Act Now: Championing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

by Lara Abrash

During social and economic uncertainty we should all be even more focused on DEI.

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In my professional and personal life, I have always considered myself a work-in-progress – constantly in “beta” and looking for ways to learn, grow, and improve. For the most part, this process has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve benefitted from amazing experiences, caring mentors, and exciting leadership roles that shaped the trajectory of my career and, frankly, my life.

The past several months have certainly taken on a different tone, offering lessons I would rather have learned through different circumstances. Our organizations and our communities have faced an alarming combination of a global health pandemic, economic uncertainty, and social unrest, all of which have disproportionately affected under-represented members of our communities.

As I try to make sense of all that’s going on and determine my path forward – as a business leader, a mom, a wife, a daughter, a colleague, and a friend – the need to take action regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in our society and our workforce has never been more clear.

In the current environment, many companies are engaged in redefining future forecasts, meeting client demands, or even trying to simply stay afloat. In times of economic crisis, with so many competing demands, history has shown many companies lose focus on their DEI initiatives. In reality, during social and economic uncertainty we should all be even more focused on DEI.

A diverse workforce means more perspectives, more ideas to bring innovative solutions to clients, broader empathy and understanding of the impact of emerging events—all of which are critical to the success of organizations and, ultimately, moving our economy and society forward. Laying the foundation when times are good and steadfast commitment during challenging times are equally necessary to drive actionable change when it is needed most. As I have embarked on my journey, I’ve incorporated three key actions to turn aspirations into reality.

Know thyself

To spark positive change in your organization, it’s important to start with understanding how the company currently operates and having a clear sense of the composition of your workforce. Data and information that can be surprisingly difficult to harness is quickly becoming mission-critical as we tap into the power of DEI in our organizations. That said, the relevant information isn’t simply captured by the numbers. Getting a strong grasp on what is working and listening, really listening, to professionals whole-heartedly share experiences, challenges, and ideas for improvement has been refreshing and, in many instances, provided me with new and fresh perspectives.

Taking your organization’s pulse isn’t solely an exercise of gathering data through management systems and outreach to develop a “snapshot” of the current state.  It also involves assessing your culture, which often surfaces as the summation of seemingly small actions that reinforce traditions, values, beliefs, and accepted standards of behavior.

The topic of DEI is incredibly personal and people crave and need deep meaningful conversations with one another. I’ve found that most organizations have a cultural sweet spot where “moments that matter” frequently occur among colleagues and leaders. These moments require significant organizational muscle memory to take place. Identifying, early on, those parts of our organizations and individuals who are capable of and fully invested in driving change – and those that are not – is essential.    

Talk the talk while you walk the walk 

It’s one thing to be knowledgeable about your workforce composition and culture, but it’s critically important to effectively and openly communicate the vision with employees—and create space for them to openly communicate with one another—so they can drive the organization’s goals.

Breaking the taboo around matters such as race, gender, sexuality, and bias in the workforce is not something that happens overnight. Bold, courageous conversations that share experiences and stories link us together on a personal level, establish the new-norm of business place conversations, and lay the foundation for more discrete, tactical conversations on how and where the organization plans to drive change.

Like other business imperatives, there are short-term actions and long-term investment choices to consider related to DEI. Inviting your entire workforce to participate in the discussion of where you’re going and how you plan to achieve your goals over time aids in followership and fosters a sense of ownership and engagement that is necessary for sustained progress.

Studies show that employees are overwhelmingly more likely to stay with an empathic employer. Since I’ve assumed my role, one of my primary objectives is leading through example. I want to do right by my colleagues and address issues head-on with authenticity, sympathy, and transparency – characteristics that are foundational to my leadership philosophy. Listening and addressing each concern directly in a clear, decisive manner aids in building a foundation of trust with our people.

In our organization, I’ve also called upon key influencers to encourage and amplify the conversation on a tangible, individual level in a variety of settings ranging from one-on-one conversations to organization-wide town halls. As a result of these efforts, we’ve established an iterative communication cycle with our employees – at both an organization-wide and personal level – that involves listening, gathering feedback, collaborative ideation, and clearly articulating our vision and action plan in a way that fosters sustained involvement.    

Do things on purpose

We’re constantly inundated with the freshest, latest news. Actively monitoring emerging developments and ensuring your organization is keeping pace with matters relevant to your workforce is more important than ever. However, we run the risk of losing focus by perpetually living in the ideation stage of building a strategy – quickly moving from one thing to another as the news cycle changes. At best, this sub-optimizes an organization’s resources and, at its worst, it can disenfranchise employees that sense a lack of commitment and hollow virtue-signaling.

There is a fine line that separates being responsive to current events versus being defined by them. In our organization, we use our purpose as our compass when navigating this challenge and as a tool to illustrate the relevance of current events to our organizational mission. I typically discuss purpose as it relates to our important role of providing integrity and trust to the capital markets that have placed their confidence in us to audit over $7 trillion dollars of market capitalization – representing life savings, retirement savings, and education funds for family members. A key element of this is an obligation to bring the best and brightest people and perspectives to our work.

Over the past nine months, my aperture on our purpose has broadened. We of course remain unwavering in our commitment to the capital markets but realize this is part of a bigger whole. Our true purpose rests in bringing the power of our 120,000 people to help each other and our society when and where it’s most impactful – which includes supporting our colleagues and communities in times of need, providing financial assistance to front line workers, and recognizing our role in a historical shift to finally rid our organizations and society of racism.  

Throughout this journey, we’ve been intentional to embed DEI into all aspects of the business and link it directly to our purpose rather than positioning it as solely an HR or enabling area concern. The topic is not for one or two leaders to own – every employee in the business must feel empowered and compelled to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive work environment while understanding how it connects to the broader organization.

I’ve often analogized my vision of our future to a mosaic that brings together pieces of all shapes, sizes, and colors to form a beautiful picture – one that is brilliant and remarkable because of the differences that complement one another, not despite of them. I ask that we all commit to embracing the amazing differences our organization and society have been blessed with – whether it is race, age, religion, gender identification, sexual orientation, physical ability, political views, or any other characteristic that shapes our human perspective and experience.

As today’s leaders, we have an unprecedented opportunity to make generational change in our organizations by unlocking the power of DEI — change that our customers, our people, and our communities are demanding. It’s time to be bold. It’s time to disrupt. It’s time to take action.

Lara Abrash is CEO of Deloitte’s US Audit & Assurance business.

Join Lara at the Corporate Financial Reporting Insights Virtual Conference 2020 on November 2, where she will be moderating the “Beyond Thoughts and Prayers: Action Oriented Diversity and Inclusion” panel. This candid conversation will focus on specific initiatives company leaders are implementing, the firsthand experiences, and how diversity, equity, and inclusion contribute to the overall success of their businesses.


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