Transcript – Closing the DEI Gap

[00:00:00] Katie: Hi everyone. This is your host, Katie cash. Thank you so much for tuning in to today’s episode of AEC Marketing for Principals. Today, we’re digging into a very popular topic, and that is the topic of DEI. So, we are talking about diversity, equity, inclusion, and programs that firms are using across design and construction to drive growth and to drive strategic initiatives within the firm. And, I think we’ve all realized it’s been a few years now, DEI topics have been trending across every major industry on a global scale. We are not absent of that. We’re seeing it across AEC. I know myself and the other team members here at Smartegies, we’ve participated in some forums on this topic, with industry groups like ACC and crew. And so it’s very topical, and we’re starting to see a lot of firms plan initiatives and starting to enact tactics and policies around it.

 As I dive into this topic, there’s no one better that I know of that could lend a perspective and some advice on it. Then Smartegies own Donya Adler. Donya, I know this topic is near and dear to your heart. You are of course our people person. And so, I want to welcome you to today’s show, and I want to just get the ball rolling and just ask you out of the gate.

Why do you feel DEI is gaining so much momentum today? I think it’s always been part of the discussion, but it really is starting to gain some momentum and catch the headlines out there and certainly grab candidate attention. As we try to vie for the next greatest engineer, contractor out there.

[00:01:34] Donya: Well thanks, Katie. I’m quite happy to be here, and yes, I love talking about this topic, and you’re right. I mean, for the last few years, I think we’ve seen more and more companies get on the DEI bandwagon, if you would. And, of course some companies have been focused on this for a really long time, but the world is changing and, I think a lot of companies are beginning to realize, especially as they want to set up their growth plans, and they want to grow in terms of attracting talent. They want to grow in terms of winning new business. They realize they’ve got to do something differently. And so, the world just looks different. I was looking at a report the other day, and it really caught my eye. And it said, in 2019, the majority of youth under the age of 18, were kids of color.

And by 2030, young workers we’re mostly going to be people of color throughout this nation. The world has changed since the 1980s. And so, I think companies are just wanting to reflect that change within their organizations. And also, they realize that they need that representation as they’re doing business.

[00:02:51] Katie: For sure. And I think, you and I have seen it on the procurement side of things, right? As we help firms with their pursuit strategies and gearing up for presentations. A lot of these owner organizations, whether they’re public or private entities, seeking design and construction partners are really mandating that diversity component these days. And so, we are seeing it kind of trickle down where it’s no longer an option. And so, people really do have to have a formal plan around how they’re going to address it if they want to continue with the momentum around their growth or retaining their market share.

[00:03:26] Donya: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s all about growth too, and just having a diverse organization. It just gives you better access to your clients. So we all know that those major global brands, like the Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. All of them have put in place really robust procurement programs that support purchasing from diverse suppliers. So, many of our clients in AEC work for those global organizations. So, it would behoove them to organize their firms as such, so that they’re matching and aligning with the goals of their current clients.

[00:04:03] Katie: Well sure. I shared with you a little bit earlier the theme of this season of the podcast is really about uncovering and navigating gaps that we see within the industry. And when I reflect on this topic of DEI, the biggest gap I often see is just understanding the difference between having a DEI strategy at the corporate level, setting a DEI policy, and then executing DEI tactics. Can you maybe take a few moments and maybe help our audience understand the difference, and maybe why you need all three of them to play together?

[00:04:39] Donya: Yeah. And there’s such confusion around them. I think we all tossed those three terms around a lot. And really when you’re talking about DEI, a lot of companies have put in place a policy, and in their mind they think, okay, we’ve addressed it with this policy. It’s almost like an equal opportunity type of policy, but DEI is much more than that. And then the same with tactics. You have some companies that have some specific actions that they’re doing, and they aren’t necessarily related to anything else that the company is doing. But, these tactics are kind of DEI related and they think, okay, we’ve got that in place. Well, the difference is DEI should be treated as a growth strategy. And a strategy is a plan, right? And, it helps to guide an organization. It helps to position an organization, and often times a strategy supersedes the policy. It’s the most important goal for that company. And, it’s a way for the company to maximize an opportunity. So, one of the first things I always tell our clients, during that strategic planning phase, is draft out that strategic plan. And make sure everybody’s aligned with what are the top goals for the company.

