Author Talks: Netta Jenkins asks, ‘Is there a seat at the table?’

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Emily Adeyanju chats with Netta Jenkins, CEO of Aerodei, about her new book, The Inclusive Organization: Real Solutions, Impactful Change, and Meaningful Diversity (Wiley, June 2023). Jenkins shares insights on challenges inherent in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) landscape and what it will take to solve them. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

I wanted to write this book because many people still do not understand what it means to create and foster an inclusive organization. I learned through research that, on average, companies spend $8 billion per year on inclusion training, and that roughly 95 percent of employees still don’t know how to drive inclusive efforts for organizational growth. Organizations are concerned about employee engagement because it directly impacts retention. In fact, for each employee lost to attrition, the cost to the company could be 50 to 250 percent of their annual salary.

Five percent of employees say, “Well, I’m doing all the work to drive inclusive efforts in my organization, but I’m not even being recognized for my efforts.” That 5 percent comprises DEI leaders, HR professionals, and employee resource group enthusiasts. But the majority of employees say, “Well, I still don’t know what to do and how to drive inclusive efforts.” If employers are saying, “Despite all the money we spend, only 5 percent of our employees are actively engaged,” how do we move the needle with everyone?

That’s what prompted me to write this book. How do we begin to move the needle with every individual within an organization? What is it going to take to really empower people to see the results of their impact?

This book was written out of this sense of urgency. People are seeking practical, actionable steps they can take to create inclusive environments. At the end of each chapter, I provide exercises for anyone at any level within an organization to drive that measurable impact that is so needed. I was very intentional about not having someone read the book, walk away, and forget. I wanted readers to feel that they’ve taken steps that they can begin implementing in their organizations.

I have been working in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space for 15-plus years. I began this work based on experiences that I had in my early childhood—very traumatic ones. Those experiences, as well as observing how people are excluded in daily life, led to my desire to drive impact, unite, and educate people. Those efforts extended into the workplace, which has really enabled me to drive change and to continue empowering others to do the same.

What are some popular misconceptions about DEI?

There are many misconceptions. One popular misconception is that DEI leaders do not need a team or a budget to be successful. That’s the most unspoken misconception. Once an organization decides to hire a DEI leader, it should set a budget that’s comparable to other department budgets, as well as establish a head count this leader will receive. This level of preparation will really set the DEI leader up for success.

One popular misconception is that DEI leaders do not need a team or a budget to be successful. That’s the most unspoken misconception.

Another misconception is that anyone in the organization who is passionate about DEI should be tapped to lead those efforts. Passion alone is not enough to be an effective diversity, equity, and inclusion leader. DEI work really requires a specific skill set that’s developed through field-specific training and experiences. Traits such as creative problem solving, assertiveness, optimism, empathy, and the ability to take strategic risk are crucial within a DEI role. Companies must thoroughly vet DEI candidates to ensure that they have the necessary qualifications and strategies to drive sustainable impact, just as they would for any other leadership position.

Another misconception is that the DEI leader must report to human resources. Of course, it’s important for DEI and HR to have a collaborative working relationship. However, to have direct visibility and support, DEI leaders should report to the COO or the CEO within an organization.

What we know through research is that employees inherently do not trust HR departments, because employees perceive HR as heavily focused on protecting the employer. This is true despite the fact that there are incredible HR professionals driving impact. Since we understand the perception that employees hold, it’s key to have DEI under its own department. That structure provides a safe space for employees to see DEI as an advocacy department.

The other misconception is that DEI is solely about race and gender. DEI solves to remove barriers within organizations, so that everyone within an organization, no matter your background or experience, can equitably elevate.

The other misconception is that DEI is solely about race and gender. DEI solves to remove barriers within organizations, so that everyone within an organization, no matter your background or experience, can equitably elevate.

The last misconception I’ll share is that DEI means hiring a person simply based on their background. People believe that DEI would equip unqualified folks to obtain roles they weren’t capable of attaining otherwise, and would overlook qualified candidates. DEI work is centered around inclusive and transformative leadership that looks beyond the bounds of individual roles and responsibilities. It considers the ways in which each person and team plays a critical role in the company ecosystem.

Describe the tool you use to assess inclusion gaps.

Aerodei is a tool for organizations to utilize because it’s a gamified platform that measures the inclusive contributions of every employee within an organization, as well as employer results. It provides the overarching, high-level DEI key performance indicators [KPIs] that the organization is focused on addressing.

Then it auto-assigns goals to each employee. As a user, you would receive a goal, and under your goal, you would have step-by-step responsibilities regarding the actions that you must take to achieve your goal. Based on your actions, you gain points. But you also get to see in real time how you’re adding value and driving impact for the organization.

