ASA 006: How to craft a DEI strategy that makes sense

Let’s talk about how to make sense and impact with the diversity, equity and inclusion strategy.


Monika Chutnik
How to craft a DEI strategy that makes sense

Luckily, we are slowly getting over the estage of explaining and trying to understand why diversity, equity and inclusion makes sense in business. There is so much coverage, there is so much data on DEI in business, that we stopped wondering why. Now it’s time to ask the next question. The next question is how do we make it happen in a way that makes sense?

And for this purpose, I have invited Sarah Cordivano, who is the Head of DEI Strategy and Governance for Talent and Leadership in Zalando, based in Berlin, in Germany, and also an author of a book “DEI How to Succeed at an Impossible Job”, where she is sharing not only her experiences from DEI area, but also giving plenty of hints and tips on how to craft a DEI strategy that makes sense and helpful things in order.


In this episode you will learn:

  • How to set up DEI strategy in a company
  • Challenges in implementing DEI strategy
  • How to find the sponsorship of the executive level
  • Role of the mid-level managers in activating the DEI strategy
  • What are the three things to do in order to start DEI within the company


Three steps which you need to take to create a DEI strategy that makes sense will be to draw the big picture, look at the big picture, ask the important partners to discuss and finally agree what you want to focus on in the upcoming years. Please make sure that it’s aligned with the direction where the business is going.

When you listen to this conversation, please think about who else might be happy to know what we are talking about and share with this person later on. I really care to be reaching the right people with my content, so thank you very much for this in advance.

I wish you fun and discovery!


Leave your comments below or on A Step Ahead LinkedIn profile. If you want to stay in touch, sign up for the newsletter and ✔follow A Step Ahead Podcast in your favourite streaming service 🧡.

If you need to educate leaders in how to create psychological safety in your remote teams, or if you would like to increase  inclusive leadership practices, or resilience of your employees – please contact us at ETTA

Additional materials:

  • ASA 003: Psychological Safety in a Virtual Team – 4 Steps to Mastery
  • ASA 004: What are Microaffirmations and why you want to have them in your team
  • ASA 005: Part Time Manager. The Future of Work.
  • Sarah Cordivano’s website 


DEI seems to be a very rich and a very broad area. The area of diversity, equity and inclusion covers so many topics that we need to be aware of and that we need to tackle when we want to deal with it in a company. Today I’m talking to Sarah Cordivano, who will hopefully help us bring some order into all this variety of approaches to DEI in the company.


Why area of the DEI?

I come from Philadelphia originally and I’ve been living in Germany for the last six years and I started originally working in the field of data analytics. So that was my original career path and this was a really fantastic journey for me. I really got to understand a lot about asking interesting questions and supporting those answers with data. And after several years working in that field, I sort of transitioned more into community management work. So working more directly with people and then eventually working in the diversity, equity and inclusion space. This has been really challenging but also really fulfilling journey for me, because I’ve got the chance to apply all of these skills around data and project management to the field of DEI in Europe. And I think specifically in the last few years we’ve seen that space really expand a lot and it’s really attracted me to be a part of that, share what I’ve learned, share some best practices, and also learn from everyone else who’s doing this as well. So I can only say it’s been a really fantastic journey.


A book about DEI

My book is called “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. How to Succeed at an Impossible Job”. I published this book in August, so just a few months ago, essentially is a handbook to support someone who starts their first job in the DEI space and gives them very step by step support to put a strategy in place, to create impactful initiatives, to measure their progress. And then importantly, one of the big parts of the book at the end is how to make sure they maintain a healthy relationship with the job as well and don’t get burnt out.


What makes this job impossible?

I don’t mean that it’s impossible to do good work in the DEI space. Actually, quite the opposite. What I mean by this is oftentimes when we start our first role in DEI and our company hires the first person ever to work on DEI, we have really high expectations and oftentimes those expectations aren’t possible in reality. And you know what? The situation that happens is that we think that we’re going to change the entire company, change the world with this job.

But really, we’re still working within a corporate space. There’s still limitations on budget, on prioritization, on resources. And we need to actually consciously take time to reset those expectations and understand what is within my control. What do I actually have the tools and resources to change and what do I not have the resources to change? And then you can focus your effort and manage your expectations in that direction.

If I summarize the book in just a few words that would be it. And of course, if you’re interested in learning more, please check out the book.