I guarantee you when you list those things out, and many times they’re all going to be growth oriented. DEI plays a role in each one of those areas most often. And so that’s the first step, it’s that overarching strategy for the company. What is it that they want to achieve? And then, looking at how DEI fits into each one of those things. Policies on the other hand, they’re not as high level as strategies. Policies are more or less formal rules. It’s like a set of rules or regulations, and they really help employees – not necessarily employees, but it just helps your internal organization make decisions better. It standardizes the way you make decisions.

And when I think of policies, I often think of hiring policies for employees. I think of policies for how you want your employees to behave and that sort of thing. So, you can see it’s a total different thing from a strategy. And then, tactics are just those actions. They are the things that actually support the strategy. They’re like practical tasks that you do to support that overall strategy. So, you do need all three. There is sort of a hierarchy to each one of them. But when you’re looking at DEI, start with that strategy.

[00:07:12] Katie: And I think kind of the way I think about it is, you build the plan, right? You set your strategy. You communicate the plan through your policies, and then you work the plan through your tactics. That’s how I keep it nice and clean in my mind. I kind of, remember it that way.

Donya, I know you have worked with a number of firms across design and construction- really across the country here in the last probably two years, maybe three years on these types of initiatives. Building these programs, maybe it’s through their subcontractor partnerships or whatever it might be. But for those firms that are just now trying to get a DEI program off the ground, or those that maybe, they set the strategy, but they’re trying to figure out how to move forward. What’s the first step they should take? What advice do you have for those that are just getting started?

[00:07:59] Donya: It goes back to what we talked about with that growth strategy. That’s step number one. And so many companies today – well all companies are looking at, how does DEI affect my bottom line, what does DEI have to do with it?

Well, going back to that growth strategy and looking at what the company wants to achieve. It could be addressing the talent shortage, trying to find and retain workers. It could be how do you navigate and handle the supply chain issues that affect procurement? It could be rising costs. How do we manage that? The materials, goods fuel. How do we grow in an area where, there’s so much global conflict when the economic damage has come in from the global complex? So, I go back to what I said earlier. It’s that first step to get all of your leaders in a room, define that growth strategy, and how it affects your bottom line. And then one by one, with each one of those areas, you’re plugging “okay how does DEI affect us?” Does it mean that we do need to work with more diverse suppliers? How do we do that? Is it training, is it forming these partnerships? Is it making sure that we have work that aligns with those diverse suppliers on each of our projects? So, it’s pinpointing each one of your primary goals in your growth strategy and then asking the question. How does DEI affect this goal? Because it’s all integrated. It’s all connected.

[00:09:27] Katie: In the spirit of inclusion. You mentioned getting all your leaders together in the room. Is there, reason or value in having additional partners engaged around DEI?

[00:09:42] Donya: Well, I think so. You can’t operate in a vacuum, you know? And so, it definitely is. It’s your leadership to start. Once you get your leadership together, you may even realize, hey, we’re not as diverse at the C-suite level as we need to be. So, I think it’s always good to be inclusive. There may be some young professionals within the firm. You may have a diverse group within the firm that you may want to do some sort of listening session with. You may have some sort of, survey that you can get their insight on their perceptions of the company, their perceptions of areas that need to be strengthened. You may be pleasantly surprised. And so, I think that’s a really good point. Katie, when you’re developing that program, especially if the leadership is not as diverse, and you don’t have as many differing perspectives. There’s nothing at all wrong with opening up some of that discussion to groups within the company.

