(Photo by SDI Productions/iStock by Getty Images)

In the wake of this summer’s protest movement, a particular job posting became much more common–that of the chief diversity officer. It was one of many efforts from companies to tackle long standing questions around diversity, equity and inclusion that became even more urgent.

For Salima Bhimani, the chief equity and inclusion strategist for the Other Bets at Alphabet Inc., Google's parent company, the new moves raised a question: Were such postings the result of a true “gut check” from the companies doing the posting? “What I’m quite frankly tired of, along with other folks who have been doing this work for decades, is a lot of the false promises,” she said. “This reactive posture … the thing I worry about is what is motivating you toward that [job]. For me, it’s important to ask what is incentivizing this.”

Bhimani was a panelist in a candid conversation about giving diversity leaders the clout they need, which took place during From Day One’s December conference on inclusive leadership. The moderator was Emily Nordquist, senior program manager with the Baumhart Center for Social Enterprise & Responsibility at Loyola University Chicago.

Throughout the conversation, panelists stressed that diversity initiatives need to be deep and meaningful–as opposed to short-term, reactive “compliance exercises,” as Bhimani put it. Key to that shift is internal work prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as well as empowering diversity leaders within the company. “There’s a lot of pre-work to be done before deciding that a [chief diversity officer] is the answer,” she said.

What does that pre-work look like? Shay Zeemer, chief diversity officer of Newell Brands, took on the work herself. “It occurred to me I could spend the time begging for us to hire someone experienced in DEI to lead and teach us,” she noted, “or I could spend the same amount of time doing it myself to build it and prove it was worth it to everyone and that we will see benefits, then hand it off to that person who can really, really accelerate.”

The speakers, top row from left: Emily Nordquist of Loyola University Chicago, Salima Bhimani of Google, and Stephanie Braid of KPMG. Bottom row from left: Alexandria Ray of Hinshaw & Culbertson, Shay Zeemer of Newell Brands, and Jamal Lopez of Weill Cornell Medicine (Image by From Day One)

At Weill Cornell Medicine, the senior director of institutional equity, Jamal Lopez, said the organization is staffing an “equity and inclusion council,” as well as rolling out resources and procedures for business resource groups (BRGs). “That gives the employees a voice and it gives those in C-suites and senior leaders a better opportunity to understand what people are looking for,” he explained.

Once the BRGs are running, he added, the company will develop a recognition strategy that acknowledges five different types of impact: business, community, workforce/workplace and allyship. “We also want to prominently feature members of our BRGs … so they get a chance to have exposure,” Lopez said.

Stephanie Braid, director of inclusion and diversity for KPMG, stressed the importance of giving employee resource groups (ERGs) a voice. “Too often this work is eating into employees' personal time or the contributions of an ERG lead can be deprioritized,” she said. “My advice is to give them a real voice–they should be informing the organization’s diversity, inclusion and equity strategy and telling you where biases and barriers are showing up,” she continued. “And value their work … it takes an influential person to move things forward, so at the bare minimum increase the visibility of work they’re doing to CEOs, leaders and managers.”

Bhimani noted that ERGs and BRGs are often not positioned well within companies to enforce change–which often results in frustration among the employees participating. “There is a key partnership that has to happen that is very strategic and very nuanced, saying what is the role that ERGs need to be playing within the larger equity, diversity and inclusion strategy?”

Alexandria Ray, diversity, equity and inclusion lead for the law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson, stressed the need for “allies and accomplices” in ERG and diversity work: “When you have allies and accomplices that are part of your organization, that’s what moves the needle–that’s what make people really stand out.”

In that vein, several panelists spoke to the increase of solidarity from white employees–and the opportunity for more of it. “I’m starting to see lots of white people on the Teams meetings just listening, not taking up space but listening,” said Zeemer. “Then they take it to their team meeting and do a discussion group.”

Nordquist wrapped the conversation by asking panelists to offer one piece of advice for companies looking to empower their diversity leaders and spur real change–work she called “nuanced, ambiguous and complex.”

Braid stressed that “inclusion needs to be built into everyone’s role in the organization” as opposed to putting it in a silo within HR, recruiting or leadership, where the conversation might be isolated. Ray offered: “Be comfortably uncomfortable. This is not the time to choose to be offended, this is a time to think outside the box, to act on what the suggested change needs to be.”

Zeemer pointed out that the ongoing work of diversity, equity and inclusion can be balanced with shorter-term goals. “There are some easy things that can be done … everyone can do a pay-equity audit now, you don’t need a strategy there,” she said.

Lopez encouraged the people invested in DEI work to also take care of themselves. “There can be pushback in doing this work and that can be painful. It can be disappointing,” he noted. “I need to figure out what I’m gonna tell myself when I run into an obstacle, that I’m not going to let disappointment weaken my ability to do the work.”

Bhimani offered this advice: “Invest for the long haul,” she said. “This is not a marathon, this is not a sprint, it is a long-term, lifelong journey.”

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.