Set up DEI strategy from the beginning

It might be worth to revisit some of the approaches to DEI that we can see in the companies. And it might be important to set up DEI strategy from the beginning, even if the company has already taken some DEI initiatives. Why is it so?

Importance of setting up a strategy

Let me answer this question by first talking about the importance of setting up a strategy, and then we’ll go back to the revisiting your approach. So why is it so important to set up a strategy from the beginning?

There are so many topics in the DEI space that you can focus on. And when you start your first DEI role in the organization, you’re getting all these different requests and ideas and complaints, and it’s really difficult to figure out how to process all of that information, how to be transparent with your stakeholders, what you’re working on, what you’re not working on.

The strategy does that. It essentially gives you a North Star. So you and all of your stakeholders know exactly what you’re working towards. It sets expectations with everyone you are working with on, where you’re going, what initiatives you want to get there. And it gives them all transparency in what you’re working on. It also gives you a way to estimate the budget so you know you’ll create a strategy.

But then you also need to figure out how much will it cost to implement this work. And essentially the strategy will be your tool to do that because you can actually quantify all the initiatives you want to do. And then lastly, it gives you a way to set KPIs and track your progress. So essentially you can see whether or not the initiatives you’re working on are actually having an impact on your strategy.


Revisit your approach

That’s why you need a strategy and why might you revisit your approach. Oftentimes, at the beginning of organization’s DEI journey, they don’t have the clarity, they don’t have all the information in order to set that strong strategy. So they end up just working on projects here and there, working very reactively.

So revisiting your approach is a great way that you can actually create a very conscious decision to work on DEI, to get all your stakeholders together. And essentially you commit to yourselves not to shift focus. You say: look, this is where we want to go, and this is how we’re going to get there.


No plan for the next step

I do see a lot of value in that. In many of the clients that we support as a consulting and training company, invite us to participate in something like a diversity week or a little bit of a diversity education or the diversity and inclusion education. And sometimes we have conversations with clients. So what’s your next step? And the answer doesn’t come because there is no plan for the next step. It’s just like this here and now initiative. And I want to highlight that I see a lot of value in the here and now initiatives because they open up the dialog, they create awareness and at the same time they bring the risk of not no sustainable outputs.

So when we got the criticism about DEI initiatives, DEI actions in the company, many of them actually relate to the fact that there is no line of focus. As you said, there is no long term commitment about what we want to focus on as a company. So I also see a lot of value on the DEI strategy from my side.

I’m learning that DEI is really about listening to various groups in a company, to various people, to various situations, to various needs, and being able to combine them into a bigger picture, which sometimes might be like a complicated mosaic.

And if you don’t have a strategy, then you’re being pulled apart just by one piece or another of this mosaic, which is shouting stronger.  Which is more demanding. But then the others are feeling left out around negative emotions coming up. And there is all this thing happening. So that’s why I really appreciate that we are talking about DEI strategy today.

And another thing which I wonder is how to really make it a thing that reflects the whole company, how to find the sponsorship of the executive level, how to approach them, and what is their role.


Role of executive sponsors in a DEI strategy

I personally think that executive sponsors play a really important role in a successful DEI strategy. I’m not saying all the energy must come from them. There’s also often stakeholders across the organization and also grassroots efforts that support successful DEI work. But specifically for executive sponsors, I think they have a really important role because they essentially are able to unblock the blockers that keep DEI from moving ahead. And they’re able to see the big picture across the entire organization strategy and figure out how DEI fits into that. They can proactively identify how decisions might be impacted by DEI or vice versa, and they can hopefully get ahead of those things.

When I think about the executive sponsor role, I’m thinking about someone very senior in the organization. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the CEO. It could be someone else on the management board who is really passionate and willing to advocate for DEI work and specifically your strategy. And it should be someone who is comfortable influencing their peers and being a voice at that level. It should also be someone who’s interested and willing to advise on the strategy as well, so they can essentially make sure that their peers know what the DEI strategy covers and make sure that it resonates with that audience.

And of course, it’s also about resourcing. So the sponsor can also make sure that the team has the resources they need and they can remove all of that bureaucracy and blockers that oftentimes keep a strategy from really being becoming embedded within an organization.


