Companies have been discussing the importance of diversity and inclusion for years, but now it’s time to take action—to make real, observable, measurable and sustainable progress. That starts with running your D&I program “as a business strategy, just like every other strategy that a business or an association undertakes,” said Harriet Dominique, chief diversity, equity, inclusion and corporate responsibility officer for USAA.

Dominique, who spoke to a virtual audience during IICF’s Inclusion in Insurance Conference in June, said that sometimes D&I is thought of as “the right thing to believe in, a moral imperative or a nice to have, but I’m learning on my journey that it has to be interwoven into everything the association does if it is truly going to yield and realize the maximum benefits…[And] like all business imperatives, every single employee and every single leader must be central and connected to it.”

“Something I’ve seen many times for these programs [is that] the majority is not at the table for whatever reason. And when I say majority, I’m going to talk about the white males that lead our corporations” Dominique said. But they need to be there, she stressed, noting that D&I, like all business imperatives, “must be led by, bought into and prioritized by all—not just the group that is focused on. So that’s the one non-negotiable from my perspective.”

Kennedy Ihezie, senior director of global diversity, equity and inclusion at American International Group (AIG), agreed that “the diversity goal needs to be seen firsthand as a business imperative…You need to tie the achievements of these goals to leadership, compensation and bonuses. If it’s critical to your organization as a business imperative, you ought to measure it and also provide an incentive for that to happen.”

But Ihezie said that, for him, the No. 1 non-negotiable is inclusive leadership. “There’s nothing more powerful than leaders who are inclusive, because the cost to the organization when people experience exclusion is quite high. It’s one that companies can ill afford,” he said.

Why Diversity Matters to Me

“I started entry-level on the phones in the call center at USAA 32 years ago. And when I started, my dream was to retire one day, maybe being a front-line supervisor in that call center. And my role—entry-level to senior leader—I want this to be the rule, not the exception. And I want to play a role in making D&I a reality for corporate America and our nation at large.” — Harriet Dominique, USAA

“As a Black male in corporate America, I see every day the pain that is in the Black community. I see every day the extraordinary exclusion that Black women face in corporate America. Forty-six percent of Black male MBAs leave the corporate world by age 40. I’m here to ensure that this idea of human flourishing becomes real and becomes attainable for many across the globe in the workplace and that organizations truly become a reflection of the marketplace.” — Kennedy Ihezie, AIG

“I’ve been on teams where everybody comes from the same geography as myself or has a very similar working style. We haven’t arrived at the best ideas. We may have made decisions quickly, but they weren’t the best. And so, with life experience, the more that I’ve had to go outside my comfort zone and learn and be informed and then see how that learning helps me be better, it’s just energized me…to strive to do that more.” — Trevor Gandy, Markel

Think of retention numbers, Ihezie said. “We know that when employees feel that they cannot have conversations about what they experience outside the workplace and they feel muzzled, they are 13 times more likely to be disengaged. They’re more likely to leave your organization in six months. They also are likely to advise their friends or colleagues not to join your organization. So, there are real reputational hits to your bottom line when there is an exclusionary behavior that is taking place in the organization.”

Ihezie said that inclusive leadership needs to become “a key component of your leadership skills framework. That is really how you’re going to ensure that ideas are heard and how you’re going to ensure that there’s a cultural respect in the organization. It’s how you also inoculate your business from risk as well.”

Ihezie believes that it’s really important for leaders to model the kind of behavior they want to see. “The bar is really low here. If you look at the behaviors of inclusive leaders, they’re pretty practical; they’re really simple. It’s things like ensure everyone gets heard. They’re things like making it safe to take risks. They’re things like taking feedback and implementing it. We found that when leaders do these three things, it actually unleashes innovation of teams, it actually drives engagement and, quite honestly, we see people begin to bring their full selves to the workplace.”

Trevor Gandy, managing director of talent, diversity and inclusion at Markel Corporation, also stressed the importance of inclusive leadership. “If we have leaders who are demonstrating inclusive leadership—they’re not only supporting D&I activities; they’re directly involved and they’re encouraging staff—we need to recognize and reward that. That needs to be the definition of good leadership…Because I do think when leaders understand that this is a priority, this can actually affect team performance…[and] help you understand the markets in which you’re looking to grow your business, there’s then a natural inclination of, ‘Well, I want that.'”

We also need to engage everyone throughout the company in the D&I discussion—to inform and educate them, Gandy said. People need to “understand that not everybody realizes or experiences an organization the same way. I’ve worked in the past on doing pulse surveys, asking four simple questions and how people feel in terms of being valued, connected, trusted and informed.” He noted that education will help grow advocates.

Another important step is breaking down your processes, Gandy said. “Your current processes actually are facilitating your current state in your organization.” Look at your communication process, he said. “You really don’t have a speak-up culture if somebody would be reprimanded for sending the CEO a note. If your desire is to hire the best talent available, what’s your process to actually go and source talent?” Who decides what qualifies as high-performing, high-potential talent? What skills and leadership traits are considered critical?

Companies also need to look at diversity metrics, Ihezie added. “I don’t mean the garden variety statistics and the EEO-1 representation data [demographic workforce data on race/ethnicity, sex and job categories, etc.] that companies that are publicly traded have to report on. I’m thinking about data that really allows you to see the trends and the relationship of what’s happened in your workforce…You need to understand the experiences of your employees,” he said, such as what it’s like to be a woman or Black, etc. “What are the ways that you can assure that people have received pathways to leadership within your organization? The diversity metrics analysis allows you to see just that. You see the talent velocity. Is one group experiencing this more than the other? Are we promoting one group over the other? Are our talent systems, our processes, our protocols penalizing one group more than the other?”