by Damon Carter

Ready, set, change! Building a fair, equitable and just IT culture

Nov 06, 202013 mins
Diversity and InclusionIT LeadershipProject Management

Redefining workplace culture is no small task. But with the right leadership competencies, management discipline, and a tenacious commitment to the task at hand, you can activate your new organizational vision.

Editor’s note: This article is the third in a four-part series on how IT leaders can effectively address systemic racism in their organizations. Start reading here or jump to either the first article in the series, which lays the groundwork for effectively addressing systemic racism, or the second article in the series, which outlines how IT leaders can begin creating a culture of inclusion and belonging.

Over the past several months, many organizations have publicly denounced systemic racism, issued corporate pledges and made financial commitments to clearly demonstrate their unwavering support for social justice reform.  There has also been a heightened awareness regarding how people of color, particularly the African American community, have been negatively impacted by systemic racism in various ways.  Now, business leaders must determine how to fully integrate diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I) strategies into their workplace culture in a meaningful and sustainable way.

Workplace culture is primarily defined by an organization’s core values, leadership behaviors, and management processes — all three of these components can both positively and negatively impact the overall employee experience.  Implementing significant changes to the workplace culture requires substantial changes to each of these components, the extent of which should not be underestimated. 

This article will guide you through some of the key leadership and management changes you need to make to support DE&I efforts and galvanize your new vision for the organization.

Launch new leadership competencies

In order to begin creating a fair and equitable workplace culture for people of color, some organizations may need to establish new core leadership capabilities that will strategically support the new workplace culture. In their book The Leadership Challenge, authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner present the following core practices of effective leaders:

  • Inspiring a shared vision —evangelizing a vision that motivates others to act
  • Modeling the way — establishing standards of excellence and being the example for all employees
  • Challenging the process — promoting a continuous improvement mindset (the new status quo is not being satisfied with the status quo)
  • Enabling others to act — building high-performing teams based on trust and mutual respect
  • Encouraging the heart — giving people a sense of purpose at work.

In addition to those core practices, IT leaders may need to adopt a new set of capabilities that will help them facilitate progress and adapt to the fast-paced, evolving needs of the workplace.  Examples include:

  • Having a growth mindset — embracing continuous learning and personal development
  • Practicing inclusive leadership — ensuring everyone has a voice and feels valued and being aware of one’s own biases
  • Being an agile learner — learning from all experiences, particularly in the face of challenges, and effectively applying lessons learned
  • Intellectual humility —accepting that you do not have all the answers and being open to learning from other people’s perspective

Furthermore, organizations must invest in developing empathetic leaders who are highly skilled at building genuine connections with people of color and fully capable of having difficult discussions with all employees regarding the complex dimensions of racial equality in the workplace.  As Simon Sinek, author of Together is Better, said in a recent interview, “When the Black Lives Matter Movement showed up, a lot of leaders did nothing.  Not because they’re bad people, it’s because they were stuck.  They had no idea what to do.  They didn’t know how to have a difficult conversation.  Well, if you can ever learn the skills to have a difficult conversation about race, you can have a difficult conversation about anything.” 

Good corporate leaders aren’t intimidated by complex and ambiguous circumstances experienced in the workplace.  Instead, they’re often drawn to such defining leadership moments, particularly if doing so authentically aligns with their personal values.   

Align DE&I strategy to management practices

Many IT leaders have instituted continuous improvement methodologies such as LEAN, Six Sigma and Agile to purposefully redesign daily operations and promote a continuous learning environment for all employees. As it relates to DE&I strategy, leaders can benefit greatly from applying such familiar management practices, with proven tools and resources, to effectively address this challenging and unfamiliar strategic imperative.  One such approach that can be effective in systemically improving workforce diversity and incorporating inclusive practices into workplace culture is DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control).

Define — articulate the challenge, requirements, and opportunity

The first step is to clearly define the problem that you are committed to addressing and to identify specific DE&I related goals that will help determine success.  There are several key roles to assign, strategic decisions to make, and actions that must occur at this critical stage in the process. 

Executive sponsors must:

  • Broadly communicate the overall value of the DE&I initiative;
  • Select representatives from various departments to serve on the cross-functional project team;
  • Support key activities associated with the strategic imperative; and
  • Given the sensitive nature of this topic, take the time to establish rules of engagement with the project team to ensure a safe space is created for all participants to share ideas and personal reflections.

Project team members are responsible for leading the overall planning and coordination of the DE&I strategy. They must:

  • Define the overall scope of the project;
  • Develop an actionable and sustainable project plan;
  • Select the appropriate continuous improvement tools and resources;
  • Identify and track key performance indicators (KPIs);
  • Provide regular status updates to the executive sponsors; and
  • Develop a project charter that clearly states the DE&I business case, problem statement, goal statement, key stakeholders, and critical success factors to ensure that the project team remains focused on the overall strategic objectives.

Since everyone possesses differing perspectives based on their unique life experiences, each member of the project team must be committed to modeling the inclusive behaviors that they aspire to cultivate for all employees.

Measure — identify and assess KPIs

As Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured gets improved.”  An action-oriented DE&I strategy begins with completing a thorough analysis to identify the organization’s strengths and opportunities with respect to workforce demographics.  With that information in hand, the project team must identify KPIs to measure their overall performance and they must be very thoughtful when determining the appropriate metrics to track progress against DE&I goals. This includes creating scorecards for both executive leadership and managers.