How to enable the executive sponsor

It might be like bringing the DEI topics into the exec level, but at the same time it might be about bringing the exec level perspective, this long term strategic perspective of what we want to focus on as a business so that the DEI strategy can really go hand-in-hand and support the business goals. I think this alignment is very important here. We only achieve with the exec level. So the sponsorship is so important. But how can we actually enable the executive sponsor? How do we find this right person in the company?


DEI role

This is such an important question because for many reasons, oftentimes the person having the DEI role is probably quite a bit away from the executive team, so they might not be reporting directly into them. They might be kind of siloed somewhere within HR. And they need to sort of use networking to find who within that team is the right person to be their sponsor. So that becomes a difficult journey. But in terms of enabling, I think this can be very difficult. You need to find a sponsor who’s willing to be enabled, who’s open, who’s vulnerable, who doesn’t assume they know everything already, who asks questions, even if they might feel a bit embarrassed about those questions.

I think this is very difficult to find. I think that quality of humbleness and openness does not always come naturally to people in executive positions, so it can be difficult to find that right person. But when you actually do find the right person, the important thing is coaching, giving them access to resources that they can consume on their own time. It could be a book or a video recommendation. It also can just being available to them on short notice to answer their questions. So making a space where they feel safe and vulnerable to ask any question no matter what it is. But it just comes with building trust. I think it takes months of working together to build that relationship and to essentially make sure that executive knows that you’re there to support them. You need something from them, but also you want to be their coach and champion to help them succeed in their role as a sponsor.


DEI lead in the company

After all, we work hand in hand together. If you’re a DEI lead in the company you have been assigned because of a reason. And I guess the exec level might have also at least given consent to this. So that’s it. And I remember a one of my workshops last year. I actually work fully remotely, like 99% of the time. But this one little workshop was for the executive team of a company, and they invited me to talk about diversity. They wanted to bring this conversation about diversity into the executive level.

So we did a small session. It also had this aspect of a relationship building and networking after the long time of them having worked remotely. Apart from providing a lot of space for discussion and for working in mixed groups and so on, I actually provided also a lot of data on DEI and at the end of the session, apart from feeling energized and relaxed, they also felt very surprised, sometimes even shocked. They had not realized that DEI makes such a big impact on business, and it was a very fruitful session in the sense of the strong message having stayed with them for the future. So it was worth effort.


Data on DEI

At the same time, it’s a part of a larger phenomenon. What I am seeing is that now there is so much business data available on DEI and how DEI can be translated into business outcomes. The executive levels are more and more frequently aware of the value that DEI brings into the company.

What I can see from my environment is that sometimes even the executive levels are the initiators of the DEI in their businesses because they not only want to stay up to date and take care about the branding. But they really care about using every opportunity to make the business grow, including that DEI strategy.

On the other hand, there is this huge group of the middle managers who have not been so quick to have received a dedicated session on DEI, as a team building workshop, for example. They get a lot of pressure to deliver results. They are really stuck with operational goals. And it seems that the burden of making the DEI happen lies heavily on their shoulders.


Mid-level managers in activating the DEI strategy 

I think mid-level managers are likely your most important stakeholders actually.

When we do DEI work, it doesn’t live in a vacuum. It must be embedded throughout the business, through different business units or different locations.

And it’s often those managers that need to take your work, take your initiatives and embed them within their teams. So it’s a huge group of people. They also have a lot of decision making power, so they’re making a lot of individual decisions all the time across your organization. They are hiring people. And they are role modeling behavior either consciously or subconsciously, because people report to them. They are essentially setting the tone of the culture. And I think it’s very challenging to get them all together, to get them to understand what their role is.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is helping them understand what is DEI, what is the strategy that you’re working towards and what is expected from them. What is their role within that strategy. And one of those that’s essentially related to how the executive team communicates top down. So they become a key ally here because they set the expectations for the mid-level management. I would expect the executive team to really make DEI a priority by saying: okay, managers across the organization, this is what your role is, this is what resources you have access to. But it is challenging. This can be thousands of people in different locations, different roles, different expertize and you have to get all those people together and essentially make DEI a priority within their already quite busy jobs.

Too many priorities

That’s a challenge of these times. The question of how many priorities are we actually capable of handling. And if we have a five or seven or  twelve, are they really still strategic or just checklist that we need to check off and just move on to the next point that we need to meet. Just imagine if we have 12 priorities on the list and we have 20 working days in a month approximately. There is not even two days a month that we can focus on this specific priority if we want to, think this way. So it really might be overwhelming.


