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Making DEI sustainable. Advice from industry leaders.
Making DEI sustainable: Advice from industry leaders

Although DEI has found a spotlight in recent years, many leaders have been championing equity, diversity, and inclusion in their organizations for decades.

We sat down with two of these leaders—Marcia Sells and Aisha Thomas-Petit—to talk about their 30+-year careers in people management. Here’s their advice on how DEI leaders can make the work sustainable: 

1. Court leadership and build alliances

One common mistake organizations make when pursuing DEI work is putting all of the responsibility for creating and executing a DEI strategy on one particular function or position. In reality, creating and implementing a sustainable DEI strategy cannot happen in a silo. 

As Aisha put it: “There is often an unfair assumption that if you have a subject matter leader, such as a Chief Diversity Officer, the work will just get done. DEI work needs to be owned by every person in an organization. If you’re in a leadership position, your responsibility is to identify where you want to make an impact and actually roll your sleeves up and help do the work.”

As On-Ramps has previously written, DEI work requires buy-in from leaders across an organization to be truly effective. For Aisha, the key to success is getting buy-in from the CEO and their senior leadership team. 

In conjunction with top-level buy-in—or perhaps when facing a lack of full senior leadership support—a key to success is creating governance structures. For example, in her previous role at an entertainment company, she established three strategic pillars—workforce, content and show development, and internal and external narrative—to align with specific DEI goals. She was then able to establish a task force led by a senior executive for each of these pillars. 

As yet another avenue for building company-wide DEI investment, Aisha also worked closely with leaders from various employee resource groups (i.e employee affinity group leaders). Her company-wide approach created “an army of people whose sole responsibility outside of their day-to-day job is to help develop and execute strategy for sustainable equity, inclusion, and diversity efforts.” As a result, responsibility for DEI was shared across the organization and did not depend solely on Aisha or her team.

Marcia has also found that buy-in at all levels of an organization is essential. When joining the Met, she made sure to reach out to folks across the organization including leadership, administrators, and artists. She was able to connect with other leaders through the assistant general manager group that brings together leaders from different functions of the organization. 

She has been able to leverage her own experience as a professional ballet dancer to connect with performers, production workers, and even board members. By forming relationships with members of each section of the Met—performers and production workers, leaders and administrators, and board members—Marcia has been able to find allies for her DEI work.  

For both Marcia and Aisha, building formal and informal networks within their organizations has been crucial to their efforts to execute holistic DEI strategies that positively impact every level and department of their organizations. Having those allies also means that Marcia, Aisha, and their team are able to do the work sustainably because all of the pressure is not solely on their shoulders.

2. Prepare for succession 

Even with a strong network within your organization, DEI work can often be emotionally and mentally draining. DEI workers need strong support systems within and outside of their organizations to help prevent burnout. And, if DEI leaders do begin to feel burnout, or are otherwise ready to move on in their careers, it's crucial that they have folks to whom they can pass the baton. 

As previously discussed, building your network of DEI champions within your organization is an important step towards making sure that your DEI work will continue after your tenure. But, it’s important to go beyond that and really think ahead to the logistics of a transition in DEI leadership.

What succession planning looks like will differ based on the size and structure of your organization. However, it is generally a good idea to work closely with HR or another function that overlaps with key aspects of your DEI strategy. Work with colleagues in these functions to cultivate future DEI leaders  and make sure that others share the  institutional knowledge needed to execute your DEI strategy.

3. When the going gets tough, keep going

Between the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on affirmative action and a more general backlash against DEI in the corporate world, the future of DEI work can feel uncertain and its proponents may feel especially drained. 

But, efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion have come under attack since before the term “DEI” (or its siblings DEIB,  JEDI, etc.) existed—and progress has continued despite these attacks. 

As leaders who’s work in DEI predates the term itself, Marcia and Aisha have witnessed—and navigated—moments of pushback, social uncertainty, and societal change. When things seem grim, the progress they’ve seen over the course of their own careers can act as a beacon of hope.

For example, Marcia remembers how, as a student at Columbia Law School in the 1980s, the Gay Law Student Association had been secret and only certain people even knew where they met. About three decades later, when Marcia became the Dean of Students at Harvard Law, the work for queer-inclusion on campus was still ongoing, but the landscape looked much different. Her tenure coincided with an increased focus on the inclusion of trans and nonbinary students, including the normalization of sharing pronouns when meeting people. Today, she is able to look at the queerphobia that permeated law school campuses during her time as a student, her work to advance trans- and nonbinary-inclusion as a dean, and the advances that have been made since her tenure as proof that, with work from those dedicated to DEI, progress is possible even in the face of hatred. 

For Aisha, navigating the racial uprisings following the murder of George Floyd was a moment of great challenge in her career. Although Aisha was already serving as the Chief Diversity Officer for ADP at the time of the protests, she still felt the organization, like many, was “unprepared for what we all experienced.” However, by pulling on the competencies she had built as an HR executive and the foundational elements of ADP’s strong DEI strategy, she was able to guide the organization through that time period. 

Her success in this position showed the importance of investing in DEI infrastructure that accounted for every aspect of an organization from HR and culture to product and external communications. As a result, Aisha was recruited by a former employer to become their inaugural Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer and build out a multi-person DEI team. Today, departments and executives dedicated to advancing a holistic DEI strategy is the norm at most major nonprofit and private sector organizations—an indication that, despite opposition, DEI has made great progress over the years.

Remebering that this cycle of progress and pushback is nothing new can actually help DEI leaders maintain their motivation and understand the current moment. DEI will likely continue to be met with pushback—but Marcia and Aisha’s careers show that we can weather that pushback. As Aisha put it: “People were doing this work before we had the terms ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ and I believe that the only way to sustain the work is to continue to do it, whether we call it DEI or not.”

Meet the leaders

Marcia Sells has served as the inaugural Chief Diversity Officer for the Metropolitan Opera since 2021. This position allows her to draw on her early experience as a professional ballerina with the Dance Theater of Harlem—one of the first predominantly Black and Brown ballet companies—as well as over three decades of equity-focused work as the Dean of Students at Columbia Law School and Harvard Law Schools. 

Aisha Thomas-Petit is the Chief Human Resources Officer at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. She has championed diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout her career in human resources, originating the role of Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for a major entertainment company and guiding ADP’s response to the racial justice protests of 2020 as their Chief Diversity, Inclusion & Corporate Responsibility Officer.