New programs are difficult to implement in any company regardless of size.  With normal market pressures, a dizzying array of government regulation and with competing priorities for capital and resources, new programs must run a gauntlet to win approval.  But that approval is just the beginning.  Once approved, these programs must be fully implemented throughout an organization in order to realize their benefit.

But while enthusiasm for new initiatives often starts strong, there is one absolute requirement for success – the buy-in of executives at the top of the organizational structure.  Without executive buy-in, programs and initiatives will either have significantly less success than other programs or they will fail outright.  And while this is true of any new initiative, it is especially true of sensitive yet critical programs such as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).

Why Buy-in is Important

One way to visualize the importance of executive buy-in of your DEI program is to look at what happens without it.  Lack of executive buy-in can hasten the failure of a DEI initiative for many reasons including:

Ø  No Resources – Without at least one and preferably several champions in the C-suites, it is unlikely that a DEI program will have the proper resources to succeed.  This may include both a lack of human capital as well as material resources such as training and reference material.  And just like any aspect of a business, a lack of resources will cause that segment of the business to stall and wither.

Ø  No Authority – While middle and lower-level managers as well as front line employees are often more than capable of the tasks involved in rolling out and maintaining a DEI program in good faith, lack of executive buy-in means that employees may lack authority to fully implement.  This may be actual authority as those to whom the tasks are delegated may not have the cross-functional or interdepartmental authority to drive adoption and compel participation among peers, as well as perceived authority.  If there is no executive buy-in, many employees reluctant to change will understand that the execs are not fully on board and will simply not partake in the program.

Ø  No Way to Make It Stick – By not considering DEI as a business imperative and by passing it down as a “task” to lower-level managers or only to HR, executives are almost guaranteeing that the program will not “stick”.  New executives may come and go, and reluctant executives may redefine DEI priorities to neutralize the benefits or co-opt it into something that either doesn’t accomplish the goals or one that is simply done to “check the box”.  The program may also suffer from natural turnover in the middle management ranks or from organic growth that outpaces resources allocated to the program.

Buy-In by the Numbers

When making deep organizational changes through a critical new program, it is important to realize that executives control the development and growth of the corporate culture.  That culture serves as the underpinnings or the infrastructure on which the company builds its business and applies its business strategy.  And a strong, effective and organic DEI initiative can only be accomplished by executive buy-in that ingrains that DEI as part of the cultural infrastructure. 

All executives are number driven.  And the numbers associated with successful DEI initiatives speak for themselves.  A study by McKinsey has shown that companies in the top quarter for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry average.  The same is true of companies with strong gender diversity which can realize as high as 15% higher returns over the industry average. 

Those same numbers indicate the importance as well for 2-D diversity.  In 2-D diversity, diversity is measured with both inherent traits such as gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation as well as acquired diversity.  Acquired diversity is traits learned from expanded experience such as international travel or work that exposed a person to different cultures as well as managing in markets that catered products to a specific group.  In the case of 2-D diversity, innovation and performance are higher with as high as  45% of employees within these organizations claiming that market share for their products increased year over year.

Five Ways to Drive Executive Buy-In

Buy-in for integrating DEI programs into a company’s cultural infrastructure may be hard, but there are ways to help move things along.  Getting buy-in can include:

Ø  Framing the Issue – Executives often have a heavy responsibility for implementing business strategy.  If they perceive that something does not fit the part of the strategic business plan that they are entrusted with, it will be difficult to persuade them.  Framing the issue to show how it supports a strategic goal will go a long way.  Statistics such as industry rate of returns, reduced turnover or a pickup of market share prove to be a result of companies with strong DEI programs. As a result, they are more likely to champion the initiative and help acquire resources to implement it.

Ø  Working Your Way Up – This doesn’t mean climbing the corporate ladder.  Many companies are so large that access to executives may be difficult either geographically or because of the size of organization.  Starting as high as possible is the goal, but it may mean building advocates in a position a level below the exec or even a level below that.  By finding willing, enthusiastic and passionate advocates at these levels and leveraging their access to an exec over time, it becomes easier to win that exec as those surround them are already on board.

Ø  Defining DEI as a Part of Every Job Description – Many execs look at new programs like they do planning a company picnic or arranging the company softball team.  These are often delegated as tasks outside the normal job description or even as extracurricular tasks.  But helping define DEI as an integral part of everyone’s job will help executives realize it’s their responsibility to incorporate it into their job description as well.  Examples to use might include “Let’s put sales in charge of maintenance for a week” or “Why can’t we let engineering run HR for the quarter”?  While humorous, this out of place role reversal can sharply demonstrate why the executive group should lead and define DEI initiatives as part of everyone’s job lest they risk high liability tasks or those that can impact financial performance being left in the hands of people ill-equipped to manage them from their current level.

Ø  Making them Walk the Talk – Its always easier to say something is important organizationally, it is another to live those priorities.  While it should be done with respect and diplomacy, executives can be shown how their actions do not meet their stated objectives.  This is a powerful tool as they will make the connection that if people see the disconnect in DEI, they are likely to question other decisions and trajectories that are critical to financial performance as well.  Pointing this discrepancy out can help align words with actions and spur progress at the executive level.

Ø  Putting them in the Spotlight – Most executives will respond to the opportunity to talk about important subjects.  Asking them to lead a discussion or offer a presentation on the key benefits of DEI can often create an accidental advocate.   By placing the representation of the importance in their hands, the executive is more likely to align their behavior to match the positives being driven in the moment.  If this is repeated enough, the more their actions reflect advocacy, the more vested they become in genuine advocacy for a fully implemented DEI initiative.

Build the Business by Building Diversity

Cultural infrastructure is hard to build.  But by working with the resources and tools available, you can show executives that DEI is not only good for employees, it’s also good for business, customers, vendors, the community and the execs themselves.  And by building a stronger and more engaged workforce, they are building the cultural infrastructure that will drive the business to new heights.

Schedule a demo with Five to Nine to help you prove the efficacy of your DEI programs to executive sponsors.