Anyone who is doing talent development work in their organization knows that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts are a critical component. This means you also know that one critical success factor is your CEO’s support. But is your CEO truly committed to these efforts or just paying lip service to the idea of building a more equitable and inclusive culture? You may never know for sure, but there is one key question to consider when assessing the answer: Is your CEO actively engaging on their own personal DEI journey?
So, why is it important for your CEO to be engaging in a personal DEI journey? Like all important organizational initiatives, DEI culture change efforts fail without appropriate C-suite support. And, as your CEO is human, they should be engaged in the work just like everyone else because creating an inclusive culture is everyone’s job. What do we mean by “actively engaging”? Active engagement can be different for everyone, but in the case of an individual’s journey to diversity, equity, and inclusion, there are some concrete things you can look for as “proof” of active engagement.
Proof No. 1: Being vulnerableRemember back to the first few weeks of school or any new educational journey. Those first few days and weeks are marked with new discoveries and can even include a few epiphanies. The impact from these lessons leaves many of us wanting to share our new knowledge. Building a more equitable and inclusive world often starts with an educational journey to find out about other lived experiences. Your CEO’s DEI journey will be no different. So, does your CEO share their learnings? Do they ask for differing viewpoints on something they’ve encountered for the first time?
I was once on the governing team for an employee resource group. We had a roundtable with the CEO, and we asked him what he had learned in the unconscious bias training he had just experienced. His answer was, “Lots of things!” And while this may have been true, he missed a golden opportunity to signal that he was journeying personally, and many of us left that session disheartened. Moreover, many of us left the meeting skeptical of the viability of the company’s efforts because culture change starts at the top.
Proof No. 2: Seeking feedbackWe often frame DEI culture change in terms of allyship, especially at work. For example, how are men “showing up” and using their privilege and access to advance women individually and collectively. Chances are your CEO is not a woman. There’s an even better chance that they are not a person of color. So, if you never hear your CEO asking how they show up across gender and race, your CEO is probably not actively engaged in the DEI culture change work at your organization.
Allyship is bestowed, not proclaimed, so in the cases where we have significant in-group membership, we should constantly seek the feedback of out-group members to understand how we show up and what we can do to change if we show up negatively.
Proof No 3: Being transparentPeter Drucker is credited with one of the most important quotes in business management: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Of course, the underlying assumption is that you know what it is. In DEI culture change work, we often know what it is but are afraid to talk about it. If you never hear your CEO talk about their biases (unconscious and conscious), this may be a sign that they are not actively engaging in their personal DEI journey. If a CEO is not transparent about their own struggles, it is unlikely they will be transparent about the organization’s problems. So, nothing gets measured and substantive change remains elusive even though all the corporate messaging points toward the commitment of the organization.
If you are the CEO of your company, ask yourself how you measure up on these points. Can you be more vulnerable and transparent about your own DEI journey? Can you ask more open-ended questions? If you’re not the CEO, do you have access to an anonymous employee survey where you could ask these questions? If your leadership is embarking on a journey to diversity, equity, and inclusion, they should crave your feedback. Your company—and your CEO—will be better for it.