If I’m the DEI leader of an organization, I’m able to see how well we are measuring against ourselves year over year. That’s important because organizations often compare themselves to other organizations, which, even if in the same industry, may not have the same dynamics or demographics. There are so many different variables that play into assessments. Using this tool, the organization would be able to see the measurable steps it has taken toward DEI from a KPI perspective and the number of goals it has completed.

If a specific goal was set around retention, the tool would show its impact and the impact to the organization’s bottom line overall. This assessment tool really draws all of those connections that we read about during our research.

What challenges do company surveys present to DEI initiatives, and how can they be mitigated?

Some challenges connected to company surveys as they relate to DEI initiatives pertain to company sample selection. That can be a major challenge. For example, if an organization conducts an annual survey that finds 95 percent of their organization feels satisfied, supported, and respected in the workplace, then its leaders might give themselves a pat on the back.

I remember being that DEI leader who gave myself a pat on the back. However, if the organization has 95 percent of its demographic identifying as part of what’s considered an advantaged population, then the survey would do very little to uncover the experiences of the 5 percent of employees who come from systemically overlooked backgrounds. That 5 percent may have had more negative experiences than their counterparts.

If organizations simply assume that high satisfaction percentages equate to success without really understanding the outliers, then they have a strong chance of forfeiting insight into the actual trends that are occurring with the organization. That could inadvertently perpetuate or even strengthen the inequities that currently exist within the organization. In that case, if the majority of the respondents completing the surveys are satisfied with the company, then the minority respondents’ concerns are not addressed. Even if there’s only 5 percent remaining, their concerns still need to be addressed. Majority satisfaction in a company is not representative, and it does not equate to an effective and inclusive company.

The second challenge presented by company surveys is the lack of actionable steps taken after the survey is conducted. Many employees don’t believe data is used to address legitimate concerns. To assuage that feeling, the organization must update employees on actions and impact. Trust is important, and the impact may not be overnight. But the more employees know about the work that’s being done, the more they can actually contribute when given actionable steps.

The best way for an organization to mitigate this process is to go through a third party. Third-party vendors are able to create a safe space and conduct focus groups, which enable employees to elaborate more on some of the survey points and to provide the full context. The focus groups create a higher level of accuracy, offer psychological safety, and allow people to engage in a safe way.

How did you devise your ‘3P’ DEI framework?

Organizations must put people first, and that was really the empowerment concept behind shaping the three “Ps.” I started to bucket the work I was doing in separate categories to address the major gaps that I saw across the corporate workforce. I wanted to develop DEI initiatives as fully embedded objectives and indicators of company success.

My DEI framework is the three Ps: people, practice, and product. This powerful triad accurately describes the necessary actors that will supplement one another to streamline impactful, long-term results that yield higher employee productivity, performance, employee peace, and organically increase organizational profit. The more inclusion gaps that remain within an organization, the more bias and unproductive dynamics can impact an organization’s bottom line.

Product is critical. In order to create an inclusive organization, we have to embed tools. But there’s no real tool that’s measuring the impact of the output. Companies are measuring this manually, and bias is implemented into that.

Describe the distinction between ‘culture add’ and ‘culture fit.’

I remember the first time I interviewed for a role. At the end of the interview, the hiring manager said to me, “I’m so sorry, you’re just not a cultural fit.” I remember returning home and being very sad. I thought, “I’m not a cultural fit?”

Without specificity, there was so much room for me to perceive what she said in so many different ways, even if she didn’t mean it that way. Because it wasn’t truly defined, I thought, “Well, is it because of my culture? I’m Liberian. Is it because I’m African? What is the culture? What am I missing out on?”

I started to actually question myself, and I had to learn these terms. A “culture add” is someone who may bring qualities or experiences that are not already present on the team, as opposed to the “culture fit”—someone who exemplifies the attributes already on the team. When employers specifically seek culture fits, you may hear statements like, “I wish I could clone this person,” or “I need them to have the same experience and behavior like so and so.” That can lead to homogeneous teams that can perpetuate exclusive practices. Overall, that prevents the team from diversifying and pushing forward in a productive way.

What does it mean to move from allyship to ‘actionship’?

An ally is someone who is still learning and self-educating, but saying, “Yes, I believe in you. I stand with you.” That person is making that verbal commitment. An actionist is saying, “I want to see what the results of my impact will be.” That person is specifically setting the stage to take individual action that will create positive impact.

