Updated: Mar 30
Five years ago, I found myself leading Added Value’s Multicultural Practice across North America. It was a position that had been vacated by my mentor, who, before he left, sat with me on a bench near Madison Square Park to talk about his next steps. It was in that conversation that he so easily, and matter-of-factly suggested that I fill the role in his absence.
Apparently, it was the same way he ended up in the role- there was a a missing piece in the business, and no one there to fill it, so he stepped up and did it himself.
In my mentor’s eyes, there was no reason as to why I couldn’t be the next Multicultural Lead, but there were plenty of reasons why this felt outrageous at the time. I was a project manager and, much more junior than his VP status and tenure in the corporate world. In truth, I hadn’t even worked long enough to imagine myself in such a role, but he was right. Executive title or not, it needed to be filled.
I eventually campaigned for it and after a few months of no one else trying to do the work, I got it. Thankfully, because I was so junior, my role was not attached to bringing in a certain percentage of revenue which freed me to focus on things that I believed were more important at the time- changing the company from the inside out with my Insights in Color Initiative. Unfortunately I wasn’t in the role long enough to affect the kind of change I really wanted to see, but that doesn’t mean efforts weren’t made.
A Short-Lived Dream
So what happened? I burned out. All of the extra meetings, planning & networking sessions were being executed on top of my daily tasks. There was quite simply, not enough time (or money) for me to do the work I was initially hired to do while also building community, being a liaison, consulting on multicultural briefs, running multicultural projects and maintaining my sanity. For me, it was all just as exciting as it was exhausting.
Despite this, I felt quite positive that I had planted the right seeds necessary to put the company in a place to succeed, and (naively) trusted that all would be well after leaving for a role in a different agency. What I didn’t account for was the lack of willingness from others to take on the work or pick up the momentum I’d built up before I left. In retrospect, this made sense - who in their right minds would want to do an entire job on top of the one that’s already consuming their days? The role eventually became fully formalized, but my time in the space mirrors a lot of patterns I’ve witnessed in other multicultural/diversity roles in the market research field.
A Predictable Pattern of D&I Efforts
It is not rare for organizations to have multicultural and diversity initiatives that both begin and end with a central figure in the business. This means that once they leave, or if their roles change, there is no plan to fill the void of their absence.
On the brand/client side, this is often seen when entire multicultural projects halt or stop being pursued because the multicultural/diversity lead has taken another role. It is also common for upper management to use these new vacancies as catalysts for rearranging, redefining and re-scoping the needs of the position, and in some cases, even dismantling multicultural departments altogether, effectively erasing the work that had been done up until that point.
However this shows up in a company, the patterns tend to be similar.
An enthusiastic team player, tired or frustrated from the lack of diversity intelligence and leadership within their company raises a hand and says “I can do this”. The company is relieved to finally have found a “volunteer” for work that seems to be important but not vital enough to create a full-time position for. The individual, filled with passion and enthusiasm, begins to plan for and work on the things they can manage while also maintaining their day to day jobs and responsibilities. If they’re lucky, they enlist the help of other colleagues to support them.
What inevitably happens is the realization that for real change to occur, the entire company would need to shift its ways of working. For many, this feel like a task that is too arduous to take on and they either become disillusioned with the role or refuse to push beyond of the borders of the space they’ve been given. Essentially, they do the best with what they have access to, and make little to no demands on the business because it’s just easier to do so.
The Uphill Battle
There are some who are ambitious enough to create a plan for what organizational shifts could look like. If the opportunity to have their plans seen arises, they often encounter apathetic or indifferent leadership or find themselves reliant on senior leaders to champion their causes for them to upper management. In many cases, the plans are seen, discussed and enthusiastically received, but often it turns out to be a patronizing exercise as nothing is done to implement changes, or perhaps only small inroads are made.
Although the approvals may come from the top, the diversity work tends to be executed by one or a few individuals. Depending on the road they’ve taken- passive & compliant team player vs. vocally aggressive change maker, the work is either felt throughout the organization or is executed in a small subgroup with minimal visibility.
The Fork in the Road
Eventually, doing the role in a ‘volunteer’ capacity becomes too difficult to maintain. In rare cases, the importance of the role is realized by the company and it becomes fully formalized and supported by upper management. In other cases, outside help is requested from specialists and consultants who can do the work that they don’t have time to do. Often though, the ‘volunteers’ feel that the work is too thankless and not worth the sacrifice in time and money.
The Great Escape
Careers change, jobs shift, and people get promoted- it is a common cycle in life. However, when diversity champions leave or, are promoted or, are moved to a different division (something that I believe happens often as the ‘volunteers’ for multicultural/diversity work tend to be younger & in the beginning of their careers) the momentum drops and their work around diversity, inclusion or multicultural projects tends to disappear.
A Need for Consistency- D&I is not Self-Sustaining
Companies often feel that once efforts are made in this space, that they’ve “finally achieved” their D&I/ multicultural needs and that these initiatives will somehow sustain themselves without a designated appointee. As diversity and definitions around inclusion change everyday, we know that this is not the case. Inevitably, the cycle tends to start all over again with a new enthusiastic team lead or when a diversity crisis occurs within the business.
In order for diversity and inclusion initiatives to work, companies have to ensure a dedicated team is put in place to champion the projects and outputs that come from these initiatives. They have to be willing to shift from thinking of D&I as a nice, feel good value have in their mission statement to making it into an actual business imperative with it’s own internal strategic pillars, budgets and measures of success. Without this, the endless cycle of reactive D&I initiatives or multicultural work will continue and we will never see real organizational shifts or societal changes.