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Why Diversity and Inclusion Still Matter

It is with great humility and grace that I stand here today to address the topic of diversity, inclusion and dialogue. I was asked to speak about diversity best practices in the corporate sector that have led global corporations to be more diverse, inclusive and engaging.

The reality is that everyone including educational institutions, governments, corporations, civil society, and each of us as individuals are continuing to learn about this important topic. Building a globally cohesive community isn’t an end game; it is a continuous process of adaptation, change, and compromise. It gives new meaning to the expression “Sustainability.” To survive organizations will have to be different and embrace differences.

Valuing Diversity and Inclusion Matters.

It is not just the right thing to do, it is a strategic imperative for institutions and organizations of all types and sizes. The way people and businesses are networked and the new and emerging markets puts companies and their leaders in a different relationship with technology playing a much more important role.

Diversity and Inclusion is Adaptive Work

As a young boy growing up on a farm I would often marvel at the life cycle of crops. It would be fun to drop seeds in the ground, to let them germinate and eventually grow into healthy plants producing a harvest that helped to sustain our family and many in the community in which I was raised. Yet during some cycles, we would face drought, floods, and other unanticipated disasters that decimated the family's livelihood for that year. Such occurrences were not one-time events. We found that year after year, decade after decade, many farmers face this uncertainty. It was a challenge that farmers had to live with and respond to.

Farmers learned to be adaptive when nature treated them badly. They learned to change their methodology of farming to produce greater yields and they learned to work collaboratively with other farmers to survive the calamity of a season.

Farmers didn't fight with each other. They didn't destroy each other’s livelihood. They knew that their survival was inextricably bound to each other.

All Farm Families Mattered.

These rural farms for centuries have served as the microcosm of the world we now live in. Yet political and religious differences have created a wedge between individuals and societies. Hatred and bitterness over atrocities that have happened to families, societies and countries, has forced many people to build fences around their communities to protect themselves from those that might come to destroy them.

Group-based Identity and difference has not been embraced, it has come to be feared.

As scientists and researchers study the changing ecosystem we live in, they realize that diverse societies and civilizations must come together to address this growing issue of sustainability. The sad reality for all of global humanity in the 21st century is that the clock is ticking on our survival. Civil society practices that have accelerated such things as global warming, ecosystem degradation, and disrespect and fighting among fellow mankind has created a looming issue – rapidly depleting resources.

People migrate to flee war, poverty, drought and disease. They want their lives to matter.

The question being raised locally and globally is how can we co-exist for generations to come if we don't understand the importance of our collective impact on the earth and if we are unwilling to work together to slow down or mitigate the risks we all face? In spite of our different identities and group-based differences on many levels, the evidence suggests that we must find a peaceful way to collaborate and to seek mutually beneficial outcomes. It starts with the behavior and focus of diverse human beings in organizations and communities around the world.

It starts in this microcosm of the world here at this university.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives have been elements of human capital practices within organizations and corporations for decades. These practices have evolved from principally compliance related initiatives to strategic imperatives. In the United States, many corporate leaders have worked to address demographic gaps in their workforce representation so that they are more reflective of communities in which they operate, the customers they serve, the investors who own shares in their company, and the public policy makers who shape the rules and licenses under which their companies must operate.

Students are demanding greater diversity in their university – both in student ranks and in faculty ranks but more importantly, in the overall learning environment.

Most leaders understand that driving the needed improvements in workforce representation and employee engagement is an organizational development change process. This change process is a multiyear, multiple stakeholder process. It requires change in behavior, transformation of organizational systems, processes and rules, and must be driven by committed leaders who understand the need and who are committed to supporting the changes needed. Communications with all stakeholders is important, as social media has evolved now requiring a higher level of honesty and transparency as more workers and employees have access to information.

This is also true at our educational institutions as students demand more respect for tribal lands, zero tolerance policies for racial discrimination, more student and teacher diversity representation, and more effective training efforts focused on everyday bias and micro aggression. Students are challenging policing practices that have led to disrespectful outcomes for students.

