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When is engaging external DEI partners effective, and when isn't it?

When is engaging external DEI partners effective, and when isn't it?
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Doing an unbiased analysis of your own strengths and weaknesses, focusing on the specific expertise external partners can offer and evaluating where your organization is on the maturity curve are important steps, inclusion experts say.

This story is part of "The Inclusive Workplace," a Protocol Manual. Read more here.

Brian Reaves

SVP, Chief Belonging, Diversity and Equity Officer at UKG

DEI conversations are most effective when you speak the language of the business and meet leadership where they are. Internal DEI officers can authentically frame the business case for DEI efforts like greater innovation, retention or product development. It's easier to dismiss an outside DEI partner who's telling you something you don't want to hear. An internal officer can develop that trust with leadership and with employees. They can also help hold leadership accountable because they have a position of influence and are empowered to create internal benchmarks and guide long-term decisions.

Layering in external organizations is an impactful way to incorporate DEI priorities into overarching business goals and create an ecosystem of DEI partners. Given the global, complex nature of DEI, it's important to find external partners that can bring specific expertise in an area that will augment or accelerate your strategy and capabilities.

It's critical to develop DEI advocates within your organization that sit outside of the core DEI team. These groups can serve a multitude of functions: from allyship, to advocacy, to continuous learning, to impact-driven networking that empowers individuals to execute DEI initiatives within their own organizations.

Companies that think outside the box when it comes to tapping external resources for DEI will not only strengthen the effectiveness of their internal initiatives, but also accelerate the overall business impact by expanding alliances with customers and partners that share their values and commitment to change.

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Randall Tucker

Chief Inclusion Officer at Mastercard

Building an inclusive culture requires an always-on, multifaceted and surround-sound approach. For Mastercard, that means working with a diversity of partners, both internal and external to us.

We draw from the deep well of talent already at Mastercard, which includes employees at all levels who bring a unique set of perspectives and experiences and who help drive our diversity, equity and inclusion work and culture.

We look to outside partners when we can complement our capabilities or drive efficiencies. We recognize that there are entire entities, for instance, wholly dedicated to specific topics or resources within the inclusion space that do it better than we ever could, because that's what they're solely focused on. So, we look to external partners in those instances. We also strongly believe that to address the diverse needs of a global marketplace, we must ensure the demographics of our suppliers reflect those of our customers and consumers and are committed to a diverse procurement program.

Additionally, we regularly invite and facilitate conversations with external partners, customers and others to share best practices and collaborate, because ultimately, we recognize that the sum is bigger than the parts. When we work together, we can make a greater impact on driving inclusion both inside our walls and in broader society.

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Antoinette Hamilton

Global Head of Inclusion and Diversity at Lam Research

Engaging external partners can be a valuable, often critical, first step to identify gaps and opportunities in building an environment that fosters diversity and inclusion — especially for companies pursuing DEI for the first time.

At Lam Research, we engaged a third-party consultancy to identify an effective, impactful path forward to bolster our inclusion and diversity efforts. We then developed a strategy informed by data-driven insights, stakeholder interviews, audits and mapping our current approach against industry best practices.

DEI programming is often rooted in breaking down unconscious bias; however, there's a double standard in accepting bias when it comes to assessing our own DEI progress. Starting with a clear, unbiased, externally validated baseline is an important step in tracking progress against benchmarks throughout your DEI journey. In fact, one of the outputs of our consultancy's assessment was a need for the creation of my role: a leader focused on driving Lam's global inclusion and diversity strategy forward, expanding our previous initiatives with an elevated focus and a holistic vision.

We engage regularly with regional and global organizations to help us enhance our practices and policies. I would caution against enlisting outside partners to "throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks." To be successful, it needs to be a thoughtful and intentional engagement that brings outside thinking in to solve for critical areas where external insights can enrich the process, like providing a gap analysis, sharing industry best practices and helping your company to build rigor into its DEI blueprint.

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Sonja Gittens

Head, Diversity & Inclusion at Asana

If you're using external partners to just "check the box," you'll never be successful. To ensure that it's aligned to your strategic efforts, you should expect to do the work to cultivate a relationship with both the partner and the community they're aligned with. These partnerships aren't a quick fix; they require a meaningful, long-term commitment.

Remember to approach partnerships as an opportunity to learn and not as a transaction: How can you benefit from their learnings and connections, and what can you offer that will provide benefit to them? Seek opportunities that will be mutually beneficial to both sides.

Learn more.

