Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays. Thompson of The Diversity Movement was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2023 Southeast Award winner.
Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about views expressed by our contributors. Please send email to: email@example.com.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-conscious admissions policies at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University recently, critics protested that the decision would erase decades of progress in making higher ed more just and equitable. Others pointed to longer term negative implications on the national educational system as the decision filters through colleges and universities, private high schools and other admissions-based schools.
In the private sector, the decision sent a collective shudder through senior leaders and others who advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programming. The fear is that although the recent effort is limited to higher education admissions processes, a similar ruling could strike down DEI efforts in the business world.
The fear is real, but the response can’t be to cower. Instead, we need to double-down on DEI programming, not just because it’s the correct thing to do morally or ethically, but because it is what customers, employees, shareholders and stakeholders want.
DIVERSITY AS A BUSINESS FUNCTION
I have written at length about how C-Suite leaders must have the fortitude to stand up to “woke” rhetoric. The most direct way to counter diversity skepticism or criticism from those who believe the hype is to demonstrate the real-world, bottom line results as a consequence of diversity-led initiatives.
If you really want to get granular, begin thinking about diversity programming as team-building training and development, whether it is at the frontline employee level or among members of the executive committee. Recent discussions I have had with business leaders have framed DEI not as a social justice issue, but as a way to create stronger teams, which naturally leads to more efficient and successful organizations.
For example, many executives are struggling with transforming culture internally when they have members of four different generations struggling to work together effectively. From this perspective, diversity-led training programs on the power of inclusive language or other efforts to overcome challenges is solving a business problem first and foremost. What leader wouldn’t want to find ways to address and solve these issues?
Operationalizing DEI to solve business challenges means giving every employee across the organization the tools they need to create a more collaborative, creative and operationally strong workplace. Employee teams that work together and are outcome-driven will be well-prepared to solve the complex business challenges your organization faces today and built for success in the future.
CREATING INCLUSIVE WORKPLACES
The Wall Street Journal summed up the tension in American workplaces based on those who see DEI as a bridge and those who view it as a barrier. “Companies are striving to demonstrate their commitment to minority employees’ success, without being seen as limiting opportunities for others,” Chen Te-Ping and Ray A. Smith explained. The fear they imply points to the schism opened up and then exploited by politicians and others using “woke” and similar terms to drive a wedge between people. Of course, these conflicts are going to find their way into workplaces, just as they have in families and communities.
Kenji Yoshino, professor at NYU Law, and David Glasgow, executive director of NYU Law’s Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging counter: “Most DEI initiatives in the workplace are not affirmative action in the sense addressed in this decision, because they do not involve employers taking race or other legally protected characteristics into account when making hiring or promotion decisions.”
From their perspective, DEI efforts focus on creating inclusive workplaces, “such as establishing employee resource groups, creating mentorship and sponsorship programs, conducting education and training, removing bias from internal procedures and so on.” As a result, the Supreme Court ruling “has no direct bearing on those activities.”
Writing in the New York Times, Sonja B. Starr, a law professor at the University of Chicago, explains that there is a clear path to eliminate “all race-conscious policymaking” based on the Supreme Court’s ruling. Yet, there are even deeper – potentially sinister – complications of such an action that threaten to rip the nation apart.
“Race gaps characterize nearly every dimension of U.S. life: life expectancy, maternal mortality, employment rates, income, wealth, environmental exposures, criminal justice involvement and many others,” Starr says. “In a country shaped throughout its history by racial discrimination and disparity, excluding race from policy debate would impoverish our discourse and threaten to delegitimize the political process.”
Given the hardline stance of people on both sides, is the nation on its way toward a diversity showdown? Some observers believe that organizations will quietly eliminate or reduce DEI-focused programming if the intense scrutiny continues, particularly during a difficult economy. Others, however, see this moment as one to press the issue, forcing companies to sustain momentum despite political rhetoric.
My counsel to senior executives is twofold: focus on the business benefits of diversity programming for the organization and work to incorporate inclusive leadership traits in their own practice. Workplace excellence – where people feel valued, included and encouraged to contribute their best work – is built on leadership that actively promotes, supports and recognizes DEI as a real-world accelerant toward success.
Often, we just have to be reminded that real leadership includes courage. By every measure, people want to work in diverse organizations that thrive based on respect, a sense of self-worth and belonging. The demand for inclusive workplaces gets even louder among younger professionals. If we have the courage to become inclusive leaders, we will create successful organizations. However, the people-first framework will improve lives beyond the workplace and have transformational consequences on families, communities and beyond.
About the Author
Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 Southeast Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement to change the world. As TDM CEO, he has guided work with hundreds of clients and through millions of data touch points. TDM’s global recognition centers on tying DEI initiatives to business objectives. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics. Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.