A call to action for all DE&I leaders

RAPP's Nicole Simpson shares a “must-do" checklist for success

When George Floyd was murdered, I felt something inside me break open. I looked at my three beautiful Black children and knew that I would have to explain to them sooner than I’d like to that there are people in the world who will view them as a threat because of the colour of their skin.

I also knew that I had a responsibility to them to try to make a difference in any way I could. Now, two years later, that has morphed into me finding my voice and understanding the impact I could have from my front line – corporate America.  

I saw the change my father was able to create 30 years previously at Johnson & Johnson through his creation of a pipeline that recruited Black talent from HBCUs and set them on a clear path to growth and development. Through that programme, his legacy has lived on long past his death twenty years ago, and it struck me that I, too, had the opportunity to begin to create a legacy of my own.

I’ve been on an exploratory journey for the past couple of years to figure out what it takes to be truly impactful as a DE&I leader today. A leader that’s not just performatively taking action, but someone that’s behind sweeping and progressive change.

Too often, DE&I work is relegated to a “nice-to-have” function rather than a “must-have” business function. If companies are truly going to make strides toward equity for all, the voices leading that charge must be armed with a pretty powerful toolkit.

After countless conversations with DE&I leaders in advertising and marketing, leaders from various industries, and hearing directly from BIPOC talent about their needs, I’ve pieced together a few “must-do’s” to make real progress in the ad industry and beyond: a checklist for the next wave of DE&I leaders. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but a good starting place.

Be vulnerable

As a DE&I practitioner, you’re a leader, trailblazer, therapist and catalyst for change. It’s your job to help your organisation on a journey toward real equity and inclusivity. You must lay yourself bare to get others to trust and believe in you.

I’m not advocating for you to abandon all of your boundaries, overshare or put yourself at personal risk; however, I frequently share pieces of my journey in the hopes that something will resonate and allow others to see themselves reflected in me. Our humanity is what connects us all. Showing vulnerability will make room for mutual understanding and healing.

Be brave

It can be scary to be the voice calling for change. It’s vital for you to create a support system which will give you the strength to continue to fight. I frequently mention my network of incredible women because having a village behind me allows me to fearlessly blaze ahead. Without that additional strength, I don’t think I would have the capability to speak up as freely as I do. If you are truly advocating for substantive change, that means being comfortable with the uncomfortable. Believe in yourself and keep pushing for what you know is necessary to get the company to the end goal of an equitable organisation.

Be unapologetic

I’ve met with many DE&I practitioners over the last couple of years, and I can say that one of the qualities most have is empathy. Most people who are truly empathetic are also very self-aware. If you mix that with a fear of appearing difficult and trying to make sure other people feel heard, you may have a recipe for someone who does not like to take up too much space. In this seat, you have to take up space. You have to use your voice firmly and frequently. Don’t apologise for taking up room.

Be generous

One of the things I’ve found through this work is that every company is in a different place along its journey to equity. Just as every company has their recipe, there is definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach to this work. Something I think we need to do more as practitioners to share some of our secret sauce.

Share learning and development resources that are really impactful. Share the software that worked for you to review the data holistically. Share the best recruiting techniques your company has implemented to make your workforce more diverse. Share how you got your company to agree to a pay equity review. We are all in this fight together. We need to become more strategic with how we drive systemic change, and I believe presenting a united front will help us get there.

Be selfish

As your company’s DE&I leader, you’re expected to show up during the worst of times and help guide your company through trauma. That is an extraordinarily heavy lift. It’s vital to find ways to keep your cup full. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to step away from the computer because there is always so much work to be done. It becomes never-ending. To save yourself, hold onto those boundaries and practice radical self-care.

For me, that means not getting notifications on my phone from my email or simply allowing myself to do nothing if that’s what my body is calling for. Be selfish about your “me” time so that you can continue to show up in the way you need to.

The key takeaway here is that there is not a one-size fits all approach to this work. It’s important for leaders in this space to find what works for them – and stay authentic to that by any means necessary.

By Nicole Simpson, Director of DE&I at RAPP

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