In private industry we have learned that the change process needed to create a more diverse and inclusive climate must operate at two levels. First, the strategy has to be a multiyear and include a framework for diversity and inclusion priorities. This framework must be communicated using a set of consistent messages and with clear expectations and accountabilities spelled out. And the effort must include a rigorous inspection process to assess progress and the pace of change. The top leader, in partnership with his leadership team must drive the effort to be effective overtime.

At the second level, “on-the-ground tactics” must be in place to guide movement toward the strategic vision that was developed. These tactics should be part of an implementation plan and include tools, education, and processes to operationalize the diversity and inclusion vision at the grassroots level.

The developers of the strategy must consider who should be at the table. In the University setting, care should be take to ensure adequate student voices are at the table, and heard.

Understanding the complexity of the diversity and inclusion change process is very important. Both long-term vision and short-term tactics are important. Short-term, quantifiable metrics which can be adjusted annually should serve as milestones for progress. I have also learned that tactics must be adaptable and should be adjusted to reflect changing business conditions that occur during the implementation process. Such changing business conditions can impact commitment to and the rigor of the effort.

The organization may experience changes in senior leadership and may hire a new leader or CEO who has not been a part of the process and who will need to be briefed and whose continuing commitment sought. Also, the market and business conditions may force leaders to implement short term cost control strategies. Often times discretionary spending is reduced affecting diversity and inclusion efforts.

Diversity efforts must be agile, nimble and adaptive to changing organizational pressure. However, leadership commitment must not waiver.

Just like the farmer who didn't anticipate the flood or drought, corporate leaders at times may not take into account changing business conditions that can impact the longer term strategy. Thoughtful leaders build these upset conditions into their planning process to provide continuity to the change effort required. The strategic diversity and inclusion framework can help during these times. The longer-term vision can remain in place while the short term tactics can be adjusted.

In many organizations and corporations, efforts to build more diverse and inclusive workforces and workplaces have matured. 21st century efforts are expanding to include other stakeholder groups such as customers, regulators, communities, governments, and civil societies. These stakeholders groups are much more diverse, not just in terms of race, sexual orientation or gender but also in terms of thinking styles, cultural identity and perspectives. The implications for sustainability are significant and the outcomes desired by all cannot be achieved if certain perspectives and stakeholder groups are not at the table.

21st century organization change efforts must also consider strategies that take into account the cultural heritage and backgrounds of peoples from all demographic groups. Leaders must assess who needs to be at the table, which is an important dimension of the analysis that should be done. And as such, cultural competency is a major element of global leadership capability that will be needed in the years ahead.

Take for instance the University of Washington’s undergraduate international student population which is 16% of the student enrollment. The University must consider these students as part of the diversity mix, and actively seek ways to value, respect and embrace the cultural and cognitive differences they bring to the university. However, efforts must be considered equitably across all minority groups including African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian American and Native Americans.

In the US private sector, there is a growing awareness of the political and economic clout of diverse communities. Markets can be lost very quickly in this era of sophisticated social media especially when the corporation acts disrespectfully toward certain diverse market segments. Trust can be loss quickly and cannot be easily regained. A company’s “license to operate” can be easily revoked or not extended if the organization is perceived as not socially responsible.

The economic consequences can be significant for the naive leader. Failure to fully grasp the growing implications of the global marketplace can also be huge. So as educational institutions, companies, governments and NGOs work to develop strategies for addressing these issues of equity and inclusion, they must think intentionally about who should be at the table and work to ensure that they are.

Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Must Be Aligned with the Institution’s Vision, Values and Culture. WAZZUs approach will not work at the University of Washington.

Building a successful diversity and inclusion change strategy must be adapted to the specific culture and leadership style of the organization. I have learned that “very few things can be successfully imposed from the outside.” As organizations, governments and civil society evolve, the change strategy must also continue to evolve. Diversity and inclusion change agents must be constructive participants in this evolving conversation with educational, business and organizational leaders. Diversity leaders must guide the development of the conversation. And, student leaders and employee resource groups must also be at the table.

