Building and Advancing Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

November 5, 2020 Eric Knox

Photo of Todd Corley, Diversity and Inclusion Expert, with BTG Expert Q&A logo

Todd Corley is an accomplished corporate officer, board member, and independent consultant with more than 20 years of experience in culture, equity, employee engagement, and diversity and inclusion.

Throughout his executive career, Todd has provided strategic counsel to business unit leaders on how to reach under-served communities and interpret cultural patterns across the United States, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East, while holding C-suite leadership positions with OhioHealth, Abercrombie & Fitch, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and The TAPO Institute.

He is also the author of two books and a recipient of the Claes Nobel “World Betterment” award, in recognition of his diversity leadership and ability to engage individuals in building strong corporate social responsibility platforms that promote societal change.

In this episode of the BTG Insights on Demand podcast, he joins BTG Talent Solutions Principal Elaine Leff to discuss his unique experience in building and advancing diversity and inclusion initiatives for leading companies. Listen to the episode to hear Todd share his advice on how organizations can implement transformational change that improves the well-being of all people, or read our lightly edited transcript of the chat below.

Elaine Leff:

Welcome to the podcast, Todd. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Todd Corley:

Elaine, thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be with you.

Elaine Leff:

As you know, diversity and inclusion is obviously one of the most important, if not the most important, issue that corporate leaders are facing today. Although many companies have long touted a commitment to equality and representation, frequently the talk has been backed up with few concrete actions. To help our audience get a better understanding of the topic and the steps that are needed to address some of the challenges today, it would be helpful to get your opinion on what diversity and inclusion means to you—and even more generally in business today.

Todd Corley:

For me it means that there's a conversation around how to represent different points of view and life experiences. It's important to have a system of how you value those differences and make them feel like they belong. I think that companies who are engaged in the work, hopefully have gotten better with defining it, which again is the basic thing to do. But I think that there are some, in more recent months, who have struggled to see if they've actually really come to grips with what it really means for the full meaning of it. Meaning, not only are their differences represented and that you value those differences, but those people feel included in an organization. And that could be a nonprofit, it could be a for-profit, could be large or small. So for me, diversity and inclusion is just really that simple thought of, how do the people that look and feel different, and how do they belong and how they feel included in an organization? Do they feel welcomed? That's probably how I would define it.

Elaine Leff:

So how does this definition and how you think about it today compare to a year ago, or two years ago, or even 10 years ago? You're well known for being Abercrombie and Fitch's first-ever global executive in charge of diversity and inclusion, and I know you were really instrumental in the landmark discrimination case there while at Abercrombie. Ultimately you helped elevate the brand as the number one specialty retail brand among African-American youth. What concerns were top of mind then and how have things changed?

Todd Corley:

I think what was top of mind then are some of the things that actually are top of mind now, and that is how do you deal with issues of privilege? How do you deal with issues of building community when the community isn't as racially diverse as it could be? Fast forward to now and there's still that same discussion about how do you build community among people who are different? How do you bake it into a process that allows people to feel that they can be their entire selves?

What I think was the most exciting thing about that experience though—and it’s one that I would completely do all over again because it was meaningful in many ways—is that it was a coming of age of a generational shift in values. Back then when I took that role, which was in the early 2000s, Facebook was a year old, Twitter was about a year and a half away, and millennials were the wave of a generation coming into the workplace for the first time in record number. So they were approaching this notion of diversity, equity, and inclusion—we didn't use equity back then, but I throw it in now to modernize that conversation. But they were looking at it from their lens of, how do you look at this work from the perspective of optimism? How do you focus on transparency? And how do you have a conversation on this work with an authentic voice?

When I look back at the work then, that was only becoming a conversation. I think now there is less margin for error to focus on that because the generation of now, even the generation that has come of age since millennials, wants that without an option. It's no longer nice to have—it's a must and it's an expectation. So I think where the work is different from that time until now is a sense of urgency. And that was even made more apparent when George Floyd was murdered. When all those events start to add on to someone's experience, they become more agitated, more focused, and more passionate about creating change. That's really where the work is different. It's that it is sped up, and that people are really looking for solutions today and immediately.

