It was Black History Month last February, and as always at this time of year, I find myself reflecting on my own journey as a Black woman leader who worked a good portion of my career as an “only”—only woman, only person of color—in the executive offices. 

Because of that reality, I found it difficult to be heard. My opinions didn’t seem to be valued, and I wasn’t included in any decisions, so my bitterness grew. Feeling invisible drove a lot of my frustration, even anger, in my early career years. 

Wow, this is what corporate America is really like? I feel invisible! When I speak in the meeting, it’s as if I didn’t say anything. The next person says the same thing—and it’s the best thing since sliced bread. 

It was tough to assimilate. I was fresh out of college and in the management training program, so I felt like a fish out of water. Since there weren’t many other young women, let alone women of color, even my being in the management training program was questioned. I heard people say, “They must have brought you in for affirmative action.”

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging (DEI&B) is a topic that some leaders try to avoid, thinking it too controversial. 

The truth is, if you think diversity is just an attempt to be politically correct, or that it takes too much time or energy to worry about inclusion and belonging, you may need to reevaluate your leadership. 

Over the past few years, DEI&B has become a much more talked-about topic than when I was starting out, and that’s a good thing. However, I’ve come to understand that diversity is much bigger than race, age, gender, etc. You also have to think about Big D—Diversity. 

Exploring the Full Spectrum of Diversity

Big D encompasses background, education, experiences, and culture. It’s the things that have shaped you as a person and as a leader. 

It’s the places you’ve succeeded in life and the places you’ve struggled. It’s the mountains and the valleys. 

It’s a combination of the university and the school of hard knocks. It’s the mistakes you’ve made, the lessons you’ve learned, the people you’ve helped, and the dreams you’ve dreamed.

It’s much bigger than the exterior things we focus on when we look at each other. It’s what makes an organization vibrant.

The best leaders ensure a Big-D diverse mix of leaders, teams, and individuals work together as part of the bigger system. They understand the first step to ensuring organizational health is building in inclusivity at every step of the leader’s journey.

I truly believe if we had more Heartbeat Leaders, then Chief Diversity Officers and DEI&B departments would not be needed. To effect change, we need to stop looking at it as a program and instead embrace it as a core value.

Leveraging Diversity to Unlock the Power of a Team

Most leaders claim to value diversity on paper. But if they repeatedly ignore the ideas, personalities, and backgrounds different from their own, they’re sending a very mixed message to their team.

Teams take these subliminal messages to heart and adapt their work to fit. Everyone hits the wall where they won’t introduce new ideas anymore because every other time they’ve tried, they’ve been shut down.

People who feel unappreciated for who they are won’t bring their whole self to work—and won’t ever share those creative, out-of-the-box ideas that could solve a huge business problem or provide enlightening perspectives.

The Heartbeat Leader who respects diversity unlocks the power of a team and lets them know it’s precisely because of their differences that they are valued. When people feel valued, they are more likely to speak up. 

The leader with the empowered team expands his or her vision and opportunity. Instead of carrying the burden alone, the Heartbeat Leader has a team to share the load. 

Respecting Diversity Encourages a Growing, Healthy Organization 

Heartbeat Leaders know that diversity makes things interesting. It brings diverse ideas and experiences into the mix and allows people to connect in ways that they normally wouldn’t. And sometimes it’s the catalyst needed to jumpstart innovation and growth.

The lack of diversity cripples creativity, stifles success, wrecks relationships, and crumbles culture.

If you want to become a Heartbeat Leader, you’ve got to make a choice. You either tear down walls and build a diverse team whose differences become their strength, or you try to go it alone.

The health of your organization depends on integration without exception. 

I truly believe if we had more Heartbeat Leaders, then Chief Diversity Officers and DEI&B departments would not be needed.

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