Lily Zheng is a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion consultant and executive coach who works with organizations around the world to create high-impact and sustainable change. With her clients, she leverages organizational design, strategy, and culture to find novel solutions to systemic inequalities. A dedicated change-maker and advocate recently named a Forbes D&I Trailblazer, Lily writes for publications including the Harvard Business Review, Quartz at Work, and HR Executive, and is the coauthor of two books.
This interview has been excerpted from a longer conversation and edited for length.
Q. Currently in senior living, there’s urgency about moving forward in equity and inclusion, but we’re also facing enormous pressure in financial resources and the ability to dedicate time. If you can’t start a full program, can small steps be meaningful?
A. I think the most important thing when your organization is trying to take small steps is to understand that the step might be small, but the intent and purpose behind it is always going to be big.
There can be a sense that either we go all in, or we don’t care. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I’ve seen lots of organizations take small steps, but they always frame it this way: We know we have to do more.
We are understanding that given the enormous pressure we’re under—the time crunch, the financial crunch, the intensity of the situation, given that we’re in a global pandemic—that this small effort is not because we don’t care. It’s precisely because we do care, and we’re trying to select the most high-impact thing we can do given the resources we have available to us. And the second we get more resources, these are the other steps we’re going to take.
Q. Many people look at the transformation needed and say, I don’t know what to do.
A. Honestly, I empathize with that. Sometimes it’s even hard for me to tell companies where to start. You could do a needs analysis, you could examine your company culture, you could audit your hiring practices. It’s all important.
The first steps require you to be very honest with yourself about your organization. If you have a good degree of trust, then you can go on a listening tour, you can survey your employees, and expect that you’ll get pretty useful feedback.
If employees are angry at leadership, if folks are feeling unheard and upset—which honestly we’re seeing a lot of these days, because leadership have maybe not made the best decisions around these topics in the past—and if you don’t have trust, that’s a good point to bring in someone from the outside. If you have the resources and the trust on the inside to do it yourself, please do.
The hallmarks of a good strategy are that it’s clear enough to tell folks what outcomes to create, but not so prescriptive that it tells them how to create it. The strategy needs to allow people to take some ownership.
Q. Sometimes when an organization doesn’t have many resources, the diversity efforts all fall to volunteers—and often that means unpaid or extra emotional labor for Black or people of color on staff.
A. Of course it’s not fair. I relate everything back to strategy. Is your strategy really going to be to task one employee on a volunteer basis with the entire development and implementation of your DEI outcomes? Because it’s not sustainable. And yet that’s what a lot of companies are doing. What I frequently find is that executives haven’t thought about this as a strategic problem to solve in the first place.
Q. What should companies look for in a DEI leader, from within or outside?
A. The challenge is matching problems with people who are best suited to solve them. Companies sometimes treat it as one set of problems that you can throw a one-size-fits-all practitioner at. And it couldn’t be further from that.
There are DEI educators, who can deliver complex information in ways that audiences can comprehend. There are storytellers, who build empathy and inspiration. There are organizers that rally and unify communities, healers that help communities experiencing grief and trauma process, creators, scientists, designers.
It should be about which practitioner has a style and an impact that fits the niche that you’re looking for.
Organizations sometimes bring in people who are perfectly good professionals, but just not the right fit.
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