After years of seeing progress, the recent numbers on DEI can be deflating. Support for DEI programs—which initially rose on account of George Floyd—have reportedly fallen by 18% over the past two years. Many of our experts now worry about this momentum slipping even further.

But they also worry about who is making the decision to cut back. Experts say most firms still lack a strong succession plan that produces leaders from underrepresented groups. Only 5.9% of all US chief executives are Black, for instance, while Black Americans comprise 13.6% of the population. This incongruence, which applies across other underrepresented groups, may well be tied to those calling the shots. Experts say many carry unconscious biases or lack a strong connection to the issues around inclusivity. “As a leader, you become empathetic if you either have the shared experience or you can relate to the shared experience of others,” says Flo Falayi, an Associate Client Partner in Korn Ferry’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion practice.

Experts, however, caution that an all-too-common patchwork approach to diversity won’t enable leaders to emerge who look different from the leaders of yesteryear. They describe three basic models for diversity design: the universal, the differentiated, and the inclusive.

Universal design asks professionals to assimilate and fit the mold of an organization—e.g. play golf, drink scotch, have an Ivy League degree—which can be challenging at best and damaging at worst. Differentiated design aims to support individuals from diverse backgrounds on a parallel track, but it reflects the organization’s inherent lack of a structure that works for all employees.

Inclusive design, on the other hand, empowers people that come from different walks of life right from the beginning; however, it often calls for an overhaul of company practices and requires the involvement of the underrepresented. “The people with the blind spots are creating the system—without co-creating alongside the people the system is meant for,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner and Global Diversity and Inclusion Strategist.

“The people with the blind spots are creating the system—without co-creating alongside the people the system is meant for.”

Andrés Tapia, Senior Client Partner, Global DE&I Strategist

Inclusive design may be good for the bottom line too. One study in Australia found that goods and services created when taking into account the needs of low-income, disabled, or aging people could reach four times more consumers and help boost company profit. A real-world example of such design is the curb ramps on sidewalks. They were originally created for people in wheelchairs but ended up aiding many others beyond that user group—e.g. the elderly, people with strollers, and children on scooters. “There are many more people that benefit from an inclusive design concept,” says Fayruz Kirtzman, a Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner and thought leader in Korn Ferry’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practice. “And the same is true for inclusive succession.”

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Unleashing the power of all of us.

Even with a flawless design in place, one practical limitation on diverse hires rising up the ranks is the cost of executive assessment, says Alina Polonskaia, a global leader in the DE&I Consulting practice at Korn Ferry. She says firms that invest more in assessing their people early on will reap long-term value as they provide better development opportunities for junior minority executives—giving them a chance to move up instead of move out. “Development and progression are connected to your succession pipeline,” says Polonskaia.

Want to learn more about how your organization can adopt inclusive innovation for better business outcomes—and a better workplace? Talk to us.