As leaders help to shape the direction for the organization, I have learned that it is important to be “mission” focused rather that “issue focused.” Building successful dialogue with critical stakeholders requires listening, suspending judgment, looking for mutually beneficial outcomes, and treating each other with dignity and respect. Taking too much time to respond to issues raised can severely impact outcomes and effectiveness. And, as I stated earlier it requires a deeper understanding of cultural difference.

Diversity and inclusion aspirations must be considered in the larger context of evolving human capital requirements and expectations. 21st century leaders are now having to shift from a style that has focused on their “power over” rather than their “power with” those at the table. 21st century dynamics in organizations is much more decentralized and people are significantly more networked with peers, leaders, thought leaders, students, and other stakeholders. The evolving conversation and dialogue must address the question: How do I lead in an era when organizational leaders must govern inclusively and share more power with those being governed. It requires that the leader “shift their perspective” on human capital management. It requires the leader to be adaptive and to expand circles of influence to different audiences.

The United States is becoming a “majority minority” society. As this demographic shift accelerates, old traditional patterns of leadership in business, government and NGOs are changing. Relationships and power dynamics are changing. The bottom- line business reality is that our boardrooms, our schools, our investors, and our communities are looking very different.

The University of Washington is already a majority-minority educational institution with white students representing only 42% of the overall student population.

There is also a growing shift in the balance of economic power globally. We are living in a time when western civilization is no longer the economic center of the world. The United States is has become a country among equals. American business leaders must understand at a deeper level what it means to embrace global diversity. Perspectives must be expanded to include those of other stakeholders from around the world as economic powers are emerging from Asia, Africa, and the middle east shifting relationships, economic development and social interaction.

Up through most of the 20th century, it was enough for leaders to know national issues and challenges. However, we are moving into a period where being globally unintelligent is to be unintelligent, to quote Anand Giridharadas, author of India Calling: an Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking. Anand refers to what’s missing as “perspective shifting.” What would we feel like if we were Chinese Peasants for example? We need to develop the capability to step out of the architecture of our own truth and to consider the truth of those in emerging markets. We have to get to a place where you can just think about things as they are.

And finally, we must stop seeing the world and emerging markets as a way to source cheap labor or a place to take a vacation. In many of these new markets it has now become a place of new ideas and innovation. We must see the world as a place of growth and opportunity.

What does it mean in terms of diversity and inclusion?

It means that organizational leaders have an important role to play in terms of inclusion, social justice and fairness. The new reality is that we must become inclusive leaders with preeminent skills – the eyes and ears to help our organizations address the implications. We can no longer afford to have employees check their differences at the door; we must become more inclusive to achieve the results we want.

Organizations and those who would exercise leadership have no choice about whether to accept a new world that differs fundamentally from the old. Welcomed or not, it is the inevitable future and is becoming the “present” in many organizations at a breathtaking pace.

It is certainly true here at UW.

At the same time, there is a choice about whether to deny and react to these cultural and economic shifts or instead acknowledge and embrace them. And, we are seeing some members of our society fearing this change as a formula for “white genocide.” The progressive response is to be inclusive, not reversive and to address strategies for bringing more diverse view points which challenge our assumptions and biases leading to greater insights about how to cultivate a learning environment that is more reflective of our changing stakeholders – customers, markets, students, faculty, investors and our community. In creating a more inclusive learning environment here at the University of Washington, we help to create and sustain a more inclusive northwest society where all people can learn, live, grow and work more respectfully and completely.

The question we all must examine is “how do we push inclusivity out into the world and do it effectively?”

In closing I want to share a quote from William M. Chase:

Diversity is not casual, liberal tolerance of anything and everything not yourself.

It is not polite accommodation.

Instead, diversity is – in action – the sometimes painful awareness that other people, other races, other voices, other habits of mind, have as much integrity of being, as much claim on the world as you do.

And I urge you, amid all the differences present to the eye and mind, to reach out to create the bond that will protect us all. We are meant to be here together.

That’s what I think about when I think of “sustainability.”

Thank you.

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