How to Save Your Diversity Program From an Untimely Demise

“We just lost our lord.”

That was what one employee of an academic medical center told me after her boss, Beth, left. As the head of diversity in the dean’s office, Beth was in charge of fixing the problems of physician burnout, work-life conflict, and turnover for the center’s 2,000 faculty employees. (Note: Names of individuals and organizations have been changed throughout the piece to preserve their anonymity during the research process.)

Beth’s solution: an ambitious program that combined career-development opportunities with a system where faculty could earn points for service activities that fall predominantly to women (such as mentoring and serving on committees). They could then redeem those points for time-saving benefits—like house cleaning, grant-writing services, and meal services. Her plan was wildly successful at the start, earning praise from reporters at major national media outlets. Faculty shared their gratitude.

“[We were] getting all kinds of emails saying, ‘You don’t know what this means to me. I’m in tears as I write this,’” recounted Amanda, an associate professor who was on Beth’s diversity team. “Very small changes that give people a little more of the family time or a little more self-care time… makes a big difference, because people are so pressed against the limits of making it.”

This is unfortunately a common story—the leader of a diversity initiative leaves, and the organization finds itself back at square one after spending lots of time and money to build a program.

But when Beth accepted a prestigious job offer to continue her diversity work at another institution, leaving her prior institution two years after the pilot program started, the initiative fizzled, and with it all the time and money spent building it over the past two years.

This is unfortunately a common story—the leader of a diversity initiative leaves, and the organization finds itself back at square one after spending lots of time and money to build a program.

With turnover on the rise, and lack of diversity and inclusion still a problem across industries, how can organizations prevent these initiatives from dissolving when the primary change agent departs? In other words, how can we build diversity and inclusion programs that can weather inevitable organizational changes without crumbling?

In a recently published paper, I compared two high-status organizations that both lost their primary change agent midway through implementing initiatives that were designed to reduce gender inequality. Here, I’ll use two pseudonyms to describe them (TechCo and MedCo). In TechCo, a Silicon Valley technology company with more than 10,000 employees, the initiative continued to thrive, while in MedCo, the initiative dissolved.

Comparing the two organizations allowed me to understand not only why they had such different experiences but also what similar organizations might learn from them. The key takeaway: diversity initiatives thrive—and survive organizational change—when the responsibility for them is distributed throughout an organization, rather than focused in one office or one person. It’s also crucial to brand these initiatives not as providing perks but as supporting business goals.

How can we build diversity and inclusion programs that can weather inevitable organizational changes without crumbling?

This can prove tricky in the face of cultural differences across industries. For instance, some industries, like academia, tend to take a more individualistic approach to change, in part because their daily work is often structured as a series of individual research papers or projects. At MedCo, the change initiative was viewed like one of those projects rather than an organization-wide change effort.

Elise, who worked in MedCo’s diversity office, recalled in frustration: “People would come to me and say, ‘How’s your project going?’ I’d be like, “Organizational change is not a project! This is not a research paper!’”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this culture of individual ownership meant only a few individuals in the diversity office were responsible for implementing, executing, and sustaining the diversity initiative effort.

What’s more, the initiative was widely perceived as a program of “perks” for individuals rather than one focused on organizational success. Although change agents at MedCo attempted to explain to leaders how the initiative might benefit the larger organization—greater physician wellbeing contributes to higher-quality care and improves both patient care outcomes and financial performance—the message didn’t land.

At TechCo, I found the cultural narrative about change, and the branding of the initiative itself, aligned with overall organizational and business goals. Susan, who led the initiative, and her team assigned diversity initiative activities to a council of high-level department executives. This meant when Susan left, other employees took on the responsibility of continuing the initiative.

TechCo’s strategy points to another essential fortification ingredient: C-Suite support, which can (and should) come in forms beyond rhetoric or resources. Discussing initiatives in all-hands meetings, holding direct reports accountable for diversity-related activities and outcomes, and recognizing diversity-related wins are all part of this holistic strategy. One model is former GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving, who turned GoDaddy around from a company notorious for its salacious, inappropriate ads to one known for its pioneering approach to gender equality, in part because his words were backed by behaviors.

Taking Action

The TechCo and MedCo cases reveal an important lesson: for diversity initiatives to survive, they must belong to the broader organization rather than any single individual. There are four ways that organizations can take action, protect programs from the turbulence of a change agent departure, and help make diversity initiatives successful.

#1: Foster a culture of continual, communal change.

If diversity is viewed as a one-time individual project, it’s at risk when the key change agent leaves the organization. Instead, emphasize an organization-wide commitment to ongoing change. Diversity and inclusion should be framed as continual and essential to the entire organization, rather than aspects of a particular project.

This cultural emphasis extends beyond diversity initiatives: How do employees complete their day-to-day work (e.g., are they assigned to individual or team projects)? How are employees evaluated (e.g., by individual merits or shared outcomes)? Signaling the importance of team success throughout the employee life cycle can help organizational initiatives take root.

#2: Distribute ownership of change-related activities across departments and levels.

Rather than siloing diversity activities in a diversity or H.R. office, assign business leaders outside of those offices responsibility. If the broader diversity initiative is sufficiently distributed, it can better survive changes in specific departments without disrupting the broader initiative. TechCo did this by forming a council of business leaders and involving them in setting specific goals for their department or team. A crucial next step: hold those leaders accountable for execution and achieving desired outcomes.

Organizations that really value diversity and inclusion have to put their money where their mouth is: steady financial resources will help ensure initiatives outlive setbacks.

#3: Demonstrate strong executive support for diversity and inclusion.

This support must stretch beyond empty rhetoric: CEOs and other C-level leaders should treat diversity and inclusion metrics the same way they treat other critical bottom-line business metrics, and they should emphasize and monitor diversity and inclusion goals like other vital business goals. Likewise, organizations that really value diversity and inclusion have to put their money where their mouth is: steady financial resources will help ensure initiatives outlive setbacks.

#4: Brand diversity initiatives as business imperatives rather than “nice-to-haves.”

An initiative of “perks” is hard to defend and sustain when organizations encounter social and financial challenges. A more sustainable strategy: emphasize research that has shown the important bottom-line impacts of diversity and inclusion. Though the “business case for diversity” isn’t always sufficient to guarantee the success of diversity initiatives (and is also controversial in some circles), it can help frame diversity and inclusion as important strategic areas, especially for leaders who are harder to sell on the importance of diversity and inclusion.

Despite a rocky few years since Beth’s departure, MedCo’s story may still have a happy ending. Employees there have begun to pick up the pieces of the former flexibility program, and new diversity initiatives are now underway with support from leaders. This may be the most vital lesson: even when organizations encounter setbacks, all hope is not lost. By learning from the challenges, organizations can strengthen their diversity and inclusion efforts for future success.

Elise, of MedCo’s diversity office, told me that a colleague shared an anecdote that’s stayed with her. “She said, ‘Oh, you know, I’ve had lots of initiatives canceled in my career as a change agent. The reality is every time you’ve planted a seed, you’ve started a conversation, you’ve created a little bit of change that others will then build on in some way.’”