Words of Wisdom: Embracing My Inner Outlier

Most leaders share the same reasons for wanting diverse and inclusive workforces—and face similar barriers turning them into reality.

By Deborah Dagit November 27, 2017
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Words of Wisdom: Embracing My Inner Outlier

​When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was being debated on Capitol Hill between 1988 and 1991, I was running a small nonprofit called Bridge-to-Jobs, which matched people with disabilities with employers. 

My congressman at the time, Rep. Norman Mineta, D-Calif., was a co-sponsor of the bill, and he asked me to help defeat amendments that would weaken it. With the help of disability rights leaders, I learned how to be an effective lobbyist. 

When the ADA was signed into law on a hot July day 27 years ago, I was so proud to be on the South Lawn of the White House with more than 2,000 others who had helped usher in a new era of civil rights in the workplace. The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools and transportation, as well as privately owned places that are open to the public.

A Turning Point

On the flight home, I realized I was at a crossroads in my career. I wanted to make my mark on the world. But I also knew that, to create sustainable change, I needed to get out of my comfort zone and join the sector most able to effect inclusion for all in U.S. culture—the corporate world. 

A large and growing IT company hired me as a contractor to help it comply with the ADA. It was only a three-month assignment, but I took the risk, hoping this foot in the door might lead to a regular position.

Complying with the ADA took 10 percent of my time at best, so I looked around for other ways to stay busy and make an impression. I couldn’t help but notice the huge budget that my company was using to place glitzy ads in glossy magazines to comply with affirmative action “good-faith” requirements for federal contractors.

I called the public relations agency staff who created the ads and told them to share with me all of their pieces of artwork and the publications they were being placed in. Then, I invited for a lunchtime dialogue the leaders of the company’s six employee resource groups (ERGs)—for female, Latino, black, Asian-American and Pacific Islander employees, for LGBT individuals, and for people with disabilities.

I also arranged for a photographer friend to take pictures while I asked the ERG leaders two key questions:

• What do you think about these ads? Answers: Stilted. Boring. Silly. Unbelievable. 

• Do you recognize any of these publications? Answers: No. I’ve never seen them before.

The pictures we took that day were laid out scrapbook-style into a print ad that said, “We are not where we want or need to be with our diversity efforts, but we are excited about the journey we are on. Would you like to join us?” 

It cost almost nothing to make, and we placed it in the much less expensive publications that our grassroots team leaders recommended, using the surplus money for college scholarships. The ad won awards. We attracted diverse talent. And I was offered a full-time position.

Becoming an Expert

At age 32, I was experiencing something new: the power and privilege that comes with a title, hierarchy, a budget, decision-making authority and a staff. I became the company’s first diversity leader and the only person in the U.S. to hold that title who also identified as living with a disability. 

As such, I was encouraged to help develop the emerging field of workplace diversity and inclusion. This was amazing since I was totally green and at least a decade younger than the other trailblazers who had shaped U.S. equal employment opportunity and affirmative action strategies and methods.

Author Malcolm Gladwell uses the term “outlier” to describe “the person who doesn’t fit into our normal understanding of achievement.” These highly successful people often happen to be in the right place at the right time, are given access to mentors, and invest more than 10,000 hours in learning and honing their skills. I became an outlier.

I have invested many more than 10,000 hours and over a quarter century in learning my trade. I guess I can reasonably call myself a diversity and inclusion (D&I) subject matter expert. I can tell you with great confidence that most company leaders know what their business case is. And, despite their assertions that their organizations are unique, the reasons why they should focus on D&I are remarkably similar. They want to:

• Better reflect the markets the company serves.

• Foster innovation through diversity of thinking, which is inextricably linked to demographic diversity.

• Find untapped sources of talent to fill critical roles. 

• Remain competitive.

• Succeed in lucrative emerging markets domestically and around the world.

What I Learned

While facts and data matter when developing a D&I strategy, support from the chief executive officer and the chief human resources officer is also crucial. A well-constructed business case—complete with a scorecard, accountability linked to compensation, and strategies integrated into all appropriate business and people practices—will be useless if it is not embraced by senior leadership. 

Other potential obstacles include:

• Analysis paralysis, which occurs when no amount of data seems to be enough to drive action. It’s indicated by numerous requests for more information or the same data sliced and diced in endless combinations.

• When the diversity leader has limited or no access to the executive team.

• HR leaders and hiring managers not being held accountable.

• Little time for D&I on meeting agendas of HR teams, senior leaders or board members.

• D&I topics missing from annual reports.

• Diversity initiative leaders with little experience or training.

Eliminating these barriers will bring you closer to achieving the benefits of D&I that you say you want. Ideally, you and your leaders will commit to regularly scrutinizing leading and lagging D&I indicators and continually finding ways to improve. 

I found my calling when I embraced my inner outlier and became a diversity leader, which is why I include this Mark Twain quote at the bottom of all my e-mails: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Deborah Dagit is president of Deb Dagit Diversity LLC, a diversity consultancy in Washington, N.J., and former chief diversity officer at Merck & Co.

Read more Words of Wisdom from seasoned HR leaders.

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