For example, in a previous position, I shared with my manager that I was looking to move up. She said, “Well, here is what I’m going to do. I’m not only going to make sure that you have the development and the training needed to move up, but I’m going to support you in every way. And I’m going to see that in the next three months, you’re in that position.”

That’s exactly what she did. So, yes, she made that commitment, rather than just saying, “Yeah, I’m here with you.”

Instead, she said, “The goal is for us to get you into this role in the next three months.” And she absolutely did that. Now as an actionist, she can measure the impact. She can replicate that with others as well.

How has your own hidden disability shaped your DEI work?

My hidden disability that has shaped my DEI work is partial deafness in my right ear. It has been a journey. As a child, I relied on a hearing aid.

I have memories of removing it discreetly, feeling fearful of being perceived as different. But the truth is, in environments that are saturated with music and conversations, I miss out on valuable interactions simply because I actually can’t hear.

The fear of continuously asking others to repeat themselves, only to potentially miss their words again, weighs heavily on my mind. This challenge has been constant throughout my life, and it has presented numerous hurdles. However, it has also taught me the hidden experiences that nearly everyone will experience or that we don’t unpack, or that we don’t share. That hinders us in many ways. Knowing that allows me to treat people with love and empathy.

Everyone has a story. At the end of the day, how do we care for one another? How important is it that our colleague, our next-door neighbor, our friend, or someone we may not know still survives, is still able to advance, and doesn’t have to navigate the usual barriers?

How do we remove those barriers? As a leader, when I think through DEI policies, I’m thinking about every aspect of them. There’s even a chapter in my book entitled, “Impactful Layoffs.” That represents me using my hidden disability—thinking through every layer of inclusivity and wanting to tackle this topic. In that chapter, I explain what an organization should do to best support employees. Having this hidden disability empowers me to have a wide range of perspectives on topics and to offer a level of grace. I lend that grace, but as a leader, I make sure to offer the tools that really keep people ignited and doing this work in an actionable but measurable way.

What challenges are inherent in the current DEI landscape?

My background is in behavioral psychology, so I understand human behavior. There is a misconception that DEI is solely based on race and gender, and although these can be components, DEI is much larger than that. So, I’m really hoping that when viewers tune in to this interview, they start to think about DEI on a large scale.

I hope they think about processes and policies. I hope they think about people. I hope they forget about the various backgrounds and experiences of others and just think of one another as human beings. What does life bring? How do we navigate it? When you have colleagues who are caring for an aging parent, what do you do? How do you support them in that situation?

When you have colleagues who can barely put food on the table for their children, and they’re also working paycheck to paycheck, maybe they’re not as productive at work. We have to open our eyes and say, “Well, what’s happening? How do I support that person?” It comes down to a matter of care. Do we actually care about each other as individuals, as human beings?

If you care for yourself, you can then pour that care into others. Yet if that’s not the case, we have to do the self-work to get there. Then we can begin tackling this work the right way, because then we can see, and say, “I’ve been sitting in the workplace, and there are disparities. There are barriers here. Why isn’t this person in this role? How come they haven’t gained support? What privileges do I hold?”

I think about that as a Black woman all the time. I grew up in the suburbs. I have two parents, and it’s a privilege to have parents in the same household. I went to school in a great educational system. I’m from a middle-class family—those are all privileges that I hold. That makes me think, “Well, how do I give that back?” I’ll share an example with you.

I took my daughter to the park. There was another woman at the park who identifies as a White woman. Her daughter is biracial, so she has the same hair texture as my daughter. Her daughter’s hair was tangled. The woman approached me, and she saw how nicely my daughter’s hair was done. She said, “I love your daughter’s hair. What do I do? My daughter has camp tomorrow. I don’t know what to do with her hair. It’s all tangled up.”

In that moment—and anyone can do this—no matter what your situation or circumstance is, I thought about the privilege that I held. I know the products she could use for her daughter’s hair, so at the very least I could show her what products to buy for her daughter’s hair. Also, I live very close to the park.

I looked at all those factors, and what did I do? I ended up bringing the woman and her daughter into my home. I showed her the products that she could use for her daughter’s hair, so that she knew how to duplicate the process. Then I did her daughter’s hair, so that she could go to camp the next day.

Inclusion is about identifying the privilege and power that you hold, and sharing it with those around you. And if we got better at that very basic level and implemented that within the workplace—and then allowed and equipped employees with the tools to do the same—we would see a lot more change. Now we’re not going to see a perfect world. But we would see the landscape of DEI, and the level of care, and the level of openness needed to understand and tackle the barriers that exist. We would see the importance of it.

Author Talks

Visit Author Talks to see the full series.

Explore a career with us