Inviting commitment: Lessons learned from corporate EDI statements  

Leaders across an organization can take three steps to renew and sustain a commitment to EDI.

Three years ago, the world witnessed the murder of George Floyd. In real time, corporate leaders irrespective of social identity were confronted with the trauma and grief that Black colleagues, customers and partners live with because of racism and racist systems.

Many senior leaders responded, putting workplace equity, diversity and inclusion efforts in the spotlight. They held town halls, talked to employees and expressed support. Organizations issued corporate diversity and inclusion statements to signal they were seeing and hearing what was going on – and their intention to do something about it. 

As research scientists at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), we wondered what those statements about EDI indicated about organizational cultures and leaders’ motivations. We studied the statements of the Fortune 100 and members of the CEO Action Network for Diversity and Inclusion – 220 companies in all, including 26 that responded with silence.

What we learned helped us and our clients understand the moment we were in and created a structure to track outcomes, hold organizations accountable and drive further progress toward meaningful EDI actions. We also began to see the ability to sustain EDI commitment as a core leadership skill that is fundamentally about how to build trust and cultivate respect.

Today, drawing on our research findings and CCL’s decades of experience developing leaders, we see a path for organizations to evaluate their EDI journey thus far, renew their efforts and lead in an ever-changing landscape. 

The stories we tell: 3 journeys

The EDI statements we analyzed told a story of how leaders interpreted the world around them – and the journey on which employees, stakeholders and customers could expect to go. 

Our analysis revealed three types of statements, giving us clues to the motives or expectations of leaders:

  • Cosmetic. EDI statements and actions that met a public perception and/or compliance need. 
  • Conversation. EDI statements and actions that focused on bringing out and listening to the stories and experiences of Black, Indigenous and people of color in their organization.
  • Commitment. EDI statements and actions that indicated concrete, sustainable action and accountability.

Unfortunately, our research found the overwhelming majority of statements fell into the “cosmetic” category, without offering specifics for how culture change would take place or be assessed. Looking back, it’s easy to identify a disconnect between the lofty language in many statements and the roadblocks organizations have identified in the subsequent three years.

Re(committing) to EDI

Writing an effective EDI statement is just the beginning. Commitment is demonstrated over time and with results. Microsoft, for example, had a robust EDI statement in June 2020 and has maintained transparency about their goals, metrics, progress and evolution to date.

Unfortunately, the shine has worn off in many organizations that touted EDI. The pushback and fatigue are real, and the work is hard. Yet, employees and stakeholders continue to expect more and better – not only around EDI, but regarding many complex social issues, such as economic justice, climate change and reproductive rights. 

Leaders across the organization can take three steps to renew and sustain a commitment to EDI.

  1. Understand your organization’s EDI story.

Analyze what your organization has said and done: Were efforts cosmetic, conversational or committed? Who was involved and who was left out? Who carried the burden of moving EDI forward? What successes have you had? If you haven’t done much, or progress is not what you hoped, can you account for why? How can you realign or set different commitments? 

Next, revise or write a new EDI statement with clear and genuine messages that resonate with job candidates, employees, stakeholders and clients. Use your corporate statement on EDI as a roadmap for your organization and, importantly, a way to hold your leadership and each other accountable for change. (We have specific guidance on crafting a meaningful corporate statement and approach.)

  1. Make sure messages and metrics match. 

Once you’ve identified your organization’s EDI story, be specific and transparent about the actions your organization is committing to and how you will measure progress. Are you focused oninternal operations such as recruiting, hiring and development practices; increasing representation of systemically excluded groups; conducting pay equity audits; diversifying vendors; or ensuring greater diversity in products and marketing? Is external philanthropy or tackling broader social inequity part of your strategy? 

These specific actions normalize anti-racism but are only effective if you assign human and financial resources to provide tangible support to organizational EDI work. Too often, commitment doesn’t extend to budgets, staff and structure. When that happens, organizations remain in the “cosmetic” or “conversation” spheres and are unlikely to make meaningful progress on the expectations they set.

  1. Focus on trust and respect for the way forward.

At the core, any EDI effort is about trust and respect. It’s about holding a sincere conviction that all people have value, and demonstrating respect for the people we work with as well as our clients, customers or shareholders. It’s about consistency, transparency and alignment between what is said and done, so people can trust their senior leaders, co-workers and the businesses or organizations in their physical and virtual communities.

Trust and respect are the work of leadership, and, we believe, an invitational model of leadership is required. Leaders must invite others into collective development and change, creating a network that reaches up, down, and across the organization, and honing the relationship skills to listen and learn from these connections.

Invitational leaders take responsibility for fostering psychological safety in their teams and organizations, so colleagues can talk about their experiences, perspectives and the impact of real-world events. In this way, conversations can extend beyond one-off incidents in response to current news and become a part of an organization’s DNA. Leaders can remove the layers and barriers that keep them disconnected from what matters to others resulting in irrelevant, outdated and reactive messaging or policies. 

With these steps, leaders can become more attuned and aware – and your organization can be more committed to, and responsive, agile and capable of, saying and doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons.