Turning talk into action: Organizations that are leading diversity, equity and inclusion efforts

In Turning Talk into Action, a recent panel discussion moderated by Audra Bohannon, Senior Client Partner at Korn Ferry, business leaders discussed how their organizations have been working towards DE&I practices.

In the wake of the tragic killing of George Floyd nine months ago, many businesses pledged to address racial inequality in their organizations. In Turning talk into action, a recent panel discussion moderated by Audra Bohannon, Senior Client Partner at Korn Ferry, business leaders discussed how their organizations have followed up on their promises and what leaders can do to implement change in their own organizations.

What steps have companies taken so far?

Susan Chapman-Hughes, Executive Vice President and Global Head of Digital Capabilities and Operations for American Express, noted that the discussions have changed among her non-Black colleagues, who now feel the need to do something tangible to create more equity in the workplace. What excites her the most is seeing “commitments coming from business community leaders across many different industries, all pushing to do something different.” Chapman-Hughes cited a range of examples, including creating internal opportunities for employees to grow, taking steps to expand customer and supplier bases to offer more opportunities for minority-owned businesses and setting measurable metrics to help organizations move forward. She added, “We’ve talked about it before, and we’ve seen steps in the marketplace, but we’re at a crossroads where people recognize that the future is diverse. This isn’t just about responding to what’s happened over the last nine months. It’s also a response to the fact that if you don’t do it, your business won’t be sustainable going forward.”

Mike Hyter, Chief Diversity Officer at Korn Ferry, shared Chapman-Hughes’s excitement, saying he’s glad to see “more of a commitment to action rather than just aspiration.” For Korn Ferry and many of its clients, the senior leadership team has accepted diversity, equity and inclusion as personal responsibilities that don’t “belong” to someone else. From recruitment and onboarding through development, “There’s a sense that we’re building an ecosystem that creates these outcomes, versus just being concerned that things aren’t happening naturally. Action versus aspiration is a huge step.”

This may be the first time that corporations have put themselves in a position of having to listen, observed Tony Marino, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Fiserv. Like most corporations, Fiserv had drafted a statement, but it rejected that approach after conducting listening sessions and realizing that “words were no longer going to be enough.” Together, the team at Fiserv created a new four-point plan, titled “Forward Together,” that’s designed to improve diversity across all levels of the organization, invest $50 million in Black-owned small businesses, increase awareness through education and give back to communities working to fight for a more just, inclusive world.

Johné Battle, Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion at Dollar General, echoed his peers’ sentiments. Although, as he said, there’s still “a lot of wood to be chopped,” Dollar General has made numerous internal commitments and has formed a series of external partnerships to foster diversity and inclusion. To reach those commitments, both executives and board members listened to various communities within the organization and leaned in to their responsibility. The board underwent individual inclusive leadership assessments and played a very intentional role in the company’s shift. He added that Dollar General wanted to break the racial injustice cycle in a way that was authentic to the company: “Rather than look for photo op moments to write a check, we sought real partnerships. Where we landed was that if we were going to break the cycle, we needed to support the Equal Justice Initiative and the work that Bryan Stevenson and his team do.” The company also formed partnerships with Operation Hope to promote financial literacy for both its employees and its communities and with INROADS, Inc., which sponsors and mentors underrepresented talent from high school through the C-suite.

Where are companies having an impact?

Bohannon next asked the panelists to drill down into the specific progress they’re making. Marino explained, “We knew we had to start at the top if we wanted to make a sustainable difference.” So, Fiserv embarked on a journey from unconscious bias to conscious inclusivity by incorporating training, coaching and action planning for the company’s top 300 leaders. The company reasoned that if it wanted to increase diversity across all levels, it first had to understand where it was today and why it was there. In Marino’s view, “This was the best training and development investment that I’ve seen. It’s given us a chance to sustain the improvement.... I still have leaders who come in and say, ‘I have to do more, because what I’ve been doing isn’t good enough.’”

Hyter added that success requires “a commitment to recognizing that development is the answer to helping people fully realize their potential within the organization.” That’s why Korn Ferry created an emerging talent experience that targets junior-level employees for assessment, individual development planning, sponsorship and coaching. Hyter reported that he has already seen an increase in project assignments, promotions and positioning for opportunities and growth because the talent is now much more equitably visible.

What’s the path forward?

Chapman-Hughes pointed out that we need to recognize that diversity, equity and inclusion are not synonymous. As leaders, it’s imperative to build and nurture connections with people, as sponsorship is essential to growing in your career. That poses a challenge for diversity efforts, because “you have to get leaders out of their comfort zone and connecting intentionally with people who are different from them.” Leaders also need to think about whether the decisions they’re making daily are creating runway for people of different backgrounds, leading to equity and inclusion. The foundation for all of this, she said, is a check on our unconscious biases, so that we are able to intentionally make more inclusive decisions in everything we do and look for ways to give others opportunities that they may not have had before.

Battle agreed with Chapman-Hughes, adding that “What gets measured gets done. But what gets measured with feedback gets done well.” He explained, “If the only thing you’re going to do is offer programs and workshops, you’ll have training but not transformation. Transformation requires you to put in discretionary effort that says, ‘I want my actions to speak louder than words.’ Often, when I speak with leaders, I remind them that this isn’t anything new. My question isn’t ‘have you heard it’ but ‘are you doing it?’ And are you doing it so well that you wouldn’t have to tell me you’re doing it because your actions would speak? The talent pipeline will be a clear demonstration that you’re doing it right.” The key to making this transformation a business imperative, he reiterated, is measurement.

Next steps

As she closed the session, Bohannon asked each leader what they hope to see in the near future. Their sentiments reflected optimism that leaders will learn the importance of empathy, of leading as much with their hearts as with their heads, such that the business community will emerge as leaders in this space.

To hear more of the panelists’ reflections, we have a replay of the webinar available to watch on demand. If you’re ready to start your journey toward becoming a more inclusive leader, check out our website for resources and assistance.