Transcript: Global Women’s Summit: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: Powering Business Outcome

MS. LABOTT: Hello. For many organizations, a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion is not only a core value, but also a business imperative. And to talk about how leaning into diversity from all angles has the potential to improve employee performance and impact your company’s bottom line, I’m joined by Edna Kane Williams, executive vice president and chief diversity officer of AARP, the first person to have this role, who heads up the new diversity, equity, and inclusion group focused on workforce, workplace, and marketplace strategies. Welcome, Edna.

And since we’re at The Washington Post, I have to mention that AARP was recently mentioned a top workplace by The Washington Post for the fifth year in a row. Congratulations.

MS. WILLIAMS: Thank you. I have to say AARP is a great place to work.

MS. LABOTT: Well, to begin with, let’s set the scene here for the importance of having diversity, equity, and inclusion. And you know, a lot of people are calling it DEI now for short, because it’s becoming so common. So, this role is a position within an organization. And why it’s important to activate it across an organization, I mean, the data tells the story, right? A more diverse workforce is more effective, profitable, and successful.

MS. WILLIAMS: Right. And I hope that you’ll forgive me because I’m going to really evangelize around–

MS. WILLIAMS: –the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion now and in the future. But you’re absolutely right. Studies show–and really the model–the literature about being a model organization, when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, it really insists that it be an enterprise-wide effort and not solely the responsibility of a few. That gets to the heart of the really moral compass of an organization that everybody understands–that everybody understands that they have a role.

A lot of folks jumped on the DEI bandwagon. There’s been a lot happening in this country, in the world over the last several years. And they made financial commitments. They may have even made some strategic adjustments, but many didn’t make the structural changes.

MS. LABOTT: So, strategic decisions.

MS. WILLIAMS: Well, the structural changes that can help lead the strategic decisions to make sure that everybody in the organization understands their role. A lot of folks, when you talk about a model DEI organization, recommend that everybody in the organization have performance objectives specifically around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

MS. LABOTT: Everybody in the organization? Hmm. So, I think often the C suite assumes that DEI, if it hasn’t made those structural changes, is being handled by human resources or even, you know, is a public relations issue. So, let’s talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion being part of the executive team and embedded in those core values of leadership in the organization.

MS. WILLIAMS: Yeah, I’m fortunate at AARP. I report directly to the CEO, and I think that’s really important. Not all CEOs do. As you mentioned, some are in HR. Some are in communications. But again, elevating it. I’m a part of the executive leadership team of AARP, a very large nonprofit. There’s only 10 of us. So, I feel confident that I have our CEO, Jo Ann Jenkins, an African American woman, ear. I can highlight and prioritize things that I wouldn’t if I were layers down. And I feel that she speaks to the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and is signaling to the organization how important it is because of where I sit.

Also, because of where I sit, I have access to our board of directors and am a part of board of directors’ meetings, and indeed report to the board of directors. And that’s important too, that really the executive and the board function of companies and organizations really need to demonstrate very visibly and intentionally that diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t–is important. I’ll talk about how we’re seeing some shifts in that in a little bit. But it’s really–again, being a model organization, that’s a key component.

MS. LABOTT: So, let’s talk about how equity is playing a role within AARP. I mean, that video that we saw before about the red chicken coop, about how your organization was created with the mission of empowering people to choose how they live as they age, it’s even more relevant today. And the whole concept of aging–and I think not moving from retirement to how you choose to thrive in older age is even more relevant. So, you’re thinking not about only the company’s strategies in terms of gender and LGBT audience, but still with that strong focus on age discrimination as an issue of equity and closing the gap of health and wealth and all those disparities.

MS. WILLIAMS: Sure. Sure, age is an important piece of the DEI spectrum; although, surveys have shown that many companies don’t include age. So, we certainly as AARP elevate and focus on that, along with, I don’t even say “minority” anymore–multicultural audiences, as you said, LGBTQ. We’re launching new initiatives around the disability community.

But I do want to point out that it’s so important when we talk about this–you used the term “choosing.” And I think it’s important for us to remember that not everybody, because of their life circumstances, necessarily have a choice. I’m from North Philadelphia, and I was talking to a friend I haven’t seen in a while, and we both grew up on the same block. And she said, you know, it’s so important that we got away from the block, but not everybody did. Not everybody. She talked about it as almost it was–it was an option; it was an election. But really not everybody has that choice. So, what I’m most proud about, the work at AARP, is that in looking at aging, in looking at helping people to age as best they can, that we don’t make assumptions about a privilege that not everybody is going to age or grow old the same.

Clearly, our founder, Ethel Percy Andrus, understood that when she found her colleague living in a chicken coop. So we have a lot of focus on disparities, both racial, both income-based, to recognize that that will take extra effort to ensure that they have the same opportunities that others do.

MS. LABOTT: So, DEI has always been active across AARP. You’ve been working on this for years but this chief diversity officer is a new role. So, how are you operationalizing DEI within your leadership?