[In the past, companies] were approaching this notion of diversity, equity, and inclusion...from their lens of, how do you look at this work from the perspective of optimism?...When I look back at the work then, that was only becoming a conversation. I think now there is less margin for error to focus on that because the generation of now...wants that without an option. It's no longer nice to have—it's a must and it's an expectation.

Elaine Leff:

So, in your work as an independent consultant, you've seen a lot of companies grapple with these issues, especially in the last several months. From what you've noticed across different client engagements, what are some of the major issues within diversity and inclusion that organizations are currently facing in this new environment?

Todd Corley:

I think the biggest thing that companies are struggling with is to have an approach where the work is aligned with the business. What I mean by that is, it's okay to do the work and have a training class, or form a business resource group form, or have a sexy marketing campaign. But what is more important, and what is more at issue is, is the work aligned with where the company is going and who the company wants to be?

So what I tell my clients in every engagement is, "As much as I can support you on having the right language and the right mix of training classes, what I'm really trying to focus on is culture change.” And thinking about if the business is trying to be in certain markets in the next three to five years, or having a release of products across different demographic groups—and any other thing that might be important for the business—then the work around DEI should be in parallel with that. Meaning, we should find milestones that highlight and accentuate what the diversity and inclusion initiative is going to look and feel like and produce, alongside where the business is headed.

You should not be thinking about this as work that is added on. Rather, it’s work that is a part of and woven into what the company is trying to do, and how the company is trying to survive, and how the company is trying to grow their product, or their brand, or their presence, or their marketing campaign. That is what I'm finding my clients struggle with because that's a hard reach when you're either: one, reinventing the work. Or two, starting from scratch. And three, this is the first time many of my current clients are really listening to their employees. So if you haven't listened to your employees for so long or ever, especially on issues around race or ethnicity, you're one, trying to catch up to that conversation. Two, you're trying to now lift up an initiative around DEI. And three, you're trying to do that and attach it to what the business is about.

So you can pick an industry at random and I can tell you where the holes are. E.g., for a healthcare provider, you should be thinking about how the customer or the patient experience looks and feels if a patient is in a room where they're paying cash or they have top insurance versus a patient who might be brought in at 3:00 AM from a gunshot wound. The visual of who those people are is different from many people. So because it is, we tend to think that we should treat the patient differently. The truth of the matter is the brand, the hospital, what they stand for is probably top patient care for everybody. So we should be auditing the experience of the patient when he or she is brought in, no matter how they're brought in, what socio-economic background they come out of, and where they’ve grown up.

That to me is the alignment of strategy for a business purpose with a D&I initiative that is completely aligned and supportive of where the company, in this case the hospital, wants to go. Those examples exist for any industry. You just have to figure out what you're trying to measure to make the work, work.

You should not be thinking about this as work that is added on. Rather, it’s work that is a part of and woven into what the company is trying to do...and how the company is trying to grow.

Elaine Leff:

That's helpful. Thank you. How can companies really start to address these issues? Meaning, they've acknowledged the issue, and as you mentioned, for the first time ever some companies are now really listening to their employees, but what's the next step? How do they really get started? What are some of the potential solutions that you would recommend to address some of these issues?

Todd Corley:

After you do some recognition and some acknowledgement, I think you have to—in human resources—think about how do you establish an office inside the organization that's going to focus on it? How do you build a strategy that brings in a senior leadership team and other stakeholders inside an organization to think about how this is going to work with the supply chain or the recruiting strategy and start to kick out things that matter? If those things are heavy lifts, then maybe you say, "Okay. Well, we want to look at our performance review process. Is our performance review process one in which we ask the right questions and audit the behavior of a manager?"

