You would be hard pressed to find a company that does not declare a strong intent to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion, but many of these same businesses often lose their way with misguided aspirational outcomes, lack of sustained prioritization at the most senior level of management, or even using programs as a surrogate for avoiding legal recourse.  

“Diversity is being invited to the dance. Inclusion is being asked to dance. Belonging is when the DJ plays your song request.”
This quote pays homage to Verna Myers and was extended by Shaneka McDonald, our Head of HR and L&D at DBS Bank Ltd. It accurately defines what I call the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) trap.

The Diversity Equity & Inclusion trap occurs when the firm’s good intentions are misunderstood as action. While a long list of DE&I initiatives may bring an emotional state of success, without proper funding and support it will simply lack the depth of commitment to drive lasting change. Just like the Canadian Geese migrating, a DE&I list without corresponding action is out of sight after a few months and re-emerges a year later, never finding a permanent home.  

Building DE&I into the fabric of a firm’s culture and making it a true competitive advantage requires more than making a list; it requires the time and attention for broad-based, sustainable impact. When deserved focus and attention to DE&I are fully leveraged and its value unlocked across the organization, a more vibrant, focused, purposeful organization emerges.

Our journey at DBS to fully embrace diversity, equity and inclusion has spanned several years. In 2018, we were acknowledged in the inaugural Bloomberg Gender-Equity Index, which recognized 104 firms worldwide.  Today, every department in DBS carries DE&I as a permanent part of our management agenda, and it is frequently discussed at our board meetings.

Diversity, the first stage of DE&I, was easier to address at DBS by the makeup of our team in the U.S., which includes people of thirteen different nationalities and a diverse set of religions and economic and family backgrounds.  Over 60% of the top management team is women and/or BIPOC. These team members made it clear early on that building a DE&I agenda was important to them. If your organization is less diverse, you should plan to dedicate more time to this critical first step.

The next stage is embedding a high level of engagement and ownership driven by the staff to ensure lasting success. Your responsibility as a leader is to provide resources, encouragement, and “a safe place” for dialogue and discussion. This also means that you need to resist the urge to “make things better” — you probably won’t.  Your role is to accept and support suggestions without second guessing or critiquing ideas. There is a 99.99% probability your team is more knowledgeable than you, understands more than you, and sees many things you don’t see. Be an active, highly engaged, high-energy follower.  

The final stage is recognition and reward: DBS employees know we are serious about embedding diversity, equity and inclusion in our culture by how it impacts their compensation and career opportunities. Our bonus program is quite unique for a bank as we assign a 50% weighting to the contributions an individual makes to the bank’s culture.  Employees’ involvement in the bank’s PRIDE values (volunteerism and community activities) are expected and required for a promotion, regardless of the employees’ performance of their daily responsibilities.  

In today’s highly automated, multi-tasking, “nano-second” world, the most successful managers lead with empathy, integrity, and a purpose that is larger than self.  They provide direction and energy for the organization through thoughtful, challenging questions and actionable insights; they are self-aware and expert observers.  Managers should use their intuition and experience to recognize patterns in the business and their staffs as they strive to build a personal legacy through strengthening individual relationships and helping others reach their goals.  Effective managers recognize the incredible strength and value contained in the diversity of background, experience, and thought.

The result of instituting a robust DE&I culture is an organization with highly engaged employees, the ability to tap into a wider talent pool, and the creation of an environment where sustainability within the business produces high achieving performers and also powers a greater level of contribution to community programs and related stakeholders. It is a virtuous cycle that we are constantly nurturing and endeavoring to accelerate.    

Tom McCabe is Managing Director - US CEO for DBS Bank Ltd. 

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