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Many business leaders come to me asking for the best strategies to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. My first response back is always one of these three questions:
- How does DEI relate to your business strategy?
- What exact pain point are you trying to solve?
- What do you hope to strengthen in terms of your company’s performance?
These are hard questions without easy answers.
While some corporate leaders have a general idea of what they want (DEI training, education, inspiration, etc.), not all do. Many actually do not even have a very clear sense of what their foundational pain points are to begin with, what kinds of systemic biases they ought to be solving, or how either of these relate overall to their business strategy.
Business Strategy or HR Problem?
Too often, DEI is siloed in the Human Resources Department as a “must do,” but without much guidance from the CEO as to why it matters to the company—often because the CEO doesn’t really know. In fact, The Economist Intelligence Unit study “Global firms in 2020” suggests that only 38% of CEOs in Japan and 65% of C-suite executives globally think they have a responsibility for talent management strategy.
But talent management is only one part of DEI business strategy, meaning all of the weight cannot fall on HR’s shoulders. Corporate leaders are being called upon to show they are authentic leaders with vision and a track record on diversity and equity, just as much as a strong track record on sales and scaling.
Most leaders know there are diversity and equity blindspots in their companies, but beyond that, they are not sure what they want to accomplish. Without a clear, measurable goal, it’s impossible to determine the best approach to move the dial for their specific context.
Building an ecosystem in which diversity, collective projects, and social innovation can thrive is no small feat. Within the world of political philosophy, we have been exploring how to advance democratic innovation for social progress since the beginning of time. And corporations are just small-scale societies.
Thinking Holistically about DEI
Over the last twenty years, gender inequality, racial inequity, homophobia, and hate speech have been the mainstay of politics and public policy. These issues have gradually percolated into conversations about wellbeing, equality, diversity, meritocracy, and innovation within corporations and corporate societies.
Most corporate leaders in Japan struggle with the increasing competition caused by population decline, the gender gap, low rates of “migration” into Japan, and the raging global talent war across APAC. To complicate matters, all of these may lead to employees being poached by more progressive companies.
Because of #MeToo, SOGI harassment, and BLM reverberations, companies often feel immense pressure to be doing something about women’s empowerment, about LGBTQ+ inclusion, and about the “race” question, as informed by global conversations. They are often unaware of the full extent of these issues within Japan, and naturally, they are not sure how best to move forward on all fronts at once.
This often leads to a piecemeal approach. They tinker around the edges of one issue and often wind up with a very narrow, partial, and even stereotype-reinforcing event, policy, or initiative. This is a regrettable missed opportunity…or as they say in Japan, mottainai!
At enjoi Japan K.K., we work with leaders who are curious, thoughtful, and serious about moving the dial. DEI that is holistic and impactful in small and big ways makes waves across the mindsets of leaders and managers—and indeed across the ecosystem itself. This requires that we enlist the wise practice of Intersectional Thinking© to ensure we are analyzing and solving root causes, not simply putting flimsy Band-Aids over pain points.
We believe that this starts with DEI education about the relationship between diversity, equity, and innovation (enjoi’s interpretation of the “I” in DEI), beginning with the senior leadership team.
Go Big or Go Home?
A holistic approach to DEI does not mean that it must be big or costly. But it must be part of a rational, long-term strategy with clear KPIs that help the business side in at least two ways:
- Improving employee wellbeing to secure talent retention and promotion
- Improving the workplace environment to make teams more internally trusting
Both of these help build a competitive edge through more innovative, collective problem-solving.
Rewriting DEI with Innovation in Mind
We start by helping leaders unlearn the past, stereotypical approaches to diversity that act like toxins in their minds and in their corporate cultures. Thereafter, they begin to really see and understand the mechanics across diversity, equity/equality, and innovation. That innovation could be social, cultural, economic, democratic, and/or corporate.
Rather than some esoteric concept of “inclusion,” we focus on the very clear pursuit of innovation in the service of people, prosperity, and the planet.
Then, with business strategy in mind, the questions become much more focused, nuanced, and evidence based:
- How and why does thought diversity (and social diversity) lead to more innovation?
- When and why does diversity lead to more conflict and microaggressions, rather than inclusive innovation?
- Why and how might diversity be a driver of innovation for our company?
- Under what conditions can we leverage diversity to be a driver of innovation for our teams?
- What are the foundational practices and rational steps that our company must invest in for sustainable innovation?
In our view, equity is NOT optional. The enjoi logic and framework of DEI as diversity-equity-innovation centralizes our goals as follows:
a) Guiding companies in re-framing diversity as the source of individuality and innovation
b) Leveraging change management towards the intentional design of equitable relationships across the corporate ecosystem
c) Driving teamwork and psychological safety through horizontal co-leadership grounded upon the co-equal values of diversity and equity
d) Leverage equity to drive innovation and competitive edge for the benefit of all stakeholders in the company.
Only this kind of DEI will generate purposeful, evidence-based, sustainable innovation and competitive edge.
DEI Business Strategy Means Knowing Your Start Line
Once we have cleared that first mindset shift to link up diversity with equity, the possibilities for growth and the incredible opportunities for innovation are endless. As a business strategy, diversity paired with equity for innovation will improve both lives and competitive edge over the long term.
Our work with leaders is a process of co-creation. Again, C-suites need to clarify their DEI business strategies in ways that are impactful for the company’s overall performance. But their approach also must take seriously the specific diversity in the company now, as well as in the future. Only that will ensure it is realistic, evidence-based, and successful in enhancing employee trust, happiness and performance in meaningful ways.
Checklist: From Mindset Shift to Evidence-based Actions
For leaders who are ready to invest in an impactful corporate DEI business strategy, here is a guiding checklist:
Does your DEI business strategy…
1. …mobilize power across the corporate ecosystem?
Impactful DEI initiatives resonate with those who have decision-making power, authority, and influence across the whole ecosystem. Once they’re on board, they can invite all stakeholders to co-create change.
2. …invest in coherent, short- to long-term business planning?
Impactful DEI initiatives engage with, strengthen, and leverage broader, year-on-year, five-year, and ten-year business and growth strategies.
3. …leverage evidence-based, context-specific solutions?
Impactful DEI initiatives are tailored to the specific strengths, weaknesses, context, and complexities of each and every corporate society, as well as the diversity of its internal stakeholders.
4. …prioritize data-driven progress and collective consequences?
Impactful DEI initiatives have a clear start-line, start-date, and variety of measurable KPIs. These not only track progress, but also result in clear consequences (rewards and sanctions) for performance top to bottom, from the CEO and senior executives all the way down to line managers.
5. …celebrate successes with an equitable share in prosperity?
DEI strategies must be intentionally curated and then implemented in ways that build psychological safety, team spirit, and a sense of common purpose. Therefore, they thrive on collective self-interest, delivering inclusive innovation and sustainable change that leads to greater prosperity for all stakeholders in the company and also for society (SDG and ESG impact).
Get Skin in the Game for All Stakeholders!
Globally competitive CEOs and executives play the long game when investing in diversity, equity, and innovation. If done with genuine intention, the return on investment is immediate: improved wellbeing at work and greater employee retention rates.
As we anticipate the Great Resignation caused by the global pandemic, talent retention alone is a significant win that will protect companies from major financial loss. Achieving a trusting collegiality raises team performance to new heights on the one hand, while progressive corporate culture consolidates employer branding on the other.
Let’s be honest: You cannot fake healthy organizational habits that show authentic respect for diverse individuals. These habits must be curated over time, nurtured into corporate-wide practices of integrity, and tracked by evidence-based performance indicators. They build a collective identity and brand pride that the rest of the world can see and feel. More than just selling amazing products and services, this results in a legacy of “good corporate citizenship” that reverberates across generations.
Without C-suite skin in the game, most DEI remains skin-deep and aims at helping HR tick a box. What really matters is not the show and tell, but the daily showing up. It is a simple matter of accountability and good corporate governance, rolled out with consistency one day at a time.