What I mean by that is, are you looking at how a manager might have a history of promoting talent? That talent could be any number of things, but in particular, let's say women or people of color. If you can't find that there's a track record of that in the management rank, then you've got to figure out, "Well, why is that not happening?" Maybe what you have to do—and some of these are steps that you have to start backing into—maybe you have to say, "Well, we need to perhaps do some unconscious bias training for those who are managers of, let's say five or more people, so that we can get a better sense of if they're going into their performance review processes with some biases.” Because oftentimes we don't account for that, and we hope that the management just gets it right when they're selecting who's going to do an assignment, who's going to be on an engagement team, or whatever it may be. You have to start to put in place things that are going to change behavior, things that are going to keep people accountable for the behavior that you now want, and remind them about why you want it.

In essence, it's building an accountability framework that will guide your work. So for those who are out there listening in, whatever size of organization you represent, you can think about—let's say in February, you're going to kick off your performance review process. Before that you want to make sure you're training your managers so that they have a better sense of how to approach decisions that are not with bias, but that are ones that recognize the diversity of their team. And then you take them through that process so that when it comes time to do some talent calibration and pick and choose how you slot folks based on what you think they can contribute to the goal of the organization, you have a better mix of people who are now representing you. You have educated yourself a bit more about how are you going to do that, because you're recognizing that some of the things that you hold as a bias might interfere with your objectivity around picking talent.

One thing that I often do is asking people to do a simple exercise. If you took a sheet of paper in front of you and you said, "From 1 to 10, who do you trust?" and you list those names. Then you take your piece of paper, you open it up, and you look at a column next to it and say: Race, Gender, Ethnicity—any characteristic you want to come up with—and try to figure out if all those people that you just listed look the same. Oftentimes they do and because they do, then you're telling yourself, "Okay, I've got to figure out how to create more trust and relationships with people who don't look like me. Because if I don't then I'm going to keep doing the same thing all over again."

You can tackle this work in many different ways, starting with some acknowledgement though of who you are, where you are, and owning anything that you can fix. If you don't do that, then you're telling yourself things that you just want to hear and not telling yourself the hard truth about what you can do better at.

Elaine Leff:

That's a great exercise. I think that’s probably very insightful for people, and it sounds like trust is really important here, as you mentioned. That's really helpful to really understand those examples. Is there any sort of strategic approach that you've found to be more effective than others in these situations where people are really focused on these diversity and inclusion issues?

Todd Corley:

For me, and I credit this to a time that I spent at Towers Perrin years ago—which I think is now a different firm after a few mergers—the thought of approaching this work from a change management perspective is how I've always looked at it. And what I mean by that is, you have to change a number of things to make this work stick. So as much as you might want to change a policy or procedure, which is certainly recommended, you also have to think about how do you change leadership profiles? How do you get more employees to be engaged? You have to think about how do you change the training programs and your measurement metrics? You have to change things.

If you're not looking at this work as a change process, you're probably going to find yourself having the same problems occur year over year. Because when you look at it from a change lens, you look at it with the lens of making sure that one thing over here is changing, and that means the one thing over there that didn't change will change eventually, and the other thing that you have to tackle down the road can change eventually, and then actually work because other things that you tweaked have also changed.

For example, at Abercrombie & Fitch what worked well was looking at how do we change how we hire? And that didn't just mean having an interview with different people, but it also meant how do you audit the shopping experience? Because in the store, at that time, we recruited from the floor heavily. So recruiting from the floor meant, for me as D&I person, that I need to now audit how people walk in as a customer based on their race and ethnicity, because if they're having a good experience, they're likely to stay. If they stay then I could probably hire more people of color, because they’re now there in front of me. Oh, and by the way, that also helps the business because they're probably buying more product.

When you think about the change perspective, you have to change all the things that can be a lever to move an organization from where it is to where it wants to be. No different than a current client that I have in the publishing space where you think about: who are the editors, how do we hire, how do we create a community, and how do we tie back to a rich history of a mission that's always been focused on this work in their own way and create alignment?

