The US Supreme Court has spoken: the era of affirmative action in US college admissions is over, which means that disadvantaged groups will no longer benefit from positive discrimination when applying to college. Meanwhile, there is a growing political movement underway to roll back corporate DE&I initiatives in the US in the same way.  

In this context, with several high-profile CDOs stepping down in the past year, many have serious concerns about the future of DE&I. It’s not surprising that some DE&I leaders are feeling that DE&I gains of the past few years could be lost.  

But it’s important to remember that DE&I work is a marathon not a sprint, says Kim Waller, Senior Client Partner of Organizational Strategy and DE&I at Korn Ferry. “When we think about the work that we're doing, it's strategic. And any major strategic transformation takes longer than three years. As DE&I professionals we need to give ourselves some grace. The US Supreme Court ruling is a catalyst to reset and rethink.”  

This crisis is also an opportunity for leaders to look in the mirror and see where they might have missed the mark. Perhaps there’s been an over-reliance on quick wins, such as awareness raising, at the expense of longer-term strategic thinking and deeper systemic transformation. 

Proving the value proposition of DE&I 

So where do we go from here? What is the role of today’s DE&I leaders? And what can they do to overcome the current backlash and demonstrate the value of DE&I initiatives?  

“Let’s change the conversation,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s Senior Client Partner, Global DE&I and ESG Strategist. “DE&I leaders need to primarily position their work as an enabler to the business. DE&I is morally the ‘right thing to do’, but in a for-profit business, there’s more currency in what it can do to help deliver on the organizational objectives.”  

There’s a strong business case for DE&I. Research by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development shows that companies that embrace diversity and inclusion are 70% more likely to capture new markets and are 75% more likely to see ideas become productized. Diverse teams are more innovative, better at solving complex problems, and make smarter decisions overall. Clearly, DE&I is not a purely cultural initiative. It’s also a winning business strategy.  

Businesses wanting these kinds of results need diversity leaders in place, driving efforts forward. As the WSJ recently reported using data from the S&P/Drucker Institute Corporate Effectiveness Index and DE&I data from As You Sow, companies with executives dedicated to DE&I generally outperform those without. These rankings assess key metrics like customer satisfaction, employee engagement and development and innovation–all the essentials that successful businesses need to get right. 

DE&I leaders that manage to keep DE&I on the agenda are able to do so by translating, in a very direct way, the return on investment of their efforts. Their DE&I goals are aligned with the business, and they have the data to prove that what they’re doing is working. 

“As DE&I leaders, our mindset has to shift, so we think like enterprise-wide leaders, not functional leaders,” says Tapia. “Yes, we still have to run the DE&I function, but our focus should be always on the wider enterprise.” 

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Adapt or fail? 

On the flipside, consider the business threat of doing nothing or backing away from DE&I initiatives. The fact is that North America is changing: aging and browning. What is the business doing to prepare for that? Are businesses abandoning opportunities if they’re not willing to adapt? This supercharges the case for addressing inequity—it’s a clear risk to the bottom line.  

Of course, many leaders are facing real imbalances in their organizations. According to the panelists in our latest webinar, DE&I at the Crossroads: Sorting out fact, fiction and hype,  data is key to addressing these challenges. Their advice? Look at the data to uncover where the imbalances lie, and track progress over time to see if your efforts are having an impact. Strategic DE&I requires a roadmap that aligns closely to the business’s priorities and includes short- and long-term thinking.  

Creating DE&I initiatives with impact 

For DE&I leaders, influence and relationship-building are paramount. “The role is about how you can enable others to drive this work in your partnership. You need to be a Chief Implementation Officer, helping to guide and direct how this needs to be implemented from a structural perspective”, says JT Saunders, Korn Ferry’s Chief Diversity Officer. 

Whether DE&I is part of the HR function or not, leaders would do well to develop relationships throughout the company, getting a deep understanding of what the real business issues are, and sharing responsibility for driving better organizational outcomes.  

They can zero in on their organization’s purpose—its “why”—and use DE&I as a tool to deliver that. For example, if a business wants to grow in a particular market, how are they going to get there without having people from that market in positions of leadership power? In that way, DE&I is no longer a box-ticking exercise or a “nice to have” but a pathway to meet an important business metric.  

“A courageous DE&I leader, working as a culture change agent, can also be the Chief Strategist and the Chief Innovation Officer,” says Waller. “You can be critical to driving better business outcomes, both from a talent perspective as well as from a customer and market perspective. It’s the DE&I officer who has a lens to push that forward.”  

JT Saunders joined Kim Waller and Andrés Tapia for a frank discussion of the outlook for DE&I during our At the Crossroads webinar. Watch the full webinar on demand

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