Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes an exclusive column for WRAL TechWire about management, leadership, diversity and startups. His columns appear on Wednesdays.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – “Don, I’m looking for someone to help me plan an event with some important stakeholders. Any idea who might be up for the task?”

“Quick question: I’ve got some thought leadership pieces I’ve been tasked with writing, but I could use some professional advice on how to address the subject matter. Do you have any thoughts about who I might partner with?”

“Hey Don, I need a number of vendors and suppliers for an upcoming conference. Would you possibly have a short list of folks I can invite?

Multiple times a week, I’m asked to give my personal recommendations for a variety of services. Depending upon the type of request, I typically have a trusted resource to recommend. In this new season of awareness around inclusion though, it’s not enough for me to simply recommend folks I’ve worked with before. I want to help people expand and diversify their own professional networks as a way to practice inclusion and create a more equitable world. I consider that part of my leadership responsibility. 

Also, we know that, historically, not everyone has been invited to offer products and services in professional spaces, and so certain groups have traditionally not been able to gain the level of exposure required to be at front of mind when new opportunities arise. 

That said, it’s not an act of charity to broaden your network to include more diverse professionals; it’s an act of business acumen. This isn’t about quotas or handouts. It’s about accessibility and opportunity instead. It’s about making sure that you’re tapping into the best advice and talent, not just the one that’s easiest to access. 

Why expanding and diversifying your professional network is imperative

Think of your professional network as your personal version of supplier diversity. You’re able to do right by your product and services when your supportive network reflects the diversity of the communities you serve. In a piece I wrote earlier this year, I mentioned one thing I often reiterate to my executive colleagues. Diversifying your personal network does not mean changing your standards for quality or your expectations for success. It means expanding the opportunity to choose the best people. This is about gaining awareness and expanding the network of people you talk to about anything you’re aiming to do. 

Essentially, your network is your net worth. There are a multitude of fiscal implications to building a healthy, demographically-representative professional network, but one of the most impactful comes from a study done by The Hackett Group, which shows that procurement organizations that embrace supplier diversity are able to generate up to 133% higher return on their investments versus organizations that don’t. There are multiple qualitative perks too, which include growing new skills, obtaining new leads and referrals, and receiving feedback and coaching from new sources. 

Best practices to use while diversifying your professional services

  • Unpack your biases. Biases (or disproportionate weight in favor of — or against — an idea, person or thing) create missed opportunities when people make decisions that are not objective and potentially contribute to a distrustful culture that will rob it of its competitive advantage. Make space and time to make the unconscious conscious through education and skill-based training. Then, examine the policies, practices and structures that may contain hidden bias at your organization. This systemic evaluation is not a one-time initiative but, rather, an ongoing process.
  • If you’ve searched, search again. If, for instance, you’re looking to hire three or four people this year, talk to someone in recruiting who has a multicultural background, and give them an opportunity to earn your business. You’re already spending money on professional services like lawyers, accountants, recruiters, trainers, and etc., so how can you use those expenditures to push revenue into underserved and underrepresented communities? Also, think about the people you ask to train your team. Think about the businesses you hire for catering or where you go for staff retreats and business dinners. Who owns those companies? What does their employee diversity look like? 
  • Adopt inclusive language and behavior. The most important thing you can do to be more inclusive is educate yourself about other people’s experiences. Commit to your own continued education, and don’t underestimate the value of your example. Be sure to learn and use best practices for respectful, inclusive language, and when you don’t know how to address a person, remember that it’s ok to ask. Say “I want to make sure I’m addressing you respectfully. May I ask your pronouns?” Additionally, run more inclusive meetings and work sessions by stopping interruptions and giving every person a clear opportunity to share their ideas, concerns, and solutions. Remember, it’s a process, folks. Inclusion is a continuous practice. 
  • Close the loop. If you’ve found folks you’d like to include in your network at an event or in another professional space, follow up. Use platforms like LinkedIn to send a timely, thoughtful note to encourage ongoing communication and keep the door open for future collaborative opportunities. The idea here is to leverage organic moments to be intentional in the future, and to build trust, which is the wellspring of successful business practices.

Lastly, show yourself some grace! Your DEI efforts don’t have to change everything all at once. What’s most important is to lead by example and take small steps to get started today. 

About the Author

Donald Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, he is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture, and driving exponential growth. He is also co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a results-oriented, data-driven strategic partner for organization-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Donald serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. Donald’s autobiography and leadership guidebook — Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success — will be released in 2022. Connect with him on LinkedIn and at donaldthompson.com