Diversity that fits: lessons from the C-suite

It's most encouraging when the executives perceived to be "running the business" embrace the challenges of diversity and inclusion.

Diversity professionals can be heard across corporate America espousing the virtues, talent advantages, and bottom-line benefits of a robust and comprehensive diversity and inclusion program. However, it's most encouraging when senior leaders – the executives perceived to be “running the business” – not only articulate the importance of these efforts, but also embrace the challenges of diversity and inclusion within their organizations and courageously confront the difficult conversations.

Last month, I had a “fly on the wall” opportunity to sit in on a conversation on diversity and inclusion between Comcast EVP David Cohen and Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, a member of the Comcast and NBCUniversal Joint Diversity Council, and former New Orleans mayor. They discussed the importance of diversity and inclusion to business and the media industry, as well as what they view as the challenges ahead.

As I listened to the depth of insights and advice they exchanged, I was struck by the applicability of the media company's strategy to PR agencies and other corporations focused on building or enhancing their efforts in this area.

I will share three of those insights here, but I also encourage you to view two excerpts from the conversation that NBCUniversal has posted online – Part 1 and Part 2.

•Creation of an external diversity council. Two years ago, Comcast and NBCUniversal created what has since become an award-winning external Joint Diversity Advisory Council. This group convenes leaders from various external organizations to advise the senior teams at Comcast and NBCUniversal on their diversity and inclusion initiatives in five focus areas – governance, people, procurement/supplier diversity, programming, and community investment.

This multifaceted approach across key business, operations, and philanthropic functions better ensures that diversity efforts will become business-as-usual, as opposed to a short-term and often ill-fated campaign or program. In addition, having thought leaders and subject matter experts from different industries and with different backgrounds and perspectives at the table helps companies avoid being too insular in their development of diversity and inclusion efforts. Embrace the transparency.

•Long-term commitment. Despite our progress as a nation, it is still difficult for people to have open, candid, real – and let's not forget respectful – conversations around diversity, race in particular. So, why would we expect the cultures of corporations and agencies to be any different? We don't leave who we are on the other side of the door when we walk into the workplace. Simply because an organization rallies around a new program, theme, or celebration doesn't mean employees will immediately embrace it, especially in the absence of a demonstrated, larger commitment to addressing the behaviors, values, and drivers that sit both above and below the surface.

Ambassador Andrew Young was right: corporate executives can be champions of diversity given their influence over American life. Their commitment is essential to moving the needle. However, these efforts also require a long-term commitment and recognition that even the “best” organizations are still building – and the journey is ongoing. Be persistent in the efforts, but patient in the outcomes.

•Diversity and inclusion as an American corporate value. OK. We're not there quite yet, but the notion of making diversity and inclusion important to everyone – not just diverse segments – is critical. Let's focus on Morial's business case for diversity. Great businesses pay attention to stakeholders – customers, employees, and shareholders. A company that can “fit its hand in the glove of all of those stakeholder communities will eventually be profitable.”

Countless corporations and agencies have embedded values such as excellence/quality, customer/client service, and trust into their corporate value systems. Let's try the same with diversity. When implemented properly, it's a perfect fit.

Latraviette Smith, former VP, global diversity and inclusion for American Express, has spent 15 years in communications in agency corporate, consumer, and multicultural PR, as well as senior marketing roles. Her column will focus on the PR industry's ongoing efforts to advance diversity among its ranks at all levels. Connect with her via LinkedIn or at latraviette@gmail.com. 

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