Successful diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies come from the top — initiated by company leadership that takes those goals seriously.
DEI initiatives directly address a historic lack of business diversity. Organizations that implement these initiatives can reap a wealth of benefits, but only when a commitment to DEI is reflected at the top.
Strong DEI initiatives must include a resolve to promote DEI leadership development. This process is complex, emphasizing a top-down approach in which leaders are trained to lead by example and drive the philosophies that can shape the workplace.
What Is Leadership Development?
Leaders empower, inspire and encourage others to commit to a company’s mission and culture. Leadership goes beyond any specific position or job title and can be developed in individuals throughout an organization.
Leadership development is the curation and cultivation of the skills that allow individuals to guide groups toward goals that align with a company’s mission and values. It helps employees cultivate stronger communication, teamwork and analytical skills. It can also help employees strengthen important characteristics, such as integrity, honesty and an increased drive to achieve results.
Effective DEI programs rely on strong leadership development. Collectively, DEI principles can minimize resistance to change and maximize acceptance of new DEI policies.
Different Types of Leadership Development
Different circumstances drive day-to-day business operations. Because of this, several core concepts can come together in a typical leadership development strategy.
These concepts include the following:
- Conflict resolution: Leaders can approach office conflicts as opportunities for growth and change rather than simply situations requiring de-escalation. This can turn a negative issue into a positive moment.
- Problem-solving: Leaders can find creative solutions to issues both anticipated and unanticipated. These solutions can encourage a leader’s team members to get involved in the problem-solving process, helping them feel like contributors instead of bystanders.
- Trust building: Establishing a culture of trust can allow leaders to collaborate with their teams more effectively, as members will likely be more open to suggestions and guidance. This can be a delicate trait to maintain, as trust can be easily broken.
- Performance building: Leaders can use their analytical and developmental skills to identify and optimize an employee’s strengths in various situations. This can improve work efficiency and help the employee feel like an even more important part of the team.
- Virtual leadership: The proliferation of remote work makes virtual leadership crucial in the modern business world. Here, leaders can use their skills to build collaboration and camaraderie among employees who may rarely, if ever, share the same physical space.
Collectively, the principles of encouraging different perspectives guide these concepts, providing opportunities for collaboration and different perspectives and allowing individuals to make important contributions. All these principles can help a DEI leadership strategy thrive.
Types of Leadership Development Programs
Organizations can take many different approaches to cultivate leaders who execute impactful DEI strategies.
Mentoring programs involve seasoned leaders personally guiding less-experienced managers through an organization’s leadership strategies. This allows mentors to reinforce DEI initiatives and values as fundamental components of the company’s philosophy.
Structured Training Programs
Training programs take a broader approach to leadership development by creating general strategies that follow a specified formula. These programs can be designed in-house; sometimes they’re outsourced to a third party. In this scenario, DEI initiatives may be integrated into these formulas.
Action Learning Programs
In action learning programs, leadership development occurs through identifying workplace problems, creating teams to develop solutions, taking action to implement those solutions and reflecting on the results.
Why DEI Is Important
Before defining DEI leadership development, understanding DEI is important. This requires a look at each DEI component and how they interact.
Diversity relates to workforce representation. Characteristics representing diversity include the following:
- Citizenship status
- Physical ability
The term “equity” refers to making sure that every member of the workforce has the same chance to thrive. This differs from equality, which strives to treat all employees the same, regardless of their background or circumstances. Workplace equity can feature support systems that help ensure greater fairness in work-related scenarios.
The term “inclusion” refers to building a work environment that allows all employees to have their voices heard. This allows everyone involved to contribute meaningfully to a company’s strategy.
The three components, when brought together, deliver a holistic approach to business at key stages, from recruitment and hiring to long-term goal development. This approach organically invites a wider range of ideas and perspectives while allowing optimal personal growth. The practice is also ethical, as promoting and encouraging workplace fairness is simply the right thing to do.
The Importance of DEI in the Workplace
Developing a DEI culture yields many positive benefits that should encourage businesses to embrace the principle.
Access to a Broader Talent Pool
DEI strategies open organizations to a more diverse range of quality employees. It can also attract top talent that cares about a company’s DEI stance. According to a 2021 survey conducted by CNBC and SurveyMonkey, 78% of workers stated the importance of working at a company prioritizing DEI principles.
An effective DEI strategy can help a company improve its bottom line. A 2022 report by Research and Markets indicated that diverse companies experience 2.5 times higher per-employee cash flow than nondiverse companies. Furthermore, the report found a 35% improvement in productivity among inclusive teams.
Improved Sense of Belonging in the Workforce
Building and maintaining a DEI plan organically allows people of all backgrounds to feel welcome. This can allow each team member to feel useful and satisfied. The sense of satisfaction can improve employee engagement, which can impact economic performance.
Higher Employee Retention
Satisfied employees are also more likely to remain at a job. A 2021 study by The Josh Bersin Group indicated that employers with DEI strategies established were 2.6 times more likely to retain their workforce. This stability can also positively impact the bottom line: According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the cost of hiring someone to fill a position can cost three to four times the position’s salary.
A diverse workforce invites different perspectives and worldviews. These perspectives can lead to insights that a homogeneous team might never consider, and result in more informed decisions.
Better Company Culture
DEI initiatives can enable employers to be more receptive to shifting cultural landscapes. This can make it easier for employers to cultivate a corporate culture that welcomes all employees. A strong company culture can boost morale and help attract top talent. According to a 2022 LinkedIn report, 40% of surveyed American workers considered company culture a top priority when choosing a job.
A Shifting Workforce
More employers recognize DEI strategies' importance. A 2021 Pew Research study revealed that 61% of surveyed employees worked for an organization with DEI hiring practices. The same survey indicated that 52% had DEI-focused meetings or training at work.
