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By Amy Merrick 

Many leaders recognize the benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion in their organizations, and training programs on these concepts have proliferated in the past few years. Often, though, it can be difficult for executives to create the culture shift needed to transform DEI commitments into sustainable progress. 

Nicholas Pearce ’10 MS, ’12 PhD, clinical professor of management and organizations, works with leaders who are ready to move beyond simply talking about DEI. In his Executive Education course, Beyond Diversity: Executive Strategies for Constructive Disruption, participants embark on a learning journey that involves interactive, experiential learning; candid small-group conversations and breakout sessions; and deep self-reflection to encourage what he calls “heart-driven, principles-based, constructive disruption.” Guided by Professor Pearce and the roster of esteemed faculty and practitioner presenters, participants explore the role of their own authenticity as leaders in creating inclusive organizations, discuss the organizational dynamics that perpetuate inequity and learn frameworks that can enable strategic action plans that produce enduring change. 

Pearce offers four guidelines from his course for executives who want to build more inclusive workplaces — and to inspire others to join them. 

1. Begin with your personal ‘why’ 

 In Beyond Diversity, we start the discussion on DEI in a somewhat counterintuitive place. We don’t start out by talking about unconscious biases and the discrimination people have endured. Instead, we begin by talking about leaders and their legacies, and the intentions they bring to the task of inclusive leadership. For every CEO with whom I have worked as a consultant, each has a different “why” on their DEI journey — maybe it’s that they want their daughter to be able to flourish in a traditionally male-dominated industry, or they want their kid who came out to them as being gay to have access to inclusive benefits at work. If your true motivation is clear, compelling and personal, you will have a different level of courage and stamina to keep going when the fire gets hot and the noise level gets high.  

We are committed to making sure that the program is not a white, male, heterosexual, Protestant-bashing session. That’s not the point — the vitriol is counterproductive. Inclusion involves creating space for everyone to tap into their own story and their own worldviews so they have a personal stake in the conversation and can then build bridges of connection and shared understanding. 

2. Be open to difficult experiences 

In the course, we engage students in challenging simulations and exercises that stretch their thinking and, sometimes, even their emotions. We work hard to create an immersive, engaging in-person experience that affords executives the opportunity to experience the dynamics of exclusion and inequality together. While the program is absolutely informed by social and behavioral science theories, leading change when it comes to DEI is anything but theoretical. 

We don’t want to spend our time just downloading facts — we create memorable shared experiences that connect to our key lessons. We want to create “sticky” experiences that allow participants to feel with their hearts, think with their minds, and remember to take courageous action when they get back to work with the lessons they’ve learned.

There are some pretty vulnerable moments that emerge over the course of the program that really bring the cohort together in a powerful way. But our goal isn’t to just create moments — we want to catalyze productive conversations about how executives can work together to build teams, organizations, and communities that we can all be proud of. 

3. Use DEI to address business challenges 

 In my work recently with a fellowship program for entrepreneurs, one participant said, “Dr. Pearce, I agree wholeheartedly that this DEI conversation is critically important. But our startup is at a stage where I have five existential priorities. I’m afraid if I make DEI No. 6, I’m going to do a poor job on all of them and our startup will fail.”

I agree that if you make DEI No. 6, you will fail at all six. Instead, think about how DEI can be a lens through which you accomplish the top five. If priority No. 1 is securing funding and priority No. 2 is developing a quality product or service, who’s on your team to make those things happen? Does your network have the diversity to expose you to different types of funding sources? Different supply chain partners? Different markets to explore where your product or service might make a difference beyond what your immediate experience might tell you? Is your core team diverse? How are you recruiting and onboarding and advancing talent?

Often, diversity and inclusion — or, conversely, homogeneity and exclusion — are baked into the founding origin story of an organization. For startups, embracing difference from the beginning can become a source of sustainable competitive advantage. And it’s not too late for established enterprises to get on the journey – it just requires significant intentionality to try to turn the Titanic onto a different course.

4. Close the gap between intent and impact 

Many organizations claim diversity and inclusion as values and yet have very fuzzy talent-development policies & procedures – and even fuzzier accountability for results. For a company with few women at the top of the house, it’s great that they are doing more to recruit undergraduate women. But what are they doing when those women turn 35 and they’re being blocked from senior management roles because of unconscious or collective bias? What happens when they hit the glass ceiling and leave the company and go across the street to help the competition? Oftentimes, leaders are afraid of looking at their own data and they hide. Leaders have to have the courage to start with the truth. You cannot fix what you will not face.

Making these broader changes can require leaders to improve their ability to influence others, not just at their own organizations but within their industries. Leaders might want to collaborate on creating a talent pipeline across their sector, for example. My vision for DEI at Kellogg Executive Education is to build executive communities of practice so that individuals can reach back to their cohorts to share ideas, get feedback, and advance this work at a higher level.

Register for an upcoming session 
Classes take place at Wieboldt Hall in the school’s downtown Chicago campus. Registration is open to alumni and non-alumni. Anyone who can lead and implement change within their organization is encouraged to attend. Learn more at the program's website.