[00:10:41] Katie: Yeah. I think that’s a big lesson learned, right? Sometimes, when you’re trying to achieve certain levels of diversity or inclusion or, a sense of belonging at your firm. And you’ve got a group that kind of already feels established in that right. Some of the minority or the outliers- those that are going to be directly impacted by your policies. You might have blinders around what’s important to them, right? So, I think we’ve always been a big advocate to at least seek input from those parties as you’re developing those types of strategies. And certainly, as you get into setting those policies, how is it going to impact the individuals that you’re really trying to attract or retain, or help them feel included so that your policies don’t work against it, right? And kind of counteract what you’re intending to do.

[00:11:26] Donya: Ah, I agree. 100%. And even if it’s not around developing the strategy, maybe it’s making sure that your project teams are diverse. I was reading a study the other day that said, when at least one member of a project team has traits that are in common with the end-user or with your client, that entire team understands the user better. So, just being very intentional about making sure that your teams- your internal research, your feedback has perspectives from a diverse group of people. It has positive outcomes and results for the business as a whole.

[00:12:07] Katie: Well, and on the topic of teams, let’s take it a step further. Let’s talk a little bit about one of the other gaps that also comes out of DEI is really around communication- internal communication, external communication. And it kind of stems from, where I sit, what I’ve seen is these initiatives. They’re set at the high level, right? They come down from leadership, and then they’re either put in charge by HR or maybe marketing has a part of it. And, those two groups don’t often use the same terminology. Maybe, they don’t use the same metrics that they’re looking for, and they have different ways about going about things. But, they’re often put together to work as a team. There’s miscommunication. There’s gaps and understanding that happens there, and ineffective standards for measuring the DEI initiatives, and these organizations get tripped up there. So, what is your advice for our listeners in terms of getting everybody on the same page? What’s the universal language around DEI? What are the metrics you should be looking at that matter? And then, how do you build the right team to champion that program within your organization?

[00:13:16] Donya: Yes, I agree. Often times, your human resources group or your people management team, and your marketing team, often have to come together or they are often given different aspects of a DEI program. And once again, it always goes back to the company’s overall strategy. Oftentimes, when you have different functions and departments carrying out tactics, if you would, or policing policies, it is very helpful for them to see how those tactics and policies actually ladder back up to the strategy. So, whenever I would work with companies and teams, we always would have what I like to call a plan on a page where you’ve got the firm’s overall strategy. What it is that the company is trying to achieve, and everyone can see how their individual role ladders back up to that. But when marketing and HR often come together, some of the things that they definitely should be looking at and trying to measure -because what gets measured gets done, is what everybody says is looking at the hiring. How diverse is their applicant pool and how diverse is the hiring panel? The people who are actually talking with candidates and reaching out to them. Those are things that both groups should be looking at. And from a marketing standpoint, when the marketers are actually trying to position and promote the firm. How does that do it from a standpoint of diverse applicants? Does it look like, the type of place that I would thrive in? What really are the values? It’s the vision of the company, that sort of thing. So, trying to communicate those things externally to potential candidates is really an area where both HR and marketing have to come together. In terms of measuring, both groups should be looking at retention, looking at okay, what is the employee turnover? Is there a way that we can pinpoint problem areas so that we can reduce turnover? And, sometimes that comes from, again, just those internal employee engagement surveys, and actually encouraging the staff to give you feedback. Another area to look at, just in terms of advancement, are there employees from diverse backgrounds actually climbing the ladder within the organization? On the HR side, that’s something that HR often looks at in terms of development and trying to help employees progress on the marketing side. That’s, that’s an area to celebrate, to celebrate and to promote internally and externally the diverse groups of people that are progressing within the firm. So, there are a lot of different areas that can be measured. And with each one, there’s a role for HR. There’s a role for marketing as well.

[00:16:06] Katie: And those measurements might be different from firm to firm, right? Just depending on what goal you’re trying to achieve with your initiatives. Would you agree?

[00:16:16] Donya: Yeah, absolutely. And they may be. But, it is definitely a team effort. I know we’re talking about those two groups, marketing and communications, but it’s, you have to keep the conversation going throughout the organization, with leadership, with your different business units. Again, it is embedded in the overall strategy of the company. It is a foundation for growth. And so keeping that conversation going, and as a topic, throughout the firm. Yeah, I think it’s integrated, and it makes folks realize that it’s not just a single activity that we’re going to do. It’s embedded in all that we do.

