Much has been written about the impact COVID-19 has had on diversity in workplaces, which will take significant time for companies to recover from. As leaders, we have a choice about whether we tackle this as a pressing, critical challenge or allow the setbacks of the past 18 months to continue. A recent Accenture Research study perhaps puts it best: “We stand at a critical juncture in modern human history. The COVID-19 pandemic presents a stark choice: ignore the impact of the crisis on women and allow societies to become less equal, more divided and poorer, or help women to emerge fully recognized as equal partners and key economic actors, and in the process boost the potential for a faster socio-economic recovery.”

When we lose any group of people in the workplace, or in certain levels of leadership in organizations, we fail to reflect our employee population as well as the customers and communities we serve. Research — like this global report from McKinsey & Company to provide just one example — increasingly shows this directly impacts business outcomes.

If diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are business imperatives, then clearly they’re leadership imperatives as well. Here are some suggestions for how each of us can become stronger leaders in this area:

Understand the Components

Diversity, equity and inclusion get grouped together but are distinct things. Diversity is about having all possible viewpoints in the room based on people’s unique backgrounds. Equity is about ensuring every person is treated the same as anyone else, regardless of their background. And inclusion is about each person feeling that they fully belong and are valued. (My focus in this blog post is on diversity and equity, and I’ll follow it soon with one specifically on inclusion.)

Sometimes as leaders, it’s unclear which element of DEI we’re dealing with, but it’s important to pinpoint this so you can address the real issues and root causes. For example, when I was leading my team in Asia Pacific, our employee engagement survey showed very high scores based on DEI factors. I was very curious to learn more, so I convened a focus group in one of our largest countries and learned that they felt I had inspired them to be open with ideas, thoughts and viewpoints.

I had assumed the feedback was about diversity when it actually stemmed from inclusion. Understanding that difference impacted our learnings and actions — things we needed to improve as well as the activities and behaviors we wanted to reinforce to continue driving an inclusive environment — and it has served as an important reminder for me about taking time as a leader to identify the difference when dealing with matters of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Make it an Expectation

Ticking a box on DEI adds no business value, yet that’s still what many companies are doing. A global PwC survey found that most employees say diversity is a stated value or priority for their company, but a third feel it’s a barrier to their own career progression. It’s no surprise given that same study found only 26 percent of organizations have DEI-related goals for leaders and only 17 percent have a C-suite role in place focused on DEI.

PwC found that eight out of 10 leaders are only engaged in DEI at basic or emerging levels. Until that changes, our results around DEI won’t either — and as noted above, our business results will suffer.

I’ve always been a firm believer that what gets measured gets done. These numbers don’t lie — we’ve made a good start, but we still have a long way to go. As leaders, each of us must personally commit to making DEI not encouraged, but expected, within our teams. Seek support from your HR department and others to hire and promote those who do not look like you and ask your team to hold you accountable in both big and small decisions.

Make it Personal

The old adage of “First take a look in the mirror …” is applicable here. While some of us may not know it, we all have unconscious biases. While that doesn’t make us bad people, it can get in our way of fully embracing DEI.

Each of us needs to be willing to reflect on our own journey and where we need to do more work. A great way to start is by taking the free assessments offered by Harvard’s Project Implicit, which my dear colleague and friend Margaret Smith of Accenture recently shared with me. Exercises like that one create self-awareness, which hopefully leads to an openness to learning, changing course and admitting when we’re wrong. Here again, I recommend surrounding yourself with leaders, peers and direct reports who can hold you accountable and help you see when your decisions don’t align with your stated intentions.

In the end, diversity and equity create an environment that fosters inclusion, where every person feels they belong and are included because they see themselves in those around them. The positive impact all of this has on business results is hard to understate. That’s why I’m excited to continue sharing my thoughts about inclusion with you in my next post. Stay tuned!