The paradoxes of DEI
Diversity, equity, and inclusion work is full of seeming paradoxes: “You have to get comfortable with discomfort.” Or “You have to celebrate differences in order to build inclusion.”
One of the paradoxes I grapple with could be called “Go slow to go fast”—the challenge of finding balance between the urgency of the need for change (people’s lives are at stake every day) and the reality of how change works in groups of human beings (through relationships, slowly and not in a straight line).
This tension is clear when working with a client to set goals. The step is essential. Without a specific target, there is no way to know when an effort has been successful, and therefore no way to learn from success (or failure).
We know from organizational strategy that goals should be actionable but aspirational; with discrete steps that feel attainable, but with a destination that feels ambitious.
But what does that look like when talking about DEI?
Years ago, a law firm we were working with had assembled a diverse task force to create a strategic plan to govern their DEI efforts over the next three years. Throughout the months-long process, there was one partner who kept insisting on setting a dramatic goal: three partners of color within three years.
The first time she suggested it, the group looked at her in shock. The faces around this table were somewhat diverse, but the partner roster was 100% white. And, in one of the uncomfortable truths they were learning to be comfortable talking about, they had no pipeline of associates of color who could be promoted within that time.
A debate began that stretched over several meetings. Most members said it was unrealistic. If there was no plausible way to succeed, why set it as a goal?
But a few members had felt a rush when they heard the ambition. They argued that the boldness would be motivating. Gradually, more of them came around to this side. In the end, they decided to commit to it.
Frankly, I didn’t expect that. I was impressed that the partner who suggested it never gave up and managed to persuade her colleagues to agree. I didn’t think they would meet the goal, but I was excited that they were going to try.
At the end of the third year, the task force reconvened to review the plan and progress made.They met most of their other goals—but not that one. In fact, they still didn’t have a single partner of color.
The task force was disappointed, of course. But they weren’t demoralized. The sense of urgency they had summoned at the start had focused them. They had adjusted their recruitment strategies, and paid attention to inclusion and associate development. They pushed harder than they would have with a more modest goal. As a result, by year three, they had a pipeline of associates of color. Within a couple of years, they had their first Black partner.
Would it have been better for them to have set a goal of “three senior associates of color,” since that’s what turned out to be realistic? Maybe. They would have been able to say they met the goal.
But in this case, the value of the goal was one of those paradoxes: they didn’t succeed, but they did. By trying to reach one impossible thing, they made something else possible.
Why set an ambitious goal? Because if you don’t set it, you’ll never get there.