How to Succeed in the Business of Inclusion: Moving Beyond Words - Rolling Stone
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How to Succeed in the Business of Inclusion: Moving Beyond Words

When it’s done right, growth-driven equity is a win-win proposition.


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Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

I’ve written a lot about how businesses can maximize nonprofit partnerships. We are seeing big organizations turning toward community leaders to fight systemic racism and injustice. This final part of my series on social change covers how action and engagement on diversity and inclusion can be good for business, too.

Well-known brands, like Proctor & Gamble, are consulting diverse panels of “real people” with cultural expertise, as marketing mistakes have consequences resulting in boycotts and online brigades. Of this recent trend, Joshua DuBois, CEO of Gauge, a tech company connecting corporations with influencers, activists, academics and thought leaders for thoughtful feedback, has said that “companies can engage them well ahead of any campaign launch,” according to an article in the Washington Post (paywall). Today, brands should have the foresight to include outside insights, feedback and voices in their marketing processes.

Brands cannot afford to make mistakes. Companies should proactively engage their audience and properly demonstrate their intentions, moving beyond words — or cancel culture could catch up to them. When it does, it’s hard to get out from under it. Brands need to get a deeper perspective. After years of working with large brands and organizations as a media strategist, I have found that changemakers in the social justice space have a common trait: inclusive leadership.

While many companies focus on increasing diversity, they still overlook the importance of equity and inclusion. Diversity is a mix. Inclusion is making the mix work. Korn Ferry’s research states only 5 percent of leaders can be described as truly inclusive and describes inclusive leaders as those who “interact with the diversity around them, build interpersonal trust, take the views of others into account and are adaptive. These abilities increase their effectiveness and the impact they have on individuals, teams, clients, customers, and communities — and therefore on the organization as a whole.”

Companies need to create inclusive leadership that permeates all of their business practices, from developing and attracting top talent to breaking into new markets to developing a stellar reputation among consumers. The great news is, inclusive leadership is a skill set that can be assessed, coached and developed if companies put in the time and resources to prioritize it. In fact, the book The 5 Disciplines of Inclusive Leaders by Andrés T. Tapia and Alina Polonskaia was recommended by Gartner as one of the top 10 must-read books for 2021 for its comprehensive look at this subject.

Large and small companies should pursue their leadership and advice rather than simply say, “I can’t find diverse talent.” Research the many communities you can tap into. For instance, the Executive Leadership Council (ELC), is a member-based community consisting of brilliant corporate officers and Black executives that drive growth, change management and governance.

Also, consider whether you are providing the best environment for diversity within your enterprise. If not, consider consulting with firms to help you view equity through the lens of growth. Racial equity is not charity; it’s a partnership. Align KPIs and core business goals with equity, and everybody wins. You’re not only working to reduce the wealth gap — you’re increasing market share, all while increasing the inclusion of your talent. When it’s done right, growth-driven equity is a win-win proposition.

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Engage leaders from diverse communities early on as a formal part of your market research when developing products and services. If you’re seeking a diverse group of customers, bring the people shaping culture early at the research stage.

Recognize the talent of diverse employees within your organization. Elevate, promote, empower and seed from other places. Brilliant junior leaders turn into brilliant senior leaders. So, bring them to the table. Empower them to succeed, but allow them to fail as well. Allow diverse leaders the same license that others have to grow and learn, and make some mistakes in the process. Consider investing in and acquiring diverse-owned companies.

Prioritize getting to know different pipelines. I frequently reach out to a couple of graduate schools, diverse organizations and my own network. There is a wealth of talent across our country that has yet to be tapped, including mid-level executives. Broaden your net to create pipelines in places not immediately apparent.

Make equity in all its forms a part of your KPIs. Sephora, for example, is hitting it out of the park. Their recent campaign, Black Beauty Is Beauty, is making great strides with its diversity team, bringing in leaders to shape their campaign and filling 15 percent of their shelf space with diverse-owned products.

Set measurable, tangible goals in terms of diversity on your teams, in leadership, in the amount of money you are spending in these spaces, in how you are engaging vendors and other subcontractors. Hold yourself accountable. I believe large corporations need equity officers within each department. This is not just “an HR thing.”

Our world is demanding change, especially after transformational years like 2020 and 2021, and our businesses are no different. As our country reckons with human rights issues such as diversity, equity and inclusion, each leader will need to choose what side of history their business will be on and how will it be remembered.


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