Ryan Buchanan, an Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) member and former president of the Portland chapter, is the founder and CEO of Thesis, a digital marketing agency, and co-founder of Emerging Leaders, a non-profit dedicated to improving racial and cultural diversity at the leadership level in Portland-area companies. He also hosts the podcast Faces of Marketing. We asked Ryan about best practices for building a diverse, inclusive workforce. Here’s what he shared:
Dozens of CEOs and human resources executives who I’ve talked to this year are sincerely focused on diversifying their company’s workforce–but in most cases, their strategies aren’t working. They are exasperated, bewildered and ready to throw in the towel. Several have shared that, “We put our job postings everywhere we can find, yet all the applicants are white or male or both.”
I listen to each reason why recruiting diverse employees seems unattainable, and then I pose the question that was asked of me four years ago when I began my equity journey: “When professionals of color or women go online to look at your company’s senior leadership team, what do they see?”
It seems counterintuitive and time-consuming to start from within–to actively build inclusivity into the company culture before turning our focus to external recruiting. But it’s a more effective strategy for the long-term success of a high-functioning, equitable, diverse workforce.
The business case for diversity
Regardless, let’s examine the situation around race and equity. The business case has been proven repeatedly: Diverse teams perform up to 35% better than homogeneous ones. Diverse teams are more profitable, more adaptable to change, and the best brands in the world are demanding that their agencies represent the diverse consumers they serve.
Before reading any further, you should know that I’m a privileged, straight, white, male CEO writing an article about equity in the workplace. You can decide whether I’m a hypocrite who lacks awareness–or an ally and advocate for equity.
At our digital agency, we have plenty of work ahead of us to create a more inclusive workplace, but we’re making progress. We’ve grown from 12 percent people of color to 33 percent in just four years since becoming intentional about diversification.
What changes have we made? Well, there isn’t a quick fix when it comes to improving workplace diversity. It begins with changing the corporate culture.
Here are four steps for building a more diverse workforce:
1. Commitment from the top
If I had to single out the most crucial step along the journey to diversification, it’s that the entire leadership team must be deeply committed to racial equity, and willing to uphold these values with sometimes unpopular decisions. Change starts by talking about it. The transformation requires difficult conversations and embracing being uncomfortable–but the upside is a company culture that’s strong, deep and inclusive, and a business that thrives because its clients are getting the diverse talent they seek.
2. Make a point to talk about it, regularly
I grew up in a white society that taught us not to see the color of someone’s skin. But silence about race in dominant culture denies employees of color a safe space to share daily experiences where race is an ongoing factor.
When we openly–and privately–participate in conversations around race, it can lead to significant personal and professional growth, as well as business benefits. Ensure these conversations are happening by hosting company-wide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training or by bringing in a trained DEI consultant to facilitate recurring group conversations. Extending an invitation to the greater professional community could attract outside talent who share similar values around the importance of equity.
3. Build relationships with communities of color
You can’t identify new channels without building relationships with underrepresented groups. Be more intentional about your outreach to communities of color by attending networking events, partnering with culturally specific community organizations, or getting coffee with leaders of color. Many cities have organizations and initiatives dedicated to helping companies connect with resources and like-minded businesses that have made diversity and inclusion a priority, such as Partners in Diversity and TechTown Diversity Pledge in Portland.
Involvement with local leaders and organizations like these is a stepping-stone to building fruitful relationships and connections.
4. Institute workplace programs
A study by the Kapor Center examined why tech workers leave high-paying jobs. It found unfairness was the primary driver of turnover, with underrepresented men being the most likely to leave due to unfair treatment. Still, many companies think their job is done once employees are in the door.
But retention is an ongoing challenge that reinforces the need to make complete corporate culture shifts. When I asked one of our employees why he chose to work here and, more importantly, why he stays, he said: “Seeing other employees of color who are excellent at what they do professionally, while being fully themselves, without having to code-switch–I’ve never felt that at any other company.”
Mentoring programs can also be critical to leadership development, helping to identify rising leaders of color while providing them with valuable support and feedback.