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This is how you jump-start momentum on DEI

One of the few Asian American CEOs says making long-term, generational progress to include and elevate historically underrepresented individuals is a dedicated, holistic effort.

This is how you jump-start momentum on DEI
[Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images]

The groundswell of social justice activism in recent years has finally invigorated and enlightened business leaders to make meaningful change for historically underrepresented communities. As one of the few female Asian American CEOs, I was, and continue to be, committed to influencing change for my fellow AAPI colleagues and nurturing the next generation of diverse business leaders. This support has been long absent in my ascent to CEO, and it is now more important than ever to continue to drive awareness and influence outcomes. I’ve been determined to not only make our workplace an inclusive space, but also one that helps individuals from underrepresented groups ascend to leadership roles.

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Underrepresentation is not a new challenge at organizations, and HR leaders have been long tasked with new diversity benchmarks and creating spaces to cultivate a sense of belonging with ERGs and community networks. Progress still lags, especially when it comes to diversity at the highest levels of business. Many leaders have already abandoned DEI pledges because of economic pressures and no clear ROI with such efforts. Lack of accountability, hesitation, and insufficiently allocated resources reflect a continued lack of improvement for diversity in corporate America.

In the U.S., according to Reuters, Asians represent 12% of the professional workforce and about 30% of the tech workforce. Yet only 4.4% of Fortune 1000 companies have Asian American directors. There will never be a long-lasting impact when most companies focus on cultural inclusion but not leadership training.

Meaningful improvements require a wholehearted approach with accountability at the helm.

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Show up and hold yourself accountable

Demonstrating commitment to a diverse workplace starts and stops with leaders taking a hands-on role. It is no longer appropriate to hand the responsibilities to your HR director. Employees expect you to show up and participate as part of your commitment, but as part of your learning too. Carve out the necessary time and energy to understand the challenges your diverse colleagues face and remind everyone that it’s up to each individual to drive this change, not just the HR department meeting diversity benchmarks, not just the chief diversity officer, but you and me and the whole staff. Hold yourself accountable to this commitment as we do our commitments to revenue. A surround-sound approach from individual check-ins to group huddles and active participation will support a togetherness that underrepresented communities need. The lack of belonging impacts retention, and without retention there are no benchmark successes.

In 2020, I cofounded Courage to Rise with Van Tran, VP, experience and digital innovation at Credera, to bring to light the Eastern and Western challenges that Asians face in corporate culture. Risk-taking, charisma, and creativity have all been part of the conversation in an effort to myth-bust the barriers we face. But talking among ourselves will only get us so far.

Invest in leadership programs

Beyond meeting year-over-year benchmarks for hiring and retention, it is imperative to train underrepresented leaders and foster their growth and development to open career doors. There continues to be a lack of improvement of diverse members in leadership roles despite the focus on diversity hiring, retention, and promotion practices. According to SHRM, 29 CEOs of S&P 500 companies are of Asian descent, and only 4 of those are female.

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If being seen and heard is the first step, the second step needs to offer skills training to individuals in ways they don’t always have access to. Few opportunities exist for diverse groups to make it to leadership positions, let alone the C-suite. In 2020, I became a founding member of the OPMG API Collective, one of the first API employee groups within Omnicom. Our mission is to cultivate safe spaces for Asians and Pacific Islanders to excel in leadership roles.

From career coaching to rotational programs to C-suite mentorship programs, a concerted effort needs to be paid to investing in mid-level talent, or they will seek opportunities elsewhere.

Succession planning is key

As leaders, we are all required to think about our organizations for the long term. As you think about your successors, you can create generational change by including one to two diverse candidates and investing time into helping them succeed you. Creating the next generation of leadership is crucial to solving our leaky diversity bucket. Even better is a five- to seven-year succession plan that incorporates cross-skill training and mentorship. Leadership’s succession plans should incorporate hard and soft skills to ensure the next generation of talent is equipped to propel our progress forward by stepping into executive and C-suite positions.

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Making long-term, generational progress to include and elevate historically underrepresented individuals is a dedicated, holistic effort. Leaders need to remain dedicated and involved, to invest in training and leadership programs, and create opportunities for future generations to be seen, heard, and lead. I am confident the work we implement today will create a more equitable workplace in the short and long term.


Cathy Butler is the CEO of Organic.


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