Successful diversity, equity and inclusion leadership requires the same kinds of leadership skills that make one successful in any corporate leadership role, whether that be operations, finance, marketing or anything else. But it also requires a solid understanding and knowledge of the underlying subject matter. Working in a relatively new area of corporate focus, DEI professionals often rely on academic studies to supplement the limited availability of established real-world experience as they pursue DEI efforts in a corporate setting.
For this feature, we spoke to someone who has a great combination of both real world DEI experience as well as years of academic muscle in the study and science of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Dr. Lusharon Wiley has over two decades of experience as a successful manager and leader in higher education. As Director of Culture at Innisfree Hotels, a Florida-based hotel management, marketing and development company, she has the important job of managing the company’s culture practices and providing expertise and support in the areas of employee relations, employee engagement and retention, diversity and inclusion, performance management and HR compliance.
Perspective, Frames and Lenses
One of the challenges so many organizations face when it comes to their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts is that they’re bound by the implicit biases and traditional ways of viewing the world that have caused the very workplace disparities and lack of diversity they’re trying to address. It’s difficult for companies—like people—to recognize their own distorted perspectives and appreciate that how they frame conversations around DEI as well as the lenses they look through need to be critically evaluated. This is why so many companies look externally for their DEI executive leaders.
Dr. Wiley experienced the challenges of distorted perspectives and framing firsthand at an early point in her career. “My first professional job was in economic services where I determined applicants’ eligibility for state public assistance,” she explains. “It struck me that many of the employees seemed to have an attitude of superiority toward the customers we served. I remember thinking that we are not ‘better than’; it’s simply that our fates, our lives were being lived out differently. This greater than, less than dichotomy continued to be a focus for me as I moved to different jobs and communities across America.”
Wiley says that it was during her employment in higher education that her focus on diversity and inclusion became clearer. “I wanted to help ensure that students had the opportunity to explore and appreciate differences while providing a platform for discourse about topics that are often avoided or not authentically discussed,” she says. “It was important for students to know that all people matter and that not feeling valued hurts.”
Tackling Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education
Institutions of higher education, like all long-standing institutions, are steeped in tradition, customs and habits. But even this seemingly liberal environment, so accustomed to the impacts of change and the value of diverse thoughts and viewpoints, can struggle to adequately foster strong DEI.
During her time working in higher education, Dr. Wiley sought to promote DEI by creating structure and organizational networks, features that could become part of the institution itself. “As I continued to pursue the path of inclusion and diversity, I started programs at my university that provided students with opportunities for campus and community involvement,” she explains. “In addition to my assigned job, I carved out an area on inclusion that would eventually become Inclusion Services. In that environment, I started a group called Common Ground.” The group’s purpose, she says, “was to train students and staff to appreciate differences while providing them the skills needed to train others.”
In addition to Common Ground, Wiley started a series called Inclusion Spotlight. “This initiative focused on diverse people in our community whose jobs or experiences were unusual,” she says. “These discussions with people in our neighborhood helped to expand the worldview of students and faculty alike and added to our understanding of others.”
The success of her higher education initiatives, along with a doctorate in Diversity Studies, prompted Wiley to want to do more—and to know more. “I became more active in my community; my worldview was expanding,” she says. “When the position of Director of Culture became available at Innisfree Hotels, it seemed a natural place for me. Who knew there was a company in my community with a focus on inclusion, diversity and equity? I applied for the position and, to my good fortune, was hired.”
Building on a Strong Foundation
Dr. Wiley was fortunate to engage with a company that already had a solid foundation to build upon. “There was a wonderful person already working with Innisfree by the name of Jack Guillebeaux,” she says. “He and company owner and founder, Julian MacQueen, already had in place the foundation for the Innisfree culture. There were culture tools, the Cooperative Mode, and training on diversity and inclusion, called Genesis. Building upon this foundation, implementing an onboarding process and providing need-specific group facilitation, while focusing on equity and accessibility, are some areas that are being expanded to ensure that the Innisfree culture is consistently reinforced and sustained.”
Inclusion through Sharing
Inclusion can’t truly work unless those the organization is seeking to include feel comfortable sharing who they are. Dr. Wiley says the goal at Innisfree Hotels is to make every team member feel valued, accepted and respected. “It is not enough for team members to be at the table,” she explains, “they must feel that the dish they bring to the table will be tasted—even if the dish is not the usual fare. All too often, people with great talent leave a company because they feel excluded and unheard.”
One of the tools Innisfree Hotels utilizes is inviting and embracing non-conventional thinking. Deep diving into conversations that may become intense requires a mindset that is ready to embrace change even amid the “messiness” that it might take to get to the next level. “It is often in this place of discomfort and ambiguity that creativity can flourish,” Dr. Wiley explains. “We recognize that varying viewpoints and perspectives can result in something that is transformational for the company.”
One of the many tools Innisfree uses to foster this culture of sharing and inclusiveness is the “check-in,” which provides each team member the opportunity to share what’s on their minds and how they are doing. “During this sacred time of sharing, team members might share their concerns about a child who is ill, an upcoming graduation or a fun experience,” Wiley explains. “This is a time where we stop to say – YOU matter and we want to know how you are doing.”
Another tool Wiley and Innisfree rely on is their Genesis training, which includes their Cooperative Mode tools and is provided to all team members, focuses on how to have tough conversations, how to foster and sustain an inclusive work environment, barriers to communication in the workplace, implicit bias and other topics. “These times of intense conversation are key to understanding others’ traditions, experiences and perspectives,” Wiley says. “In these shared moments, community is built. Ongoing training is key to sustaining a culture of inclusion.”
Diversity, equity and inclusion—when applied in the corporate world—necessarily rely on business concepts to pursue business goals. At the same time, the relative newness of this business function means that academic research and tools can provide a useful supplement to a relative dearth of collective real-world experience.
Fortunately for Dr. Wiley—and Innisfree Hotels—she comes to the table with a solid background in both academia and real-world experience.