So when you can do that and you make those changes, then all those changes eventually line up and they give you the result that you want, which is a better place, a place that you feel like you belong. So the examples are many but change management for me is probably the lens. I'm even doing it for an organization that is in what I'll call the Behavioral Health space, where it's about making sure that families are taken care of, and some of these families are black and brown. But you have to think about who the clinician is, how we're supporting them in the community, what kind of policies we have to support them in terms of resources, who the leaders are that go out and talk to the families, how do you deal with that in COVID when you maybe can't react or interact with them directly because they might not have some of the technology resources at home where they could do a Zoom session.

So you have to think about all the things you have to touch, tweak, and edit to make the change you're trying to create work. And again, to me, change management is the thing that can be done and applied across any industry. I mean, I’ve even done it with churches. It doesn't really matter who the industry is or the client. It just matters that they're on board with that approach, in my mind, as a best practice.

If you're not looking at this work as a change process, you're probably going to find yourself having the same problems occur year over year.

Elaine Leff:

Where does that change come from within the organization? Is that in human resources? Is that at the C-level?

Todd Corley:

I think it can start any number of places. Ideally though it should start at the C-suite. It should start with the senior most executive who in his or her own case has figured out, "This is a big deal and I'm behind it." It should be connected to HR, it should be connected to talent, it should be connected to marketing, but I think it has to start with the senior leader. But in many cases, it's starting with employee populations who are raising their voices loudly, and although I may get the call from the senior leader in the organization, they're really calling me because there was an uprising within the associates who were like, "No more." But I think it has to start with the senior team to really put their arms around it, to put resources around it, and to dedicate a team.

One client in particular who I think has been amazing, their senior leader is on every call that I'm on. If they're not present, it's because they're not scheduled to be on it. To me, that's one of the best situations that I can be in, because seeing him learn and respond and engage with younger associates, who are probably in their 20s and 30s, on a regular basis, just shows you the level of commitment—which is what you want to have.

So if I had my choice, I'd want to start directly with that senior most leader in an organization so that I know where we're going, because here's what can happen over time: a company can develop fatigue in this space where they're like, "I've done enough. I'm already brown enough. I have enough women. We've got a few of these other groups and that thing is happening. Oh, we're also bilingual on our marketing so I've checked a lot of boxes." You don't need that fatigue to set in, because the work evolves all the time, and it only becomes more and more complicated as the world around us begins to look very different. As well as the value shift of generational cohorts who want more and more things with less and less of an ask, as opposed to it just happening because it's supposed to. So to answer the question, I think you want to make sure it's starting with the senior most leader in an organization and that there are then resources dedicated to this to make it move forward and stick.

Elaine Leff:

Oh, great. I think that's right, and I think it's great in your client example that you had the senior leadership support in all of those meetings. And the fatigue is really interesting as well, that sometimes people can get a bit complacent that they think they have certain groups, enough of them. So I think it is good for companies to be mindful to not allow that fatigue to set in.

Are there any other observations that you could share—perhaps from recent engagements that you've been involved with—that may be helpful for our audience as they work through their diversity and inclusion issues within their own organization?

Todd Corley:

Yeah. I think people need to know now that the sense of urgency around the work has never been as high and that there are many people who are wanting to be a part of it. I think what I would caution folks to think through is, don't approach this work by asking folks—I'll use me—who look like me, a black male, wanting to get all the answers from me. Because what has happened is that there's a level of burden that I'm feeling now—and let's say I'm not Todd who’s leading the work, but I'm Todd who’s an associate inside the organization—but I'm now being asked to carry the weight, the burden of explaining everything to people who may not have had my experience before as black or brown.

So one of the observations is, you've got to start to figure out how do you teach yourself and support people who you probably have wondered what their life experience is like and don't know because you've not lived it, but you saw it unfold for you when you watched George Floyd die in front of us—and make sure that you're taking along some of that work yourself. So that's probably what I would say is one of my biggest observations. I think there's been an enormous amount of outreach and inquiry and curiosity, which I love, but I think it's happening at a rate where people are feeling—again, people black and brown in particular—are feeling overburdened about having to explain everything. So I would say that's one observation that I would say that we should probably be mindful of.

