A positive step: Thasunda Brown Duckett was named this week as the new CEO of TIAA, the financial-services giant. She is one of two Black women who'll be leading Fortune 500 companies, following last month's naming of Roz Brewer as the new CEO of Walgreens (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Fortune)

Marion Brooks, a VP and U.S. head of diversity and inclusion at Novartis pharmaceuticals, has heard the excuse too many times–that the lack of diversity in the leadership ranks of Corporate America is because of a shortage of diverse talent to fill the jobs. “I tell everyone in our organization that there’s an African American person, Asian person and Latinx person that is qualified for every role in this organization, from the CEO down the line,” he said. “The question is: Where are you looking, where are you recruiting, and what is your reputation?”

Companies that enact long-standing, structural changes toward diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are the ones that will not only attract diverse talent, but foster a workplace culture where employees can feel a genuine sense of belonging. That was the consensus during a From Day One webinar titled "History in the Making: the Future of Black Leadership in Corporate America," moderated by Myla Skinner, founder and managing partner of the consulting firm Quarter Five.

The panelists, five leaders invested in DEI work, discussed the recent wave of commitments from U.S. companies to diversity; what it actually means to foster an inclusive culture that empowers marginalized employees, rather than burns them out; and the urgency of this work not just in response to social-justice demands but to better reflect the changing demographics of the U.S.

“A lot of companies are committing and communicating on their public platforms that they want to have a part in driving this work forward from a representation standpoint,” said Marvin Davenport, VP of DEI at the vision-care company VSP Global. “The opportunity there is to be sure it’s sustainable long term. While they are sourcing and attracting the talent, are they able to retain the talent, and keep talent beyond the first few years?”

All panelists urged employers to go deeper, beyond “the push just to get the people here, thinking it’s gonna be great,” said Ryan Polly, the VP for DEI at MaineHealth. “That’s the easier part. What everyone here is talking about is real, structural change to the infrastructure that is the way we do our business.”

So what does structural change look like? Dion Bullock, the strategy lead for DEI and belonging at the coaching firm Bravely, emphasized “a concept of what it means to be part of an organization and bring your whole self to work.” He spoke to the importance of autonomy and self-determination for employees in deciding what parts of their identity they want to share with colleagues–and having a culture of non-judgement and acceptance in response.

Inclusive cultures don’t pressure their employees to assimilate. “When we talk about the future of Black leadership, when we’re thinking about the concept of what leadership is, does it create space for people in different communities or cultures outside of the white norm?” Bullock asked.

Speaking on black leadership, top row from left: Marvin Davenport of VSP Global and Dion Bullock of Bravely. Middle row: Ryan Polly of MaineHealth, moderator Myla Skinner of Quarter Five, and Marion Brooks of Novartis. Bottow row: Adia Harvey Wingfield, PhD, of Washington University in St. Louis (Image by From Day One)

Brooks outlined some specific actions Novartis took in the past year. The company established new hiring guidelines that required diversity on the hiring panel and within the interviewing pool. He pointed out research that found if there’s only one female or minority candidate in the pool, they have very little chance of being hired. “Just by adding one additional woman or person of color, it goes up by over 50% that one of them would receive an offer and it’s because you’ve broken up the confirmation bias,” Brooks said.

Novartis also hired a DEI scouting and recruiting firm, Global Diversity Marketing, to tap into communities they hadn’t reached out to in the past. “We are building a bench of diverse talent so when we have opportunities, we’ll be able to tap into that.”

External work should be coupled with internal investments. An example of that effort at Novartis is a multicultural-engagement program that identifies talented Black employees and supports them in their career development. “I’m happy to say that in less than a year, 50% of the people in that program have already received promotions,” according to Brooks. The company is expanding the program to its Latinx employees.

VSP’s Davenport suggested that companies should take advantage of flexibility with employee location when possible, especially after Covid-19 made remote work a widely embraced practice. He pointed to a recent McKinsey & Co. report on race in the workplace that said nearly 60% of the Black labor force in the U.S. resides in southern states. “At a minimum, do you have operations from your company perspective if you’re sourcing diverse talent within any of those locations?,” he asked.

In recent years, many diversity initiatives have been launched with apparent good intentions, only to fail to make progress. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Adia Harvey Wingfield, the Mary Tileston Hemenway professor of arts & sciences and associate dean for faculty development at Washington University in St. Louis, published a report in Harvard Business Review last year titled “We Built a Diverse Academic Department in 5 Years. Here’s How.” In response to hiring discrimination, she recommended that companies get proactive when a position opens.

“When we know that we’re going to have a position open,” she said, “we have done a lot of targeted outreach to reach out to diverse communities and diverse candidates. That really helps to change the applicant pool we have and the reputation gets out that we’re a department interested in having a more diverse candidate pool.”

Wage transparency, Wingfield added, is another key tool to attract and keep diverse talent: “Research is starting to show that when companies are more forthright about wages and salaries, it can have the effect of knowing who’s being paid what and seeing where wage discrepancies lie.”

There were a few “solutions” that panelists discouraged. Polly, with MaineHealth, noted that in white-dominant spaces there’s a tendency to rely on one-off DEI training. “It serves as ‘I did that, checked the box, and can make myself feel better that I did this training,’” as he put it. Instead, managers “need to understand that [DEI] is a significant time, person and financial investment that has a significant return, but that return can be a few years down the road.”

And the work of DEI should be shared. Wingfield warned against the phenomenon of “racial outsourcing”–when the work of DEI is pushed onto employees of color without adequate resources or compensation–a term she coined in her book Flatlining: Race, Work and Health Care in the New Economy. On a related note, the speakers weighed the value of “reverse mentoring,” which in this context refers to employees of color mentoring white leadership. Should marginalized employees be taking on this kind of work? “It goes back to autonomy,” Bullock said. “If I as a Black employee have the option to choose to do that, and have the emotional bandwidth to choose to do that, I want those opportunities to do it.” He added that it shouldn’t be Black people’s responsibility to introduce white colleagues to resources, research, films or podcasts that tackle topics of racism and can be easily searched for online.

Brooks reframed the reverse-mentoring relationship as “an opportunity to ask questions,” he said. “What are you seeing in the organization? What are you seeing in society? What are some of your thoughts and recommendations for us? The second part of the question is: Is there any part that you’d like to be involved in?” Again, panelists stressed the importance of valuing this work, and compensating appropriately for it, not as a side job for employees of color to take on in addition to their regular work.

In wrapping the panel, Washington University’s Wingfield pointed out the reality of the rapidly changing demographics across the U.S. “We’re at a point where the demographics are going to become more racially diverse than any point in our history,” she noted. “It puts us at an inflection point … I don’t see a way to have organizations well-suited to meeting the needs of a multi-racial population if those organizations don’t reflect the needs of those communities internally.”

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.