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Want a culture-centric organization? Here are 3 key leadership lessons


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.

Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about views expressed by our contributors. Please send email to: info@wraltechwire.com.

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – We have learned in the last two years that creating culture-centric workplaces and leadership teams is much more important than catchphrases, performative demonstrations or verbal commitments that aren’t backed by real resources or leadership. Building workplace excellence is even bigger than the common acronyms we use, such as “DEI,” “DE&I,” or “DEIB.” 

What I’m telling you – after working with hundreds of companies and organizations and talking to thousands of business leaders – is that success is not about getting “diversity” correct. Instead, C-suite executives, senior professionals, and managers should be thinking in broader terms – creating culture change that is deeply embedded in your organization and creates a workplace that is creative, efficient, collaborative and filled with colleagues who feel they are respected and valued for what they bring to work each day. 

After more than 100 columns on TechWire and developing global thought leadership in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at The Diversity Movement, I am telling you that you can’t just think “diversity.” Your DEI programming is not merely a bucket to fill or a box to check. 

Instead, consider how the three objectives below could be the centerpiece of a wholesale business transformation that results in an organization prepared to win in the marketplace. 

– Embed DEI in your brand strategy

– Create inclusive culture through inclusive leadership

– Align learning to culture to build collaborative excellence

EMBED DEI IN YOUR BRAND STRATEGY

Some organizations have found success by running diversity programming as an HR initiative. It seems like a natural home for DEI. Yet, what we are seeing time and again is that for long-term impact and value, a better method is to infuse culture change via a DEI lens throughout the entire organization. 

For example, we have counseled executives to think about the power in aligning the chief diversity office (CDO) with the chief marketing officer (CMO) or chief communications officer (CCO), who run the epicenter of culture change across the organization. The goal is authentic storytelling that links culture change and DEI programming to demonstrate to your clients, employees and other stakeholders that the way you talk about DEI is representative of the professional life you live.

We have seen that the most successful leaders view culture change broadly as a way to connect DEI to their organization’s brand strategy, to its mission, vision and values – often integrating it throughout marketing and communications. They embed DEI within their organization’s strategic plans and align it with their corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environment, social and governance (ESG) initiatives. 

CREATE INCLUSIVE CULTURE THROUGH INCLUSIVE LEADERSHIP

Transforming corporate culture is seldom quick. The gap between where a company is and where it hopes to be in the future gives many executives nightmares. What we’ve learned, though, is a quick fix is available if leaders and their teams are willing to commit to the effort: adoption of inclusive language. 

When C-suite executives, boards and senior leaders understand and implement inclusive language, they are essentially holding the golden key that unlocks culture change. People want to work for organizations they believe in. Stakeholders are asking: How do we solve societal challenges in a just manner? CEOs must lead the way toward more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces by modeling the behavior they want from their teams and rewarding those who demonstrate the organization’s values. It is clear that employees – particularly younger professionals – are demanding these changes. 

Inclusive language has benefits that reverberate across companies, from playing a key role in creating leadership training and professional development for current and rising leaders to being at the center of talent acquisition by ensuring that organizations benefit from inclusive recruiting processes. Jackie Ferguson wrote The Inclusive Language Handbook to guide leadership teams in this critical area, and thousands of readers have benefited from the book in their professional and personal lives. 

ALIGN LEARNING TO CULTURE TO BUILD COLLABORATIVE EXCELLENCE

The best organizations are retraining, reskilling and upskilling their employees to meet the changing demands of the modern marketplace. The need is real. According to management consulting firm McKinsey, 90% of managers and executives acknowledge skill gaps now or anticipate such gaps emerging by 2025. 

We have seen that the most successful organizations are aligning learning to culture transformation to create stronger, more inclusive and productive teams. The key element, whether employees are remote, hybrid or in-office, is collaboration that sparks increased creativity, problem-solving and efficiency. The development and training initiatives need to be incorporated into the employee’s natural workday to reinforce and build on the learning lessons. 

Kerry Andolina, Director of Operations, Human Resources and DE&I at Dover Street Market explained how MicroVideos helped train employees, saying, “Frontline professionals, like my retail staff, are not going to have an hour to sit down and absorb something. They’re on the move, and if they can watch something quickly while on their lunch break, that’s great, and they’re more willing to do that.”

Other forms of microlearning are constantly evolving to meet educational needs. What has emerged are options based on the way people consume media outside of work (think Netflix or YouTube), ranging from short videos, in-app tutorials, brief articles, micro-certifications, podcasts and gamification. The central theme, however, is that the learner is often self-paced or going through the training with teammates, so that collaboration is built into the learning process. The future of workforce learning is being developed right now and will continue to be centered on the idea of delivering right-sized content via channels that are convenient and accessible in an ever-evolving world.

Let’s return to our first premise: Culture change is the most critical objective. To really internalize this idea, we all have to move past the notion that DEI is “only” race and gender (too frequently the default mental model). DEI is most certainly not centered on Black Lives Matter, #MeToo or making villains out of White men. Race and gender identity are two important elements of diversity – no one is going to dispute that – but DEI goes far beyond these two dimensions of diversity and encompasses much more than social justice.

In 2023 and beyond, we need to expand our thinking about DEI to acknowledge its foundational role in creating corporate and organizational cultures centered on workplace excellence. I may be a DEI-focused leader, but my real aim is to create an inclusive culture that enables everyone to succeed. Don’t let misconceptions and assumptions about DEI get in the way of business performance. 

[If you want guidance on how to get resources for your culture change initiatives, join me at noon ET, Thursday, Jan. 12, for a free webinar – “DEI Champions Needed: How to Ensure Lasting Leadership Buy-In.” Register here to attend live or to receive access to the taped event.] 

About the Author 

Donald Thompson is CEO 

and co-founder of The Diversity Movement and author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success. As an executive coach and board member, he focuses on goal achievement, culture change and driving exponential growth. Donald hosts the “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” podcast and is an award-winning entrepreneur, keynote speaker and Certified Diversity Executive (CDE). Connect with or follow Donald on Linkedin to learn more.





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