However, these plans are only effective if they’re implemented properly. This is why companies need to integrate strong DEI strategies within the context of their leadership development.
DEI’s Place in Leadership Development
Effective DEI initiatives must start at the top. This means that a company’s CEO and other C-suite executives are responsible for creating and maintaining a corporate culture driven by DEI principles. However, DEI initiatives aren’t merely designed — they’re crafted through effective leadership development.
The principles of leadership development allow employers to integrate DEI strategies well. Given the advantages of these programs, DEI leadership training should be considered a top priority.
What Is DEI Leadership?
Before organizations can transform their employees into effective DEI leaders, exploring the concept of DEI leadership and why it matters is important.
DEI leadership involves developing internal policies that cultivate an environment of fairness and inclusivity in every aspect of work, distributed through all departments. Leaders must work to encourage employees to adapt to policies that lean into DEI principles. This is key to success, as an effective, supportive DEI culture relies on full participation from everyone, from C-suite executives to entry-level employees.
Effective DEI leadership integrates the core DEI principles into their typical daily job duties. This can include the following:
- Acknowledging and recognizing systemic challenges within their workforce and in the surrounding community
- Embracing and building diversity within the workplace
- Directly embracing workforce equity-related issues
- Ensuring that all employees feel welcome
Committing to these principles can set an example for employees on how to integrate DEI into their own day-to-day activities. This can be a critical step for a DEI leader to ensure that an organization fully embraces diversity and inclusiveness.
Key DEI Skills
The goal of fostering an inclusive, supportive, diverse culture is to create a welcoming work environment for all. However, achieving this goal involves developing core competencies, including those below.
It’s not enough for leaders to know about different perspectives; they need to take the time to understand where these perspectives originate. They can accomplish this by listening to employees’ perspectives and considering what the world looks like from their point of view.
Leaders can never understand every perspective and those who think they can may be undercut by their own presumptions. Approaching DEI situations with humility and self-awareness can help them be conscious of their own biases while making them more open to understanding situations they may not know much about.
DEI environments contain ample opportunities for leaders to learn. To make the most of them, leaders must be proactively respectful, open-minded and curious, using these tactics to lead a workforce away from conflicts or problems rather than reacting to issues after they develop. They can also use their curiosity to educate themselves on diverse perspectives and experiences outside of professional settings.
Overseeing DEI strategies isn’t always easy, and it can lead to difficult situations. Leaders need to lean on courage to initiate and engage in conversations that may be uncomfortable but necessary to enact positive change.
Additional Soft Skills
The soft skills needed to govern a strong DEI strategy mirror those needed for general leadership success. These soft skills for DEI leadership can include the following:
Effective DEI leadership training strategies strengthen these soft skills as they nurture DEI.
What Is a DEI Strategy That Works? Tips and Resources
Effective DEI leadership development strategies must be carefully constructed to succeed. The tips below can help ensure that DEI remains an essential component of leadership development.
Ensure Your Leadership Program Encourages Inclusivity
Examining leadership development programs to ensure that they genuinely foster inclusivity is important. This can include blanket actions, such as building a safe space for people to express their concerns and ideas freely. It can also include personal activities, such as reaching out to underrepresented groups to ensure they’re represented.
Build Your Hiring Process Around DEI Principles
Extending a company’s DEI principles to the hiring process is important. Companies can use blind hiring practices — deliberately obscuring candidate details that indicate race or socioeconomic status — and partner with organizations that recruit from different sources. Also important is routinely analyzing the success of DEI hiring initiatives to see what’s working.
Cultivate a Talent Pipeline That Reflects DEI Principles
Integrating DEI principles is essential to building an effective talent pipeline built around diversity and long-term success. This can be created organically by deliberately creating opportunities for underrepresented groups so that they can grow their knowledge and skills. Such opportunities can include involving them in mentoring programs, giving them more responsibility and ensuring equitable promotion procedures. These tactics can build a pipeline that can stretch from the hiring process to the C-suite.
Develop a Culture of Inclusion and Collaboration
Developing a company culture that makes DEI and working together the norm is essential to building an environment that makes every employee feel welcome. This can be developed through corporate team-building events or long-term developmental strategies, such as mentoring systems or employee training. It can also be achieved through policies such as incorporating inclusive language in the workplace and establishing gender-neutral bathrooms.
Coach Managers on Building Diverse Work Relationships
Leaders can use their skills to help those in management positions identify and approach opportunities to build diverse, meaningful work relationships and further cultivate a DEI culture. This can help expand and solidify the presence of DEI principles in leadership across organizations.
Acknowledge Behaviors That Demonstrate DEI Principles
Successes stemming from DEI initiatives should be celebrated. This is why leadership trainees need to learn to recognize positive behaviors that directly exemplify DEI principles, such as honesty, kindness and a willingness to listen and adapt. Such recognition may inspire other workers to mirror these behaviors and can, in turn, improve the chances of an organization reaping the benefits associated with DEI.
Resources to Build DEI Strategies
Leaders can explore the following resources for developing DEI strategies in the workplace:
- The Communications Network: This resource contains links to online publications, websites and case studies devoted to specific groups.
- TechTarget: This resource highlights various technology tools that can help leadership development teams build strategies that integrate DEI principles in hiring processes, training programs, employee equity and more.
- S. Department of Labor: This resource features links and information to federally funded DEI programs, initiatives and campaigns.
DEI Leadership: The Cornerstone of Success
The American population — and workforce — is more diverse than ever, and this trend will only continue. For businesses, developing leaders who demonstrate and encourage DEI principles can give them an advantage in finding, nurturing and retaining top talent. Embracing DEI is both the right thing to do from an ethical perspective and the smart thing to do from an organizational standpoint.