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How to Update Your CEO DEI Playbook

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

By James D. White


We formed Culture Design Lab at a time when the nation was facing a reckoning for racial justice. This included business leaders who were taking a serious look at the way their corporate policy and culture impacted people of color, particularly their Black employees. I received dozens of calls from white executives asking me what they could do. Those conversations showed me how much this kind of work was needed, and that a clear, concise playbook based on operational experience would be instrumental.


Addressing structural racism within corporate America requires taking an honest look at the systems within a company that upholds discrimination and inequity. Dismantling these systems requires methodical, top-down work. Here is where leaders can begin.


1. Make sure the DEI leader has the authority to make systemic change Rethink hiring a CDO as a bandaid to racial inequity. Sweeping overhauls require support from the top that only a CEO can deliver. When I became CEO of Jamba Juice, I went structural in ways most CDOs could never accomplish. When I was hired, all 10 members of the Board of Directors were white men. I championed two new board members, both women, one African-American. I firmly believe that the board’s new range of voices changed the way the company thought about its people and its business.

2. Change the key projects are assigned


Major projects position employees for promotions. Crucially, middle-level managers are typically the people who control who gets these high-profile assignments; that’s why white men so often get channeled to the top despite the best efforts of the CDO. When I took over at Jamba Juice, management was 80% white men; by the end of his first year, half of the managers were women and people of color. My approach was to appoint Action Learning Teams (ALTs) to accomplish key business goals, including opening new distribution channels in airports and moving into global markets. ALTs are cross-functional teams of 15 to 20 people, with breakout groups of between five and eight people who are laser-focused on solving well-defined problems. ALTs were given release time from their regular jobs, and a 90-day deadline. The theory behind action learning is that the people on the ground know best what’s working well, and how to fix what’s not. You just need to choose the right talent with the right mix of skills to solve a specific, well-defined business challenge. White purposely chose previously overlooked employees for this glamour work, which meant that the teams were far more diverse than the company’s workforce as a whole. By reconceiving the mechanism for assigning glamour work, White created a pipeline that increased diversity at the top.


3. Change the incentives and enhance the capacity of middle management


At every organization I have helped lead, I’ve found that middle managers are the key to changing the culture. Effective policies enable inclusion, but middle-level managers hold the key to delivering it.

At Jamba Juice, I instituted a new incentive system. In this new system, up to 20% of store managers’ compensation was determined by engagement, climate, and organizational health scores. I used a variant of the Gallup Q12 survey; another useful tool is Joan Williams’s Workplace Experience Survey, a 10-minute survey that pinpoints every basic pattern of racial and gender bias, where it is playing out, and its impact on outcome measures like belonging and intent to stay.


4. Debias HR systems


Debiasing HR systems starts by appointing an action learning team that includes the CEO or another executive sponsor, the CDO, the head of HR, some outstanding and receptive managers, a data analyst, and others who receive release time, a mandate, and a deadline to de-bias existing HR systems. The most straightforward approach is to adapt Joan Williams’s open-sourced toolkits, which use evidence to identify key metrics and establish baselines to measure progress—again, the tools we use to address any challenge we are truly committed to solving. Going structural yields real results: when one insurance company developed objective criteria and rated all applicants using the same rubric, it ended up offering jobs to 46% more minority candidates.

In most organizations, CDOs don’t control any of the relevant HR systems, much less all of them, and eliminating bias in just one system means that bias will remain everywhere else, silently but effectively powering the invisible escalator for white men while leaving everyone else stuck toiling up the stairs. To address structural racism effectively, the CDO—whether that’s the CEO or not—needs the authority to change both formal and informal systems, instituting changes that typically will help people of color of all genders.


Adapted from a Harvard Business Review article by Culture Design Lab Founder and Chairman James D. White and Joan C. Williams


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