(Photo by Solstok, iStock by Getty Images)

Jazmine Boatman, VP and head of U.S. operations for the global leadership-development firm DDI, characterizes herself as a “lifelong learner.” It’s a value she has brought to her own leadership as well as setting standards for long-term inclusion within the company.

“If everyone could take that growth mindset of the lifelong learner into every interaction they have,” she said, “They’re more likely to have inclusive moments, both macro and micro.”

It’s a simple philosophy, but for Boatman the journey of achieving meaningful inclusion within company culture can start small. “The more complicated things are, the harder it will be to execute,” she explained. “In the midst of a challenging business environment, set clear targets on what you want to accomplish.”

It all starts by listening, according to Boatman. Diversity quotas often miss out on deeper, nuanced needs of employees which can lead to inclusion. But to understand those needs, leadership has to be willing to listen and take them seriously. “You have to do the diligence of understanding the different perspectives, points of view and what’s missing,” she said. “It shows up in numbers but it also shows up in just talking to people.”

Companies can track employee feedback through tools like engagement data and exit interviews. Boatman views this as a crucial first step–“doing that homework”–before deploying any type of inclusion initiatives.

Jazmine Boatman, VP and head of U.S. operations for DDI (Photo courtesy of DDI)

She then recommends taking a systematic look at how the company functions by auditing its systems for objectivity and fairness. “Look at sourcing, selection, development, even your mentorship programs and awards,” she said. “It will give you more direction on where to go deeper.”

When a company has a solid understanding of employee perspective on inclusivity, as well which systems are functioning inclusively and which are not, it can begin to explore the type of exposure and education that’s most appropriate for the company. It’s also the starting point of setting clear, specific targets and timelines to accomplish them.

Maybe the company wants a certain number of minority candidates sourced by the end of next year, or to promote a certain percentage of minority employees into leadership roles, or build a more diverse board of directors. Set achievement goals alongside the timeline to get it done, Boatman urged: “It’s about setting specific targets and figuring out how to build to that, in accordance to what you need. It’s important not to set random, feel-good goals, but goals tied to your own business strategy.”

This all sets the stage for inclusivity, but how do companies ensure the value is put in place for the long term? “You can't manage what you don't measure. But make sure what you’re tracking, you’re tracking at different levels,” said Boatman. For example, if a company finds there is an underrepresentation of Black employees, the company shouldn’t just look at racial demographics at an organizational level, but also at levels like individual contributors, mid-level leaders, executive leaders and teams. “Tracking demographics at that minute level is one place to start,” she said.

Employee engagement shouldn’t fall by the wayside, either. “How do you get everyone involved in goal setting, and give everyone the space to bring new ideas to the table?” she asked. Quantitative and qualitative data should be held in equal importance, with employees given continued opportunities to weigh in on how the company is meeting its inclusivity goals.

And as a leader at DDI, Boatman knows the value of inclusiveness must come from the top. “A leader’s role in modeling this is of critical importance,” she said. “Their job is to create a culture for this–and if they’re promoting people who do not show inclusivity, it sends a strong message that all the education prior to that was lip service.”

Leaders have a unique opportunity, in the midst of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, to engage employees with a new type of leadership, Boatman believes. It’s a time companies can address their workplace culture with candor, make space for the well-being of employees, and get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations.

In the midst of major changes to the workplace and our day-to-day lives, the goal of long-term inclusion doesn’t have to be impossibly complex. “Listen more and start small,” Boatman said. “What resonates with people is that they feel heard and they trust you will listen for understanding. As a leader, you might feel overwhelmed, but what I found to be helpful are the simple steps of listening and learning."

Editor's note: in a From Day One conference in Brooklyn last year, Boatman said that in hiring, leaders need to beware of “Mini-Me syndrome,” in which recruiters look for people who went to the same school, for example, or have the same work experience.

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.