A successful diversity and inclusion effort requires individuals throughout the organization to take personal accountability. That means a long-term investment from the C-suite, intentional efforts from division heads, and a commitment to mentoring and allyship from colleagues, said Leroy Nunery II, founder and principal of strategic advisory firm PlūsUltré LLC, and Susan Johnson, chief diversity and inclusion officer at The Hartford, during their panel at the IICF Inclusion in Insurance Conference in October.

The pair shared findings from a joint LinkedIn study they conducted over the summer, in which they leveraged their networks to analyze the question: “Why aren’t there more Black professionals in leadership roles in the insurance industry?

Among other insights, Johnson and Nunery learned that many people view diversity and inclusion as buzzwords or a current fad rather than a genuine organizational effort. Worse, some respondents felt as though white women had seen more progress from D&I than either Black or Latino professionals.

To convince those doubters, companies need to make their commitment to D&I “real and intentional,” Johnson said. And now is the perfect time, she noted, “because so many people have had so many significant ‘ahas’ and are thinking about this differently” after the killing of George Floyd sparked global protests against systemic racism and a renewed dedication to changing the status quo. She said it’s time to “take that will and translate it into actual actions.”

The first step is commitment from the C-suite, Nunery said, adding that “the key word here beyond prioritization is investment. This is not something…you can solve for in a few days; it’s not a quarter by quarter thing. This has got to be in an institution’s understanding that resources, time, energy, money, people have to be dedicated to make this work. That if something goes wrong—and it will, there’ll be something that doesn’t happen properly—that it’s not time to just jettison the whole thing…”

“We’ve got to turn diversity, equity and inclusion from a corporate social responsibility into a personal accountability,” Nunery said. “We’ve got to hold managers and leaders inside organizations up to the same standard we do for any other aspect of their business—compliance, regulations, but more importantly because it’s good for the business.”

However, he noted that the “problem with diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, if you throw that in, is that this is a very personal issue. It depends on how you were brought up. This is not about putting a paper cup in the right bin. This is about how you treat another human being.”

CEOs can make great pronouncements about company values and the importance of diversity and inclusion, but the actual implementation of D&I programs is in the hands of division and department heads, Nunery said. “They’ve got to be the ones to carry on, and they’ve got to be held accountable for their ability to make it happen.”

D&I needs to be embedded into both the hiring process (how talent is identified and selected) and performance evaluations (how companies are “measuring performance based on promotions and upward mobility of those folks who are underrepresented”), he said.

“It’s not just bringing me in,” Nunery added. “It’s also, give me an opportunity to show what I can do…If there’s a mistake or something happens that doesn’t go as well as planned, am I one and done, or is there an opportunity to learn from that and to grow from it, like my majority counterparts might get?”

The co-panelists said the push for D&I has to go beyond the C-suite and even middle management. Individuals throughout the organization have a role to play, they noted, mentioning mentoring and allyship, in particular.

It’s hard “if you are underrepresented and there’s not anybody there ahead of you who can pass on the nuances, who can tell you about what the success rate is like and give you a chance to understand how to navigate,” Nunery said. “So, without that exposure, and certainly without sponsorship—somebody who’s seen you or can help guide you along and give you opportunity—it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of your turnover.”

He added that for much of his work life he’s been “the other…one of a handful, maybe the only…All of a sudden this allyship conversation comes up. Now people aren’t sure what to say when they see somebody brutally murdered right in front of them on screen played over and over and over again.”

Nunery said that people saying “I’m sorry” means nothing to him. “What I want to hear from them is, ‘Here’s what I’m prepared to do. I’m prepared to not just march and protest, but to make sure that in my workplace, if I see something that is not right, if I see practices that are obviously indecent if not just unfair, that I’m going to speak up, even at the risk of losing my job, even at the risk of impairing my career.’…It can’t just be a sense that you get to cheerlead or not or by stand or not.”

Johnson also emphasized the importance of building a workplace culture that embraces diversity, equity and inclusion. We need to create “work environments where real conversations can take place, and different perspectives are valued and welcomed, acknowledging truths and really having conversations about it in a safe environment,” she said.