goals that don’t address retention and leadership advancement is simply not moving the needle. So, what will? Three actions:
1. OPERATIONALIZE DEI
This entails eliminating talk and moving toward actions that develop opportunity for all by addressing TODAY the inequities that exist for people of color.
Dr. Jamillah Bowman Williams at LinkedIn’s B2B Institute describes the disconnect around approaching true diversity as the gap between knowledge and action. 80% of us know that diversity is important but only 38% of us have undertaken actions to promote a Black candidate. Dr. Williams believes we need to do away with transactional terms around diversity, such as “It’s critical to our bottom line” or “In order to be successful, we must look more like our client base” and embrace transformational language that drives action. For example, “everyone in this organization deserves an opportunity to develop and advance” and “we must ensure equity every day.”
2. CREATE MORE OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN
A recent McKinsey study cited lack of opportunity as the primary reason women leave the workplace, particularly women under 30.
Failure to create a true opportunity is a managerial problem.
Managerial accountability is critical to operationalizing diversity and equity. Most of us do not leave a job behind; we leave a manager behind, often one who isn’t well trained or held accountable for developing their direct reports, especially those who identify as non-white or from one or more marginalized communities.
Most individuals of color—especially Black women and men—will tell you that they can’t be themselves in their workplace. The importance of understanding this sentiment, shifting it, and overcoming it – cannot be overestimated. And to be clear, this takes work from all involved.
So, What Now?
3. BROADEN ACCOUNTABILITY
Managers experience pressures and expectations that employees, especially new ones, don’t understand. But managers who have never had to experience being “the only one” can’t understand the systemic and cultural challenges that exist for many employees daily. And they can’t be expected to intuitively know how to navigate, coach, and guide someone who feels this way.
There is no clearer sign that you have no future in an organization than a disengaged manager who fails to acknowledge your success, see your potential, and constructively address your weaknesses.
Helping to build leadership, managerial, and broader cultural ownership around DEI is critical. It encompasses efforts to build collective accountability, drive employee advocacy, bolster internal and external resources and develop trust. Organizations don’t have to be experts, but they do have to seek expertise.
There is great potential and opportunity that exists in our industry. I challenge colleagues and clients to take action and contribute to making this an everyday reality.
If you are committed to progress, move away from the transactional and toward the transformational.
What is the first step you are going to take—and when?
Want to learn more? Here’s some encouraged reading and references: