Wharton’s Stephanie Creary speaks with Kwasi Mitchell from Deloitte Consulting LLP about how company leaders and employees can contribute to diversity initiatives.

Kwasi Mitchell

The impassioned protests for racial justice that have erupted across the U.S. in recent months have been an ardent call to action for many business leaders, pushing them to move quickly on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts within their organizations. But one expert warns that they shouldn’t rush through the necessary steps.

Creating a more tolerant and just workplace takes time, said Kwasi Mitchell, Principal and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Lead at Deloitte Consulting, LLP.

“We need to think of it more as a spiral staircase rather than a linear path,” he said. “It’s going to be a mixture of bold change, a mixture of tactical steps that are going to lead us up the spiral staircase. Remember that we are, in fact, going up. I think that’s the key in remaining hopeful.”

Mitchell, who heads an initiative to advance more female, minority, veteran and transgender practitioners at Deloitte, offered his guidance during a segment of Leading Diversity at Work, a Knowledge at Wharton podcast series hosted by Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary, an identity and diversity scholar. (Listen to the podcast above. You can find more episodes here.)

The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two unarmed Black people who were killed by police, galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked worldwide demonstrations. Since then, there have been many more killings of unarmed Black people. But that initial momentum has combined with the myriad ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed business to create what Creary describes as a “vacuum of change-related opportunities.” Those opportunities can be so overwhelming that leaders may not know where to start.

“We certainly are living in a time where there is increased energy and attention to talking about issues of systemic and racial injustice,” Creary said. “It’s not just something that is happening here in the United States. There has been a call to action to talk about racial injustice around the world.”

“We need to think of it more as a spiral staircase rather than a linear path.”

She asked Mitchell to help by outlining strategies for organizations that want to make substantive, transformational changes. Here are three specific goals:

  1. Find your voice.

Before a firm can begin acting on DEI, the people within it need to have honest, ongoing conversations about it. That means creating a safe space for people to voice their thoughts and ideas without penalty.

But Mitchell said pandemic-related remote work is having an uneven effect on speaking up: Introverts who haven’t felt comfortable contributing during in-person meetings are more willing to do so over video conference. However, parents who are trying to balance work with childcare are finding it difficult to ask for support.

“Unfortunately, that really disadvantages our women, who, as we all know, historically bear the brunt of a lot of care-giving services,” he said.

Mitchell also pointed out a paradox in speaking up. White men, who traditionally hold more power in the workplace, can be reluctant to talk about DEI because they feel unqualified to do so, while Black women are frequently punished for vocalizing DEI concerns.

That must change, he said. The responsibility of advocacy should not be borne solely by minority employees.

“White men have the opportunity to use their voices to advance diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and, by and large, are not penalized by putting out different ideas that are seen as advocacy and celebrated. That’s phenomenal,” he said. “You also have white men who are terrified or feeling ill-equipped to have the right dialogue and sit on the sideline. Because they feel like they don’t know the right things to say, people abstain from driving that dialogue, which to me is problematic.”

Mitchell also cautioned that DEI advocates, especially minorities, must build a reputation for being fair, impartial and working for the greater good.

“Do not underestimate being prescriptive. That’s one thing that has become abundantly clear to me over the last two years.”

“As people think about selecting people who will be agents of change, or if you are someone who is driving change within an organization, it’s key to have that level of credibility and fairness,” he said. “Otherwise, you will be viewed as someone who might be doing things to advance their own personal situation.”

  1. Find your power.

While there is much research supporting the idea that effective DEI must be led from the C-suite, Creary asked Mitchell to focus his attention on middle managers. They do not have the highest level of authority, yet they are front-line leaders tasked with carrying out many DEI initiatives.

It’s a tough spot, indeed. Mitchell recalled a boss he had right after graduate school who used to say, “Middle management can be the death of all great strategic initiatives.” That’s because middle managers typically are given vague instructions and no tools to effect change.

“I’ve always found that you do need to be incredibly prescriptive on expectations — what we’re measuring — and really give them the tools to be able to drive forward and focus on change,” Mitchell said. “Do not underestimate being prescriptive. Do not, do not, do not. That’s one thing that has become abundantly clear to me over the last two years.”

He urged middle managers to identify their place in the DEI conversation, set the right leadership tone and act with intention. They should work to “expand their network” beyond the usual candidates or people they are comfortable with. In other words, consider minority employees for promotions and team leadership roles.

“I would extend that to each and every time that you’re providing somebody with a growth opportunity or a highly visible opportunity to advance their career,” Mitchell said. “Are you going to that same series of people that you always have, or have you looked a little bit further to see whom you would want to give a new opportunity to?”

“In the absence of … communication, the narrative will be made for you.”

  1. Find your sphere of influence.

Everyone within an organization, from the C-suite to the mailroom, can lead change. It’s a matter of finding your sphere of influence, Mitchell said.

For some people, that sphere may include five others. For world leaders, it includes tens of millions. But size doesn’t matter when it comes to finding constructive solutions to pressing issues. Mitchell said he shares that message particularly with junior practitioners who think they don’t have the power to make a difference.

“Wherever you operate on that spectrum, you still bear the responsibility of improving the livelihood, the perspective, the inclusivity of that sphere of influence,” he said. “It’s important to think about and contribute to [solving] the larger problems, but break it down so that it’s local and direct — things that you can do on a day-to-day basis to improve the situation of others around you.”

Mitchell said he hopes leaders can look back in a few years and find their DEI initiatives weren’t simply knee-jerk responses to recent events but a transformational journey. He encouraged executives not to “immediately default to action” because programming is meaningless unless it truly changes employees’ experiences.

And most of all, keep talking.

“Do not underestimate communication,” he said. “Because in the absence of that communication, the narrative will be made for you, and the narrative is always negative, right? I’ve never seen a situation where someone has made up a positive narrative in the absence of any information at all.”