MS. WILLIAMS: So, it’s a real opportunity. I was promoted last March, March of 2021, and it is the first Office of diversity, equity, and inclusion that AARP has had. And we have decades, multiple decades-long involvement in advocacy for multicultural communities. Our AARP Foundation is devoted, designed to focus on poverty and low income. So, we have–we have deep roots.

Our founder, again, Ethel Percy Andrus, she was one of the first–she was a school principal in a school back in Los Angeles in the early part of the 1900s that was really diverse for its time, had significant African American students. So, she embodied that and infused the mission of AARP to reflect her concern that we always understand that–they didn’t talk about it as diversity back then, but that diversity is so important.

MS. LABOTT: You speak a lot. You talk to a lot of leaders from other companies. What are some of the obstacles that you’re finding or hearing about, about preventing organizations from reaching those DEI goals?

MS. WILLIAMS: Well, and I’m looking around because there’s so many leaders in this room.

MS. LABOTT: That’s right.

MS. WILLIAMS: I’m hoping that I can really inspire some folks. Diversity, equity, and inclusion, it can be cyclical. You know, we all know the events of a couple of years ago, the murder of George Floyd being one of them, where lots of companies came off of the sidelines, devoted dollars. There was lots of media attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion, how important it was. There was an–there was an explosion of people hired in this role. At one point on LinkedIn, it was like the most talked about and popular new staff role–

MS. LABOTT: And educational programs, too, about DEI.

MS. WILLIAMS: Right, trainings and the whole bit. And yet I see earlier this year that folks are now cautioning, well, maybe not say diversity; maybe use this word instead of that word; or we don’t have to say it’s DEI. Because, you know, obviously there’s a lot of polarization in the country. I don’t want to even get into CRT and critical race theory, but it has broadened the conversation to be almost, is this a good thing?

And I really, one, am very impatient with that kind of semantic gamesmanship, or trying to diminish how important this is for our country, our families, our organizations now. If we don’t get this right, if we don’t bring more people into the conversation, if we’re not honest about what we’re talking about, it’s going to be very hard. And so, I think that’s a challenge for CEOs and others who try to manage the winds of opinion, because this is not necessarily popular in all facets right now. There’s a lot of pushback. There’s a lot of sort of shrinking like, well, maybe don’t–let’s not go big, let’s go smaller and take our time. And while this is a marathon, not a sprint, it’s long term. You have to be in it to win it for the long term. I really encourage people to challenge that kind of thinking.

And I’m not being partisan one way or the other: Diversity really does include all. So, I think that’s one challenge we’ve had, is to really communicate that we’re talking about everybody. We’re talking about everybody, and not positioning groups in competition. Although, at the same time, I think we need to recognize the vast disparities that exist, and covid and the pandemic really revealed a lot of them, although it’s really interesting, in the last year that the numbers have really shifted. So, in short, recommending that they focus on resisting the notion that this is cyclical, and that they have to wax and wane.

And also recognizing that there are a lot of challenges that CEOs need to be prepared for. And one of them we talked about is age, and now we have for the first time in history, five generations working in one workforce. That’s really never happened before. It’s going to take–and that’s a part of the diversity spectrum, people–you know, Gen X, Gen Z, millennials, boomers, and even the silent generation that are coming back into the workforce, either because their retirement didn’t work out the way they thought, or because they’re just bored and want to do something else.

MS. LABOTT: So, as we close, as you said, we have so many leaders here in this room. What advice do you give to other organizations, including the leaders in this room, who are really looking to make DEI a business imperative? What are the few things that they could start working on right now?

MS. WILLIAMS: Well, yeah, and I always start with business imperative when I’m talking to companies. I also think it’s a moral imperative. I talked about model organizations in terms of being a DEI or a group. One is the long-term nature of this. This is not a two- or three-year effort; it’s long term. Again, executive and board support is so important. Sufficient resources. Everybody in the organization understanding that they have a role and being explicit about that role.

But fifth, having metrics and success measures, so you can demonstrate to people why this is helping the bottom line, why it’s helping your teams work more effectively. This can’t be a soft science kind of thing, although it is in a lot of ways. But you need to collect data and metrics, be able to demonstrate that you’re being successful, or at least being intentional. I think failure is fine, and we do fail a lot in this space. But being clear about where you’re trying to get, even if you have tried–even if you have to try multiple things to get there.

MS. LABOTT: Yeah. And I think if you set that as a metric of a performance review, it kind of sends the signal to everybody that you’re taking it very seriously.

MS. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Seriously and that you’re going to be rigorous about it. This isn’t soft sell.

MS. LABOTT: Yeah. Well, as you said, inclusion is increasingly becoming more important, not just as a moral imperative, but in creating a positive working culture and a productive workplace for everybody but–among employees, but also to a company’s bottom line.

MS. WILLIAMS: Right. And there’s been research that shows that companies that are more diverse from their workforce aspect do better. They do better in terms of profits, if there are–you know, as a part of the stock market. They do better in terms of their teams and their effectiveness and impact. We’ve seen a lot just in the last couple of days about people wanting companies and organizations to speak to their sort of social mission interests.

MS. LABOTT: Yeah. Edna Kane Williams, executive vice president and the first chief diversity officer at AARP. Thank you so much for joining us.

MS. WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thank you.

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