I would also say, having the ability to practice civility, I think, is a lost art, unfortunately. Until we can have civil conversations and clean dialogue with each other—it doesn't mean that we all expect to agree, but we should expect that it's okay to disagree. And until we get to that point, one of the things that I've been observing is that there are people who have walked away angry from a conversation or don't want to walk into one because they don't believe in the way that other person thinks because they voted for the other candidate, for example. Those are the things that as I observe, we have to be mindful of. One, not trying to overburden a group or a community about what they're going through. Have more empathy about what it is and try to live through their experience, even though you're not them.

And that can mean anybody. It can mean a man trying to burden a woman to explain things when he should just, as a man, understand it and try to figure it out. Or you as a straight employee for somebody who's LGBTQIA+, again, not to burden that person, but for you to figure out what it is that they're dealing with and thinking about. And then practicing a more civil dialogue around things that we disagree on in this work, because there's so much of it to go around. Until we practice that level of civility, we're going to have these very tense conversations, leave a lot of people angry, and create division that we're trying to close.

You've got to start to figure out how do you teach yourself...and make sure that you're taking along some of that work yourself.

Elaine Leff:

Yeah, I agree. I think that practicing civility right now is very timely and important given the world we're living in now. So, shifting gears a bit and kind of a fun question here, thinking back on your career and all of your vast experience in diversity and inclusion, I'm wondering if you could speak to a younger version of yourself from say 10 to 15 years ago, what would you tell yourself that would matter now?

Todd Corley:

I think what I would tell myself is to master one or more languages other than English, because it matters now when you can speak and communicate in something other than what you're naturally born with—and in my case that’s English. So as I think about the circles that I'm in, the relationships that I have, I would love, love, love, love, love to say that I'm trilingual.

I would tell myself, the younger myself, "Spend that time doing that because even if you only use it conversationally, at least it brings you into a different perspective of what somebody else is going through because you can travel discreetly inside of an experience that is not yours every day." That's what I would tell myself, because what's clear now is many people who are born outside the U.S. and live here now are multi-lingual, and they're the envy of me because I think about what that must be like. Now there's also a burden when somebody is thinking about, "Well, does somebody think that I'm an immigrant or that I'm illegal?" All those sorts of things that are nonsense but real. So I would tell myself years ago to practice in a way that you can pick up something different to learn, to speak another language so that you can communicate across culture.

Elaine Leff:

Wow, interesting. Okay. Wow. I think that in the last 10 to 15 years as the world has become more global, I think languages have become more important, so that's great. And then last question here—another fun question—what is one thing that you could share with me about yourself that is not in your resume?

Todd Corley:

One thing that's not on my resume, which I guess now will be on a podcast for everybody, is that I spend nights sometimes moving furniture around the room—only because I'm trying to figure out a different way for it to sit, but then find a way for me to sit differently in the room where I think all the time, so that I can think differently because I'm looking out a different window. I kid you not. This typically kicks in like after a late night of ESPN or something else and I'm thinking, "Okay, let's move this over here. Let's move that over there. What about that? Oh, more artwork. Oh, I haven't used this artwork in a long time! I'll put it on the wall now." So I do a lot of that. In fact, I just re-did our basement and my wife actually gave me thumbs up. So I was kind of happy about that one—that was an accident. But it gives me different places to sit and think, and that's always refreshing. That's not on my resume.

Elaine Leff:

That is great Todd. And you know, that plays really well with your thinking around the change lens. Right? Always moving around and seeing different perspectives and being able to see the room in different ways, so I love that. That's great.

Well thank you so much for talking with us today, Todd. My guest is Todd Corley, an independent consultant and expert on diversity and inclusion, culture and equity, and I'm Elaine Leff for the BTG Insights on Demand podcast. In upcoming episodes, we'll be talking with other experts about how independent on-demand talent can help companies tackle their most pressing business issues. Please subscribe for these insights and more wherever you get your podcasts or visit if you'd like to start a project with Todd Corley or one of our other independent on-demand experts.

Thank you for listening.

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