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Ready.Fire.Aim? Three Signs Your Diversity Program Will Fail

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from DiversityInc.com, September 5, 2001. Further reproduction is prohibited without express permission of Diversityinc.

Somewhere in corporate America, an eager mid-level manager is basking in the praise of a chief executive who just signed off on a new diversity initiative researched and written outside the executive suite.

That's good news - empowering news - for the mid-level manager, right?

Wrong, said diversity consultant Terrence Simmons. "What you have just experienced is the first indication that (leadership) has abdicated" responsibility for diversity, said Simmons, CEO of Simmons Associates, a New Hope, Pa.-based diversity-consulting firm.

Simmons said a diversity program is in trouble when it:

    - Starts with training.

    - Starts with the formation of a diversity council.

    - Establishes tools for measuring diversity before defining diversity goals.

In fact, he said, any diversity initiative that isn't authored and led by top leaders is guaranteed to fall apart. The Simmons organization has "a real bias about one thing that not everyone shares," Simmons said. "We really believe that you must get the line leadership to actually lead, instead of passively support" any diversity initiative.

"It's so obvious in retrospect," he added. "What executive charges ahead with someone else's vision?" Further, the failure of top management to lead the program may produce results that are wildly out of line with other corporate goals those leaders truly cherish - cost containment, for example.

Once there's a perception that diversity is somehow at odds with those other corporate goals, he said, the likelihood of building an effective diversity program plummets.

Simmons advocates a course of "strategic sequencing" that assigns key components of a diversity program to their proper place. There's a reason, he noted, that marksmen aren't directed to ready their weapons, fire, and then aim.

The first step for anyone in charge of a diversity program, he said, is securing the active participation, not just the passive backing and support of corporate leadership. Subsequent steps will logically flow from the goals and objectives set by those leaders. "Recognize that you want the executives to write the strategy. This is one of the CEO's deliverables to the diversity initiative and to the organization", he said.

The process of bringing top leadership into the mix varies from company to company. "If it is a company that is so data-driven they can't do anything without data, your needs-analysis or cultural audit become your first step," Simmons said.

In all cases, the critical step in creating a great initiative" is getting the executives in a room to write the plan." Simmons Associates offers a two-day workshop aimed at walking top leaders through the process of crafting an effective diversity initiative. During the first day "we give them the education" to identify the elements of a diversity plan that will be aligned with other corporate goals. On the second day, Simmons consultants facilitate the writing of the plan.

"There is a tendency to start an initiative with training," Simmons said. "But if you haven't put together a solid strategy before that, and if you haven't identified the goals of the initiative ... training is sort of relegated to '101 Awareness'."

Stand-alone diversity training programs that aren't effectively tied to the company's overall goals and objectives can generate several problems. "Employees and leaders often think 'if I go to this training, I'm pretty well done'," Simmons said. "People believe the training is the process, that they have finished what they need to do. In reality, training should supply the tools to help get the job done. It's only the beginning of the process."

Some companies get caught in an endless cycle of one-day training sessions and events that don't have any real association with the bottom line. Employees who are required to attend "are not all that tolerant of going back over and over" the same material," Simmons said. "This is a traditional error that people have made in this field," he added. "We think it's a major mistake."

Launching a diversity program through the formation of a diversity council "is also problematic in the long run," Simmons said.The council must be handpicked and given specific marching orders by the company's top leaders.

Otherwise, Simmons said, "you have the potential for trouble and it goes like this: The diversity council feels like it needs to jumpstart the initiatives and it begins to develop a definition for the company - a vision, objectives, an implementation plan - and it seems like great stuff."

A few months later, the council has done a tremendous amount of work that may be approved by the executive team "but it's often only a rubber stamp because it hasn't been written and led by the executive team."

At that point "what you have is the unintentional abdication of power to the diversity council and a weakening of the long-term power of the diversity initiative," Simmons said. At the same time, the council can disintegrate because the wrong people are sitting at the table. Often, the members of a new diversity council are drawn from the ranks of employees who are "interested in diversity," Simmons said - "not necessarily the best people to merge diversity initiatives with other corporate goals."

For example, it's not uncommon for someone with a gripe against the company to be invited to join a diversity council, Simmons said. At some point, the council may end up "working through some very confidential material" - not the kind of documents the company wants to share with employees who "may have been on the verge of bringing a suit against the company."

It won't take long for the company to decide that it can't "put sensitive information in front of the council and they will shelve it," Simmons said. It makes more sense for top leaders to analyze the role of a council before the membership is chosen.

"Think through all the possible tasks you might ask a diversity council to engage in and you will see there are special skills involved," he said. Those skills might include the ability to analyze employment data, produce effective written statements or develop a series of metrics.

"When you start by putting together a council of people who are 'interested in diversity' - they may or may not have those skills," Simmons added. The third warning flag flies when the standards for measuring diversity are put in place before the true objectives of a diversity program are established, Simmons said.

"I'm always astounded at how many people want to know how to measure diversity before they've established the specific long-term goals of their process," he said. "You want to be measuring the right thing. It is very disheartening when you've got a set of metrics that don't really get to the heart of where you want to go." For example, a company might successfully hire women and people of color, but do a poor job of creating an environment that allows diversity to flourish.

If the metrics measure only hiring "you are going to end up looking really good to yourself, but totally miss (measuring) the long-term goals of your process," Simmons said. Generally, the Simmons team is retained to run an executive session after a company has made one or more strategic errors and isn't seeing real progress in diversity. "This whole concept gives the diversity initiative a new sense of discipline, one that is respected by the analytical thinkers at the company," he said.

The benchmark Myers-Briggs test identifies "thinkers" and "feelers" and offers assessments of their characteristics. "The whole history of diversity has been the feelers trying to explain it to the thinkers ... and wondering why they don't get it," Simmons said.

A leadership-driven program that incorporates metrics firmly in sync with the company's business strategy moves issues of diversity "out of the warm and fuzzy and into hard, cold business language that thinkers can respect," Simmons said.

At the same time, he added, "you don't want to lose the feelers along the way."