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  • Writer's pictureDr. Denise O'Neil Green, Ph.D

Presidents, CEOs, Executives: Avoid the Performative Trap and Be Truly Inclusive Leaders

Six years ago (March 22, 2016), I did a post titled “A Chief Diversity Officer’s (CDO’s) Message to University and College Presidents”. At that time, I was the inaugural Assistant Vice President/Vice Provost of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at my university. After being in the role for a few years, I decided to share a message to postsecondary executives about EDI and what it means to truly lead an inclusive organization. Here’s a summary of my advice:

  • Incorporate EDI into your messaging

  • Walk the talk by surrounding yourself with people who reflect the diversity of your students, institution and community

  • Incorporate EDI into the priorities of your strategic plan

  • Allocate the appropriate resources to get the work done

  • Hold your executive officers accountable for EDI

Since 2016, many aspects of EDI work remain the same, however, something is different as the push for systemic, transformational change is palpable and the patience of marginalized, colonized, and oppressed peoples has run out. A chorus of voices critiquing the lexicon of EDI is indicative of the push for substantive change versus performative acts. Because of the mounting calls for change in light of George Floyd’s murder, unmarked graves found of children remains buried at residential schools in Canada and boarding schools in the U.S., along with increasing acts of hate and white supremacy, executive leaders have responded. Nonetheless, these responses are viewed as performative as they don’t seek to change the status quo but maintain it with the illusion of inclusion.

If Presidents, CEOs, and C-Suite Executives want to move beyond the performative and truly be inclusive leaders, there are five (5) crucial, foundational steps one must adopt:

  1. Reflect, Unlearn, and Relearn: Before looking outward, it’s important to look inward. After the murder of George Floyd and increasing calls for social justice and equality across many aspects of society, those at the top have asked: “What can I do?”. Of course action in the form of taking affirming steps towards eliminating anti-Black practices and policies is vital. However, focusing on areas where you lack knowledge and understanding pertaining to historical and present day systems that continue to marginalize equity deserving groups is a behaviour that needs to be unlearned. Seek to unlearn and relearn about systems of merit, privilege, and the like, and how that allows you to move in and out of different spaces affording you various advantages and/or disadvantages in workplaces, social and civic spaces, economic opportunities, and to live with an eye towards the future.

  2. Build a Diverse Team and Disrupt the Status Quota: While executive leaders oftentimes have autonomy to select their teams, those teams do not appropriately reflect their communities, societies, or customer base. Sure, on the frontlines and within management-level positions, we do tend to see greater diversity but unfortunately the C-Suite and Boards often are a reflection of the “good ole boys club” and sometimes the “good ole girls club”. These days there are efforts to diversify the C-Suite and Boards. Take a hard and critical look at your team. What representation in terms of your customer base, social responsibility, lived experience, and worldviews are missing? How can you bring greater expertise without tokenizing any of those voices or posts? Too often the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) is the one and only voice who voices EDI related opportunities and risks. Employing intersectionality, consider how critical mass vs. tokenism can be employed on your team, irrespective of its size.

  3. Operationalize by shifting from strategic goals to actions with measurable impact: While education is usually the go-to for impact metrics, I challenge executive leaders to move beyond education metrics of the numbers of those who attended unconscious bias training, or the number that attended EDI training for hiring, or the number that participated in EDI leadership training. Unfortunately, diversity training has a poor track record in terms of effectiveness and impact. Change in behaviors and attitudes are important; concurrently systems change is also required. An EDI examination of the 5Ps (policies, programs, procedures, practices and processes) are needed to determine appropriate action oriented metrics that permeate the entire organization. When the training is over and done, what reinforces behaviours and attitudes isn’t necessarily the training and education; it’s the behaviours and attitudes that the 5Ps reinforce, reward, and/or penalize. Reviews of this nature require dedication and diligence; otherwise, the system will continue to maintain the status quo irrespective of the training and education delivered.

  4. Dedicate appropriate resources to get the work done: I hear the same refrain over and over from my peers across North America. The chorus goes like this: “They hired me to implement a transformation agenda across the organization but I don’t have enough staff, funding and/or space, virtual or physical…”. The top executive, CEO, or President seems to know how to properly resource, back, and prioritize other critical institutional goals; however the EDI, DEI, IDEA, and so forth priority gets lost in the shuffle. Unfortunately, those who take on these inaugural roles who truly aim to create positive change and transform the organization must blaze a trail with many battles along the way, constantly proving the business case and their worth. This is exhausting and for most they move on within 3 years because the leadership isn’t serious, too many roadblocks and limited support. As a truly inclusive leader, a level of institutional readiness is required before bringing on a CDO who is asked to “walk on water” and essentially be all things to all people. It’s unrealistic and unhealthy. So, prior to initiating a role, do an assessment of what is typically needed to launch a new division or department and then actually provide those resources. If you wish to wait until the person comes on board, then complete the assessment and allocate the required resources within the first three months. This will save your CDO a substantial amount of time so that the real DEI work can get done.

  5. Hold your executive officers accountable for EDI and beyond: In my 2016 post I also noted holding executive officers accountable for EDI. In 2022, EDI is now a baseline rather than the full complement of what is needed from executive officers and leaders. In essence, executive leaders need to operate as the CDO of their respective units, departments, divisions, regional offices, etc. Why is this needed? The CDO is there to provide direction and guidance for the company, along with coaching their executive colleagues; but one leader or unit cannot fulfill this transformational mission unless other leaders step up and address EDI related opportunities challenges head-on within their own areas of influence. Going beyond training requirements is a necessary first step. To reinforce this behaviour, Presidents, CEOs, and Executive leaders must build these expectations into performance review plans from the start. No longer is there patience for hoping, wishing, and guessing if leaders will get the job done. Too much is at stake for top leaders to remain on the sidelines, as performative actors. Now is the time to be truly inclusive leaders!

What advice would you give to Presidents, CEOs, and Executives on ways to avoid performative measures and truly becoming an Inclusive Leader?

I’d love to hear what you think.


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