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Karen Craggs-Milne

Head of Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at ThoughtExchange

It's not about knowing when to engage external DEI partners. It's more about finding faster, better and more inclusive ways of doing the work in-house, using external technology solutions to maximize core DEI work. More organizations are seeing anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion as a key business imperative. Newly created DEI roles are charged with driving DEI forward — across every aspect of the business. DEI leaders are expected to show measurable impacts in a short timespan, with minimal budget. This is extremely challenging, particularly when there is a sole contributor, with little in-house support. This situation is all too common and, unfortunately, it leads to burn out and turn over as DEI leaders are stretched thin.

One key success strategy is identifying technology solutions that can efficiently automate, speed up and deliver on the core DEI work while reducing burn out. For instance, ThoughtExchange is a key tool in our customer DEI toolbox because it allows crowdsourced input from diverse stakeholders and groups in an unbiased and inclusive manner — with real-time results. What used to take me three months to do manually now takes me two weeks with this platform, and the results and insights are incredibly powerful! While all DEI leaders can act as human Swiss army knives, we are coming to a point where success for DEI leaders means finding ways to work smarter — not harder. And when a technological solution like ThoughtExchange can build transparency, trust and ownership in the process, we all win!

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Madhavi Bhasin

Vice President, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at Okta

At Okta, we value that every identity is unique and we're committed to making sure every one of our employees feels included and has a sense of belonging. That's why our Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIB) program works with internal and external partners.

In making a decision on when and which external partners to engage, the most important factor is to determine where your organization is at on the D&I maturity curve.

External partnerships fall into two categories — the first being partnerships that help you to identify the gaps in your approach, help craft your long-term DIB strategy and iterate continuously. External partners can bring immense value in setting the benchmark and helping you identify blank spots. But turning this information into action depends on where your company is at in its D&I journey.

Another critical set of partnerships include the community and professional organizations like NSBE, PowerToFly, Lesbians Who Tech and others. These help you build relationships across diverse communities to learn, recruit and support. They also give your ERG members an opportunity to champion the causes they are most interested in internally and externally.

You might engage one partner in the first category to understand your focus areas and then bring in community partners based on the goals and focus areas of your strategy. External partners are a good tool in your DEI toolbox. However, the effectiveness of these will depend on your leadership willingness and commitment to implement process change.

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Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.

CEO at SHRM

For an organization to achieve real progress towards diversity, equity and inclusion, there must be consistent commitment and representation across all levels of the company. To build a workforce that accurately reflects today's society, executives must lead by example and remain actively involved at every step along the journey from the top down. Ultimately, the CEO and executive leadership are accountable for the role diversity and inclusion plays within an organization—it's this commitment that creates a solid foundation to build from.

Leadership is the first step in creating an inclusive culture. Let me be clear, though—that does not mean that leadership immediately understands the full definition of inclusivity, or that internal staff are always the best equipped to coach leadership and people managers. External DEI partners not only bring expertise and comprehensive training without bias and deference—they can guide executive leadership and ultimately, the organization. Employees may also be more open and forthcoming if they have an external ombudsman to safely report to.

Measuring progress is key, and a focus on DEI has positive impacts on business. As a direct result of their DEI efforts, leaders report improvements in team diversity, employee engagement and ability to recruit top talent. But this success hinges on the efforts of organizational leaders and managers to provide the most reliable data and knowledge available to all involved.

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Jackeline Stewart

EVP, Head of Multicultural Communication at Edelman

Our research shows that the absence of a mindful DEI program is a dealbreaker for 78% of U.S. employees, which means that employers must not only pursue DEI, but they must get it right. Advancing DEI requires partnership between executive leadership, internal stakeholders, influencers and, at times, external partners, like Edelman's DEI client counselors, who have proven expertise in driving results. This partnership works best when internal leaders partner with our team to do the following:

  • Set measurable objectives based on quantitative and qualitative employee data
  • Maintain clarity on how DEI efforts will advance business objectives
  • Have a seat at the executive leadership table

You cannot fix a car engine without looking under the hood. To drive real impact, external DEI partners must become trusted members of the internal team and have visibility into employee sentiment. Contracting a DEI partner without sharing employee feedback will lead to a one-size-fits-all approach that will not inspire change and will undermine employee trust.

Help us help you reach your business goals through building and retaining a diverse workforce at all levels. Brief us on your organization's strategic plans so our DEI strategies and initiatives are woven into its fabric.

Our best engagements are the ones that include organizational leadership. CEOs and other executive leaders set the tone when it comes to DEI. Shutting external DEI partners out of the leadership table creates a bottleneck for the work, limits perspectives and delays — and sometimes prevents — progress.

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See who's who in the Protocol Braintrust and browse every previous edition by category here (Updated Sept. 27, 2021).

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