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Coaching For Sustained Change: Leading Diversity, Equity And Inclusion Initiatives

Forbes Article by Forbes Council Member, Joe Frodsham

Many leaders understand the diversity, equity and inclusion imperative, however, they often struggle with the self-awareness and commitment needed to catalyze change in their organizations. We have seen leaders verbally agree to embrace a new way of doing business, then lead and manage in ways that are inconsistent with building the equitable and inclusive environment they espouse. 

An example of this would be when a leader verbally supports the diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) imperative at their company but doesn’t follow through by helping to recruit key diverse talent or participate in DE&I focus groups and learning sessions. We’ve seen this happen at various companies this summer — giving DE&I “lip service” but not driving the actions necessary for real sustained change.

Leading change starts from the inside, out.

Leaders are the catalysts to creating diverse, equitable and inclusive environments. However, the first change needs to happen on the inside. Leaders need to understand DE&I issues at a foundational level. Specifically, they need to:

  • Surface their own beliefs and stereotypes on issues of diversity and equity.
  • Understand the impact of their beliefs and behaviors on their leadership, relationships and professional life.
  • Commit to specific actions and behaviors to lead for sustainable DE&I impact.

Many organizations have attempted to drive this deeper awareness and commitment through DE&I training. However, it often misses the mark. For many leaders, the facilitated sessions are too public and do not address the deeper beliefs that have been formed over a lifetime. For those who are struggling in this area, a DE&I coach might help move the needle.

Coaching can support individual change.

Business leaders should seek coaches with the experience and credibility to guide the exploration, awareness and action planning that can make a substantial difference. In order for this to be most successful, the workplace in question needs to be a safe harbor environment with complete transparency and honesty. Coaches should be able to ask questions and help reflect on the answers in order to highlight leaders' assumptions, feelings and beliefs on issues of race, gender, sexual orientation and fairness. 

The Elements Of Diversity, Equity And Inclusivity Coaching

The focus of DE&I coaching is on deeper self-awareness and moving forward — making the DE&I imperative personal and actionable. Effective DE&I coaching includes the following three phases: the self-awareness phase, the shadow-casting phase and the commitment-action phase.

Self-awareness phase: Exploration of core beliefs and assumptions. Understanding the underlying mental framework of a leader requires a safe environment. A good DE&I coach will establish a level of trust before having the leader look at themselves. Probing happens in these key areas:

  • Beliefs about success and people
  • Personal preferences about certain people
  • Professional and personal biases
  • Prejudices and stereotypes (these are often hidden and are surfaced through the probing process)

Inevitably, what emerges is a profile of the leader’s assumptions and beliefs about people who are different than themselves. This phase often conjures up emotions, including a sense of guilt and anger. A DE&I coach should be sensitive in managing these emotions and encouraging the leader to focus on moving forward.

The net result of the self-awareness phase is personal application and commitment. It is important to understand how the leader brings this self-awareness into their workplace, which leads to the next phase — shadow-casting.

Shadow-casting phase: Awareness of the impact of beliefs, behaviors and patterns on results. Leaders cast a clear shadow with what they say and do not say and with where they focus their attention and rewards. They have to understand the impact of the formal and informal signals they send around issues related to DE&I.

Coaching can surface a leader's current impact by focusing on their “shadow of DE&I leadership” and how their beliefs and behaviors have both supported and inhibited the DE&I imperative. Key probing areas include:

  • Current results in terms of diversity and engagement of their team and workforce
  • Level of comfort and engagement with people of different backgrounds
  • The impact on their selection and development of people
  • Future impact on employee engagement and business results with no change

The net result of the shadow-casting phase is a more concrete awareness of what leadership means and the impact it has on the DE&I imperative in their organization — their strengths and gaps. Now the leader has the commitment and insights needed to make targeted change, which leads to the next phase — commitment-action.

Commitment-action phase: The declaration of personal values and desired legacy. The awareness garnered in phases one and two establishes the foundation for the enlightened leadership needed for sustained change. As part of this phase, coaches should have leaders document their philosophical and tactical commitments. This is called their "legacy declaration."

The legacy declaration can be three sentences or two pages, each one as unique as the author. A legacy declaration has the following elements:

  • Outline of personal insights and beliefs on diversity, equity and inclusion: What have I learned to be true?
  • Summary of aspirations: What will my leadership impact and legacy be?
  • Summary of key commitments: What will I always do to lead for diversity, equity and inclusion?

The legacy declaration acts as a personal contract. It is deeply personal. Some leaders share it freely, some share parts and others keep their declaration confidential. However, it does translate into leaders who are more aware, informed and committed to the real change needed to drive a more equitable workplace and world.

The three-phased approach outlined in this article offers a successful framework for coaches to support important change in the workplace and in the world at large.

As seen in Forbes.