If You’re Choosing Between “DEI” and Crisis Management, You’re Choosing Wrong.

by Vanessa Douyon | Apr 23, 2020

The last few months have left me reeling – and fielding questions from clients who are reeling too – about how to approach diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work in this maelstrom. Is now really the right time to be “doing DEI?” If so, why is it essential to prioritize DEI as the winds storm around us? And finally, how should organizations and their leaders prioritize DEI in the context of unprecedented strategic, financial, and moral obstacles?

The answer to all of these questions hinges on one of my fundamental truths: DEI is not a thing we do, it is the way we do everything.

Because of this truth, I submit that choosing between “DEI” and the crisis in front of us is a false choice. To be great leaders under any circumstances, we must surround ourselves by people who bring a wide variety of perspectives and identities to inform our thinking. We must build environments where we habitually leverage the full extent of our talents and experiences and operate in ways that are experienced as fair and equity-minded. So, yes, all times are the right times to lead well – which requires leading with a fundamental lens of DEI.

But the stakes are even higher in times of crisis. In fact, studies show that the onset of a recession may be an even more critical time to prioritize leading through a DEI lens. If we look back to the Great Recession of 2007-2009, we see that while most companies suffered irretrievable losses, companies that prioritized DEI outperformed less inclusive companies by 400% on the stock exchange. The S&P saw a nearly 40% decline in that time period. But what happened to companies whose people of color, women, front-line, long-tenured, and hourly employees experienced the organization as more inclusive? They saw a 14.4 percent GAIN. So, it isn’t “even at the onset of a recession we should focus on inclusion and equity” … but rather: “especially at the onset of a recession, we should focus on inclusion and equity.” 

The good news is that, ironically, crises may actually make it easier to decipher organizational dynamics and see the bright spots and challenges of inclusion and equity. In my experience, crises have a way of amplifying team dynamics. So, if we pay close attention right now, we may see our team culture more clearly and notice more about how our organizations are functioning. How are we communicating with each other? How are we making decisions? What are the default ways in which we lead?

At a time when there is so much noise, and so much to see, where should we start looking? How should organizations and their leaders prioritize DEI right now? Based on what we know from Unrealized Impact, and from my own experiences, there are three prime places to start: how we communicate, how we make decisions, and how vulnerably we lead.

From Unrealized Impact, we know that effective communication is more highly correlated with perceptions of equity and inclusion than any of the other diversity, equity, and inclusion practices. This also deeply resonates with my own experience. As the reality of COVID-19 set in, I found myself wondering – will I have a job in six months? A year? On the next team call, our CEO gave an overview of how she was thinking about the crisis. She asked everyone to give a personal update, shared some in-process strategic thinking, and provided an overview of our financials, like how healthy our reserve was. She also shared that she too was uncertain about the path ahead. My shoulders relaxed a little. But I wasn’t alone. Several colleagues expressed gratitude for the update in the moment; even weeks later other team members have referred back to it as a moment where we collectively sighed.

As you give thought to how you are communicating right now, consider: Do you have effective channels for engaging with your team? How well and how often have you leveraged them? Is your team freely and openly exchanging ideas?

This is also a critical time to consider the ways in which we make decisions. Under the incredible stress of an international pandemic, when it is most critical to act in inclusive and equitable ways, we are also most likely to default back to knee-jerk, reactionary decision-making processes. I’ve been eyeing my own management and carefully monitoring my instincts to hold tighter control over my projects and make quicker decisions, with less input from other folks. But I’ve also seen the other side of this coin; one of our partners pulled caretakers together to brainstorm creative childcare solutions and, with her guidance, we discerned what challenges we were facing, brainstormed solutions, and shared them back with the partner team. When the partners followed up, they provided a few solutions – repurposing a few existing line items and giving flexibility to use them toward any COVID-19 needs (childcare, at-home activities for kiddos, and otherwise). A few weeks later, we started a pilot for meeting-free Fridays, in part to provide caretakers with one less day to worry about. In the email response from the Partner team I noticed two things: 1) it felt responsive to what we had asked for and 2) Promise54 didn’t spend any additional dollars. Because of the partner’s previous framing in clear communications, I had forewarning, and appreciated the balance of supporting staff in difficult times with important financial restraint.

As you give thought to how you are making decisions right now, consider: Are your decision-making processes transparent and responsive? Is there strong knowledge-exchange across stakeholders including rationale and context for decisions? Do you imagine this to be true? Or know this to be true from your staff’s own perspectives?

Finally, I cannot underscore enough the importance of leadership vulnerability. Unrealized Impact findings specifically point to authenticity as critical to inclusion- a call to us as leaders to show up as we truly are. A week ago, when I showed up to a client advising call in my genuine skin – which at the time involved being in the car evacuating New York City with a baby, husband, and whatever personal belongings we could fit inside – I built one of the strongest immediate connections I’ve had with a client. When my manager shared that she couldn’t get her daughter back from South America, my heart dropped and my attention shifted from how she could help me to how I could be there for her. I found gallons of grace for our work together that week. This crisis will do what any crisis can – bring our teams together or drive a wedge in between them. But in these fragile moments, vulnerability holds the power to bring us together.

As you give thought to how vulnerably you are leading right now, consider: How authentic and vulnerable have you been with your own team – especially around the challenges you are facing? Does your team know what keeps you up at night? What challenges you’re grappling with personally and professionally?

So if you find yourself pondering whether now is the time for DEI work, whether you have the time, how it weighs relative to other priorities; I offer you something I know to be true deep in my gut: the twists and turns of the coming months will bring strife, but they will also offer opportunity: opportunity to notice and understand equity and inclusion more deeply, to listen and communicate more clearly, to make stronger decisions with broader input, to share more vulnerably, and ultimately to grow and thrive in seemingly impossible circumstances.




Vanessa is: a proud Haitian-American, a fierce Momma, a wife, a family organizer, and a 3rd gen foodist who spends treasured time recipe testing and cookbook reading. Vanessa brings experience leading two school systems as a senior leader - overseeing strategy at Blackstone Valley Prep and people operations at New Orleans College Prep. She brings a strong lens for strategy and talent across the sector, from strategic advising and at Bellwether Education Partners to managing recruitment at Teach for America. Vanessa began her career as a math teacher in Central City, New Orleans. She holds an MBA from the University of Chicago and a BA from the University of Florida.

Contact Vanessa: vanessa@promise54.org

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