Melinda Wolfe has seen employers make important strides in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) over the years, but she’s also seen setbacks. And she’s learned that to avoid setbacks and continue progress, employers have to be open to change and make systematic improvements to policies and practices in the workplace.
Wolfe, founder and principal consultant at Melinda B. Wolfe & Associates, held high-level positions, including in DEI roles, at an array of large companies—giants such as Goldman Sachs and American Express among them—before starting her diversity-focused consultancy. But when she started her career in the 1980s after finishing graduate school at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, she hoped to do public policy work.
Economic realities being what they were at the time, that opportunity wasn’t available. So, she ended up in the Wall Street setting, where she later took the opportunity to work in a diversity strategy role. It was supposed to be a 1-year assignment, “but once I turned the corner, I really felt so passionate and excited by the work, that I continued to stay in a ‘people’ related role for the rest of my career,” she says.
“So, I would say that for me, doing work in diversity and inclusion was kind of a coming home to the values that I started with when I embarked on my career but didn’t pursue because of the economic realities of the world at that time. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to circle back and do work that is so meaningful,” Wolfe says.
Early Career Successes
One early success story involves an effort that grew representation of women at the managing director and partner levels at Goldman Sachs. Then came the economic downturn of 2008, and unfortunately, “there was a lot of backpedaling,” not just at her firm but at others, too. When the economy recovered and companies started to build back, “they were coming from behind.”
But even with the setback, “there was a renewed focus and actual continual progress” when the economy recovered, Wolfe says. And that’s a pattern she’s noticed in other booms and busts. Increases in representation of people from diverse backgrounds occur during economic booms and backpedaling is typical when the economy goes down.
How can employers overcome that tendency? “That’s a very significant question that has to do with making major institutional and cultural changes rather than just focusing on representation,” Wolfe says. Many firms have great initiatives focused on DEI but ultimately, it’s the institutional systems and practices that need to be transformed and that is a much more challenging undertaking.
Top Down, Bottom Up, Even ‘Permafrost’
Real transformation comes from both the top down and the bottom up, Wolfe says. Too many DEI strategies don’t take a full and systematic approach to attacking problems in the workplace, she says.
“So, my view is that you have to work with the top leaders and help them to understand the structural constraints in their institutions. They need to transform their thinking, to understand the systematic ways we unintentionally diminish our DEI efforts,” Wolfe says. Those top leaders need to be not just allies in diversity but also advocates of change. “This is tough because oftentimes change threatens the very existence of long- entrenched values that they represent.”
“It’s a big challenge, but very wide-eyed and open company leaders can and are able to do it—we are seeing it,” Wolfe says. At the same time, she says “it’s important to drill down into the organization to understand the needs of employees.”
She says companies need to “bring the bottom to the top and the top to the bottom, so there’s a convergence of awareness and an understanding of the needs of a diverse employee base.” Also, what she calls the “permafrost level” needs to be involved—the middle managers and new managers are critical to addressing change.
Too often, people get promoted to the manager level because they were good at the job they were doing, not because they’re good at managing difficult situations and people who are very different from them, Wolfe says. That’s why she likes to work with new managers to get them the tools they need to better manage their teams with the lens of equity and engagement.
Sponsorship: A Useful Tool
Employers have a number of tools available to promote diversity. Sponsorship is one Wolfe finds especially useful, whereby a senior leader is made responsible for supporting and overseeing the career of an employee.
Sponsorship is more powerful than mentoring, Wolfe says, although mentoring—and reverse mentoring, whereby a lower-level employee helps an executive understand generational and cultural differences—also is beneficial.
“Sponsorship is where a leader puts themself on the line to advance an employee that is showing potential. Having the credibility of a sponsor matters and leads to advocacy on crucial career decisions for an employee in terms of promotion, client assignments, visibility within a company etc. I am a believer that mentoring is important, but sponsorship is essential.”
As important as sponsorship and mentoring are, there are many other elements to be put in place to create equity. Wolfe believes it’s crucial to have “truth tellers”—people who are willing to help shape the judgment and understanding of senior leaders—and that should be composed of a diverse mix of people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community.
Developing and Nurturing Talent
Discovering the pipelines that produce diverse talent is key, she says. “Bottom line, there is really good talent out there and it’s diverse, but it requires more work to identify the best sourcing and unearth talent that is not immediately accessible,” she says.
Pipelines for talent include historically black colleges and universities, as well as associations that focus on certain professions. “During COVID, we are seeing more people who may work in other geographic locations being considered because remote working opens up new possibilities as well.”
“I think right now people are listening differently, looking differently, and trying to figure out how they can widen the net,” Wolfe says. “Employers have been willing to look at people who have backgrounds and experiences that are different, but they need to turn up the volume and put practices to work that root out unconscious bias.”
Finding diverse talent is only a key part of the challenge. But once employers truly commit to changing their hiring practices, they need to make sure their company culture supports inclusion and equity in all aspects of the employee lifecycle.
Mentoring and reverse mentoring, sponsorship, employee resource groups, and unconscious bias training are all important, Wolfe says, but leadership must get behind a systematic review of company practices to determine whether they are truly equitable across the board.
“For me, the most important thing is to have a committed CEO and a leadership team that’s willing to challenge their own values and to do things differently,” Wolfe says. “And ensuring that this is not a ‘flavor of the month’ initiative, but a systematic rooting out of bias in all areas where it may be unintentionally woven into company processes.
Looking to the Future
Wolfe says the field of DEI has come a long way over the past 25 years, but recent events such as the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements “have catapulted the obligations of those with power to better understand and alter the experience of people who have traditionally been out of power.
For change to be meaningful, Wolfe says, there must be a heightened level of commitment and action. Otherwise, transformation will continue to be stunted and progress will continue at a snail’s pace.