An enterprise-wide corporate diversity scorecard for executive leadership creates transparency across functional areas of the organization regarding areas of strength and opportunities for improvement. It also enhances accountability among the executive team, particularly if it is tied to performance goals and annual compensation plans. 

Additionally, a department-level operational dashboard for managers will assist in consistently tracking key workforce demographics at a department level.  These dashboards are key to providing transparency to diversity metrics across the organization and will help managers make informed decisions regarding the recruitment, development, advancement, and retention of people of color.  Moreover, the metrics calculated and tracked by the operational dashboards should be strategically aligned with the corporate diversity scorecard.

While KPIs are critical for the overall success of the DE&I strategy, the project team must avoid basing the success of this important initiative solely on the initial attainment of targeted performance metrics.  Doing so would be detrimental to the overall effectiveness and sustainability of the organization’s DE&I strategy.  Unlike traditional continuous improvement initiatives, IT leaders must avoid the temptation of using metrics as the primary measure of success for this special initiative.  Instead, the achievement of targeted KPIs should be considered a collection of key stepping stones leading to the development of progressive workplace practices and organizational behaviors that will promote an inclusive and equitable culture.

Analyze – employ root cause analysis tools to prioritize improvement activities

Once the project team has identified appropriate KPIs, it must use root cause analysis tools (ex. Fishbone Diagram; 5 Whys Exercise; or Pareto Chart) to thoroughly analyze the targeted DE&I issue (i.e., problem statement).  This critical step in the DMAIC process could be the most challenging for the project team due to the amount of effort and discipline required to successfully identify potential root causes of systemic racism in the workplace.  However, it is vital for the project team to effectively leverage such tools to accurately determine why the problem has consistently plagued the work environment.   

Additionally, the project team should continue to share resources to educate one another on the DE&I issue, which will enrich the root cause analysis discussion and inform their action planning activities.  Given the unique nature of this initiative, it will be vitally important for the project team to thoroughly test their initial hypotheses about the fundamental causes of the systemic issue as they work together to create a fair and equitable workplace culture. 

Improve – create and execute a comprehensive action plan

Next, the project team will create a comprehensive action plan to improve the organization’s current state based on the insights gained during the analysis phase.  It should also identify specific diverse talent strategies that specifically target each stage of the employee life cycle, including:

  • Recruitment: Build strategic partnerships with a variety of diverse IT professional organizations to regularly source and hire people of color with desired skill sets.
  • Development: Create targeted professional development strategies for people of color and encourage networking opportunities both internally and externally (e.g., the Information Technology Senior Management Forum has been doing great work in this area).
  • Advancement: Ensure people of color are afforded equal opportunities to advance their careers across the organization.
  • Retention: Analyze data to clearly understand turnover trends and employ proactive measures to retain people of color.

Control – continuously monitor and sustain progress

The project team should plan to regularly review the corporate diversity scorecard, operational dashboard, and any other relevant information to track the organization’s overall progress towards the goal statement defined in the project charter.  Additionally, the project team should regularly review all KPIs to track the organization’s performance against each performance goal and work to address any unanticipated issues that may arise.  The DE&I strategy should also be incorporated into recurring key management practices (e.g., quarterly operating reviews, all-employee meetings, board meetings, etc.), significantly improving the overall sustainability of this important corporate imperative. 

The DE&I strategy should not be managed like a corporate campaign that will come to an end once specific diversity targets have been met by the organization.  Instead, the ultimate goal should be to fully integrate the newly identified talent strategies and inclusive practices into the organization’s talent management cycle (i.e., recruitment, development, advancement, and retention).  In other words, the DE&I strategy should eventually become the way leaders naturally conduct themselves on a daily basis, which will redefine the workplace culture moving forward.

Transforming culture takes time and effort

It is important to remember that cultivating a fair and equitable workplace culture for people of color is a marathon and not a sprint.  It can be a very rewarding and fulfilling journey for all employees, particularly the IT leadership team, given the many different learning opportunities that will inevitably occur as a function of continuous improvement.  Additionally, IT leaders must diligently work to prepare the workforce for this decisive cultural shift by creating multiple learning opportunities for all employees.  Several examples of potential training topics include:

  • Valuing diversity in the workplace;
  • Unconscious bias;
  • Micro-aggressions;
  • Allyship;
  • Cultural awareness; and
  • Inclusive workplace practices.

Developing a comprehensive DE&I strategy and seamlessly integrating meaningful inclusive practices into the workplace culture requires continuous commitment by the organization over time and the ongoing influence of authentic leaders with specialized skills.  As Amy C. Edmondson and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “In a complex and uncertain world that demands constant learning and agility, the most apt and adaptable leaders are those who are aware of their limitations, have the necessary humility to grow their own and others’ potential, and are courageous and curious enough to create sincere and open connections with others. They build inclusive team climates with psychological safety that foster constructive criticism and dissent.”

It should also be clearly understood that unlike many traditional corporate initiatives, the path for successfully transforming the workplace culture will be unclear, unfamiliar, and intimidating for a variety of reasons, and the overall experience will vary across organizations.  However, for those leaders who firmly believe in the reimagined vision for the organization, it is not an impossible or insurmountable goal to achieve. For them, now is the time to embrace this new leadership challenge and start the transformational cultural journey.

As former US Senator Carol Moseley Braun once said, “Magic lies in challenging what seems impossible.

The final article in the series will explain how IT leaders can work together to reinforce the organization’s commitment to cultivating a fair and equitable work environment by establishing new strategic relationships in the community, which will significantly contribute to eliminating the adverse impact of systemic racism over time.