Don’t Give Up on DEI — Why it Still Matters and How to Enact it Effectively

Although DEI has been a buzzword for some time, many companies still struggle to make meaningful progress. Further, fear of failing can result in decisions to shy away from DEI initiatives altogether. In reality, investing in a diverse workforce today is more important—and impactful—than ever.

Breakline Education is a well-established organization that addresses DEI in the workplace by teaming women, people of color, people with disabilities, and veterans with companies that can accelerate their careers. In addition to their team-building outcomes, Breakline has developed insights into the ROI of DEI and the points of friction that sometimes prevent DEI programs from driving measurable results.

Mainsail is excited to announce its partnership with Breakline Education in our efforts to meet our goal of hiring diverse candidates to fill positions across the portfolio and/or within Mainsail. To kick off this engagement, Mainsail welcomed Bethany Coates, Founder and CEO of Breakline, to speak to a group of HR leaders in our portfolio about how to build an innovative, engaged and diverse workforce.

She shared 5 key takeaways with the Mainsail community:

DEI Initiatives Should Produce a Measurable ROI

“In order to set up your DEI efforts to succeed,” shared Coates, “establish a measurable and realistic goal, add a date by which it will be achieved, resource it appropriately, course-correct as necessary, and keep your team apprised until it is done.” DEI requires an investment and therefore should deliver a return, just like any other business priority. Be wary of any request for budget that will not provide a measurable result. “Being able to point to a concrete, positive outcome is the best way to establish a rationale for continued investment,” says Coates.

As you develop a comprehensive DEI strategy over time, Coates also cautions against hosting mandatory DEI trainings. Research shows this approach to be counter-productive. “The ROI on typical DEI trainings and workshops is either minimal or unmeasurable,” she says. She pointed to research spearheaded by Frank Dobbin, Chair of the Dept of Sociology at Harvard University, which indicated that diverse representation dropped over time in companies that required diversity trainings.

Instead, Coates recommends encouraging participation in DEI initiatives by presenting the following cases:

  1. The Performance Case. Studies have shown that high-performing teams correlate with diverse teams. Diverse workplaces drive positive outcomes.
  2. The Business Case. If your company eyes national or international impact, your teams need to reflect the people you currently serve or hope to serve. If you can better understand and relate to your customers’ needs, you have a better chance of driving significant impact and innovation within your industry, and, potentially, the world.
  3. The Human Case. Building a company around one or a small number of demographics suggests to employees that arbitrary characteristics matter more than outcomes and performance. That approach repels high-performers in general. It also breeds mistrust across the board since, in an arbitrary environment, anyone could find themselves out of favor at any time.

Have a Plan to Recognize and Work Through Common Points of Friction

As you build your DEI hiring, recruiting and retention strategies, expect to encounter moments of discomfort and have a plan to address them head-on. Coates identified common patterns in this regard and how to navigate through them, including:

  1. The Loss Mindset: This is the sentiment that hiring a top performer from an unfamiliar background requires trading off something of value, rather than creating a win-win. Studies have shown that diversity uplevels performance, increases profitability and innovative thinking. Be proactive about acknowledging what your team and company stand to gain when hiring an outstanding person from an under-selected community.
  2. The Spotlight Effect: This is an observational bias that artificially limits our search area for top talent to a small number of brands or institutions. It leads us to over-emphasize pedigree — certain alma maters and companies — and to prematurely eliminate or entirely miss out on a huge pool of exceptional talent. “As hiring managers, we can maintain extremely high standards while also interviewing and hiring based on skills, strengths, and track record, rather than brand sensitivity,” said Coates.
  3. The Sideshow: This is the idea that DEI initiatives and investments happen apart from the core business. In order for DEI to have an impact and produce maximum value, embed it into your business, as part of your operating philosophy and within your core values.
  4. The Hero Complex: This refers to the notion that one person — such as a Chief Diversity Officer or even a diverse hire — can close the DEI gap, and that by appointing them, your DEI work is done. Any meaningful business objective requires input, mindshare, and collaboration beyond one individual. Go beyond “checking the box” with a single hire, and invite the broader organization to participate in achieving DEI objectives that impact the company at large.

Prioritize These Three Elements As Part of Your Diverse Hiring Strategy:

Coates shared three attributes that Breakline looks for when hiring exceptional professionals from a broad range of backgrounds:

  1. Track record of excellence: Insist on measurable evidence of top performance. History can be a predictor of future success.
  2. Gritty growth mindset: Look for examples of resilience in the face of setbacks. Company-building involves interim failures, so seek out prospective employees who exhibit the perspective that you are either winning or learning.
  3. Humanist: Find collaborators, folks who champion their teams. These people are driven to win, and to win alongside their colleagues.

These three traits often underpin healthy, top-performing teams.

How to Retain Diverse Talent

Once you’ve hired diverse talent, work to ensure that everyone feels part of it, on the inside, in the know. View culture as a living, breathing organism that can adjust and evolve to reflect the team as it exists today. Read newcomers into the stories, the jokes, the connective tissue that all organizations rely on to thrive. And regularly highlight contributions and standout performance from employees across the organization.

Additional ways to proactively retain talent involve:

  1. Creating transparency around performance. Establish clear and consistent metrics; report out on them regularly; hold people accountable for achieving these objectives, and base promotions off of these public results. Insisting upon a single standard of excellence goes a long way toward building trust across the organization and producing peak performance.
  2. Leveraging unique expertise and experience. High-trust environments facilitate comprehensive problem-solving. A diverse team that feels invited to participate fully in business decisions will come closer to a 360 degree view of a market. Unleash this value by encouraging input from all, including teammates who come in with a new perspective on a customer segment, a product line, or a sales pitch.
  3. Naming the elephant in the room. Ignoring major cultural events and the impact they may have on your colleagues creates an awkward dynamic for diverse teams. You don’t need to have an answer or a solution. It’s often enough to say, “I saw the news and thought of you right away. How are you?” Choose to come alongside another human being who is feeling something deeply. You do not need to agree on every issue or share every value to acknowledge that you care about their feelings and well-being.

Creating Opportunities for Diversity to Thrive

BreakLine has helped 2,500 women, people of color, people with disabilities, and veterans step into new professional opportunities that are commensurate with their talent, expertise and interest. “Those results are possible because committed organizations come to the table to team up with us to hire people from our community. BreakLiners often set a new standard for performance,” shared Coates. “Their top priority is to jump in, keep pace alongside their new teammates, and contribute in meaningful ways as quickly as possible. We are therefore incredibly proud to partner with Mainsail. Enabling their portfolio companies to hire from this pool of talent is an incredible opportunity for everyone involved.”

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