[00:16:53] Katie: Yeah. It’s not a one and done, check the box activity. It’s not a quick update to the HR manual, right? It’s more of, it becomes part of the culture, part of your corporate pillars. It really kind of becomes ingrained in anything and everything you do. And like you mentioned, as you go through your five-year strategic plan, you’re looking at every goal that you have for the firm, and asking yourself, how does DEI play into it and what are we going to do there? And how does it impact different things? And, that’s something that you continue to do moving forward. It’s kind of never ending, right? It’s the never ending story.

[00:17:25] Donya: That’s right. If we talk about DEI as a strategy, it’s also a mindset. So, as you’re looking at different areas of the company and you’re looking at how they can be improved, how they can grow. Almost always, there’s going to be a DEI component there, and it’s just because you’re so much better with diversity of thought and perspectives and people. Those companies that have mastered it, understand that, and they understand it becomes a mindset in a way of life for that company in terms of their growth and their own advancement.

[00:17:57] Katie: Donya, this has been such a great conversation. I always appreciate your thoughtful perspective and advice here. I hope our listeners have enjoyed it. I recently read a Shrm article. Shrm is the society for HR professionals. But, I read this article, and what really stood out to me about this topic of diversity, is that, through all of their research, what they were reporting on is that diversity isn’t what drives outcomes at organizations. But, it’s often what so many organizations focus on and monitor. And, I don’t know if that’s part of just the applicant process or maybe it’s just part of the employer experience where they’re tracking people in terms of their categories and in the boxes that they check. But, their research did show that those organizations that had a supportive culture- one that was inclusive and really focused on that, was head and shoulders going further and beyond with their DEI success. And, so all of those organizations with a culture of inclusion found that the diversity and the equity piece often followed suit. So, in reality, what the Shrm article was really reporting on is that inclusion should be your goal. And then, diversity becomes the result of achieving that goal. And I’d love for you to maybe share your perspective on those research findings and the ideology.

[00:19:20] Donya: Well, I’ll have to read that article. It sounds like a great article. I could not agree more. Inclusion is one of the cornerstones, I think, of having a DEI program. One thing that I find interesting is that, I’m seeing companies are beginning to add another component to DEI, and it’s belonging. And so, there are some companies that are using DEIB as the name of their program because it’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

And so, when you have employees that feel like they belong, they feel like they are heard, they feel like they’re seen, they feel like they are valued. It’s a direct correlation to productivity, to engagement, to retention, to all those types of things that you want for your company.

So, yes. Inclusion and belonging is a foundation. And when your employees have that feeling, and they believe it and they see it, it definitely adds to the strength of the organization’s workforce.

[00:20:26] Katie: Well, I think this has been really great. Anyone out there who is wanting to learn more about DEI and setting a DEI strategy for sustainable growth. I would love to personally invite you to join the Smartegies team for our upcoming SmartWIN webinar, DEI for growth. And again, Donya is going to be speaking all about DEI for growth, sharing some research findings, sharing some best practices that AEC firms, large and small, singular location, multi-location firms, can use to really set a DEI strategic advantage. You can find out all the details about that event through our social media pages (@smartegies) or you can also go to our website at, and you can get all the great details there. Donya, I don’t know if you might want to share a few other tips on what they can come to expect as participants in that webinar?

[00:21:26] Donya: Yeah, absolutely. We talked about some of those things today. Just, the difference between strategy and policy, and how to get that set up in your organization. Just finding out also, how DEI can be used to have greater access to talent and retention, clients and buyers. How it can enhance a company’s reputation and brand, and just a host of positive things that set the business case for why DEI makes sense at your company.

[00:21:58] Katie: All great things. And as we continue this season of the podcast, we have been fortunate enough to interview some groundbreaking trailblazers in the industry, and so I do hope that you all will tune in for some upcoming episodes. But thank you all for joining us today. That’s it from me and the team at Smartegies and the AEC Marketing for Principals. Thanks everybody for joining us!

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