Institutional initiatives require leadership buy-in. That's hardly a controversial statement. So, what do you do when you want to move your organization toward equity and inclusion, but you don't have an official seat at the table?
Many resources will tell you to make the economic case. Sure, you can point to studies that show that diverse teams produce more innovative work, or that it's good business to be able to show that your company is one of the Good Guys by adding splashy "we welcome everyone" statements to your careers page. However, I think there's a stronger case you can make for implementing equity practices in your organization, and it's not economic---it's personal.
Why isn't the "good business choice" the strongest argument for practicing equity?
Ultimately, when your leaders are making employment decisions, they're often NOT making them based on the smartest business choice, strictly speaking. That's because even the CEO is human and ultimately, as we've discussed, humans seek comfort as a default. Even the CEO knows they're going to be more comfortable at work if they're going to be working with a good buddy's nephew, or with someone from their alma mater, or with a guy who also really loves golf.
And, of course, choices made without an equity lens aren't just about comfort. In the wonderful Dismantling Racism handbook, we learn that the choices that keep the dominant culture dominant are also about values like either/or thinking, quantity over quality, power hoarding, and fear of conflict. (Note: I encourage you to follow the link above to read about those values, and others.) These are ways of thinking that have become the default for many of us--and, I would argue, most CEOs--and those defaults are actually quite a bit stronger than the desire to make a "good business choice."
So how do we make the personal case?
First of all, determine whether or not your CEO has morals. KIDDING. We're starting from the assumption that the people you work with want to do the right thing. In fact, that's step #1--assume your leadership wants to do the right thing and that they just don't realize that their own values are getting in the way of that. Say that to them. Get a meeting on the calendar and start with "I know you care as much as I do about equity and inclusion." We ultimately want to rely on this person's introspection and conscience, as we need to trigger it early in the process. (Note: You can do this with your manager or another leader in your organization--it doesn't have to be the CEO. You just need to choose someone with strong decisionmaking authority.)
Second, share the axiomatic "Our values determine our outcomes" and explain that the organization is likely over-valuing things like comfort and fear of conflict. Think of relatively benign examples of this in your own organization. An easy example of "comfort" is often choosing to hire people with whom we have an easy rapport or things in common. We all see "fear of conflict" at play every day, so that should be an easy one. The idea at this stage is to choose examples that don't necessarily implicate the CEO personally, but that may leave them contemplating their own choices after you leave the room. Get the CEO on your team as you try, together, to think of places where these values play out. Talk about some of the antidotes discussed here.
Third, leave the room. But before you do, reiterate your enthusiasm for the idea of an equity initiative ("I just find it so exciting that we could be at the forefront of this work, and I had to share!"), and ask if your CEO wouldn't mind if you leave them with an article you found helpful. (Maybe give them this, which is a gentle intro to reducing bias in hiring, or find something similar that relates to your area of work.) Ask if you can follow up in a week or so to hear their thoughts.
Finally, keep the conversation going. Trust that, after you leave the room, your CEO is thinking about this--remember that we're assuming they want to do the right thing. Invite them to a meeting to chat about the article you shared and talk about a couple of new processes you'd like to test. After discussing the article and hearing the CEO's thoughts, ask if you have their support to look into how the business could benefit from an equity lens. The answer will be some version of yes! It may be qualified and only apply to a specific area of your work, but you now have permission to make real change happen.
Coming soon: How the &#$% do you make real change happen?