How to create accountability in the mid management levels

Of course they need to feel informed. They need to understand what their role is in contributing to your strategy. They need to understand what the strategy is. But how to actually create accountability? I think that’s the really difficult part because as we discussed, they have so many different priorities on their table and how to inject DEI into that.

I think the first thing they can do is incorporate DEI into their business strategy. So essentially create a process for them where they can start to think about DEI at the moment, they’re thinking about their part of the business for the next year or two years or three years. That way, instead of thinking about it as an afterthought, they actually sort of embedded into their strategy for what they’re working on within their part of the business. And sometimes they need support to do this. By the way, you might need to be on call to give them some suggestions on how they can do this and how they can essentially make DEI a priority in a sensible way.

But then again, how do you create accountability? That’s a little bit more difficult. So I’ve seen some companies support manager groups, to set objectives or KPIs related to DEI. And oftentimes these are built into their other KPIs that they’re measuring to measure the success they have in their role. Sometimes these are even tied to bonuses and I think that’s a very forward thinking way to do it, to put a financial component into the DEI accountability. I think the last thing, the most important thing, is to give them access to data. So if you’re doing a DEI survey within your company, giving them visibility on how their part of the business measures up, and that gives some really clear data so they can understand: okay, is my part of the business successful in terms of DEI? Are we a diverse company? Do we have inclusion among our employees?

And if it’s not the case, then they really know where they can work towards. They can put some interventions in place to help them create more inclusion within their part of the business. I think the good thing here is that will mean that all of their employees feel a higher sense of belonging. They feel more included. And hopefully they are delivering and performing better because of that.


Understanding of the impact

I have also seen companies that not only relate to diversity targets, for example, but also basic relating to this inclusion part. They run the weekly polls of the wellbeing of employees with just very simple two or three questions, sometimes even just one question. And it helps them stay up to date. It’s anonymous, so people feel safe providing their answers. But also at the same time, it’s an on the go picture of a team letting a manager understand in case something has gone the wrong way. They can immediately invite a team for a conversation and try to face any kind of an issue together. So I fully agree with you that this visibility and understanding of the impact really makes a lot of sense.

Our focus as a company is really to work with leaders and to develop the leadership skills. So it’s probably the area closest to me. And what I am seeing as a way out is actually the whole trend, the whole environment that we are living in now, living and working in now.

All this quiet quitting and all the mental toughness, the resilience, the well-being of the employees, the psychological safety that is the condition for our creativity and performance and the fact that it all starts with inclusion. So I see this little overlapping area with DEI and I can see this the most important first basic steps the mid-level managers can focus on not to be overwhelmed by the lots of DEI aspects and the richness of their knowledge which is there, and a lot of data.


Benefit for managers

But to to focus on actionable items, for example, the topic, how to create inclusion in the virtual spaces. I think there is a lot to learn, but there is also this direct benefit for managers. So I’m thinking what the mid-level managers are focusing on, they really are focusing on something that makes them stronger in their role that makes the teams appreciate them as managers.

I’ve recently read a research published this year about related to the last half year about collaborating together, and it is really the focus of the mid-managers is to find ways for my people to appreciate me more. So I’m thinking this might be one of the factors here.


If everything is the top priority, then nothing is the top priority

I think it’s it is difficult to help managers understand why DEI is important to them. Exactly like you said, they have so many priorities. And somebody once told me that if everything is the top priority, then nothing is the top priority. So it can be very difficult to sort of way all these different priorities, some of which generate revenue, some of which create a healthy working relationship, some of which guarantee that person keeps their job.

How to balance the importance of all of those different things?

Personally, I find it really difficult. One thing I would say is:

you don’t need every single manager to be a champion. It’s actually enough to have sort of a critical mass of those managers to be champions for you, because you will not convince everyone.

And if some people don’t feel it’s valuable to them, if they don’t feel ownership of it, they’re not going to do it. And you know what? That’s fine.

It’s not about sort of forcing every single person to understand every aspect of DEI. But if you get some critical people who are making the business decisions, who are really role models and respected in the organization, if they’re bolt in, it has a built on effect that other people also become bolt in.


Long term approach

I’m also thinking about this long term approach. So many times the leaders just hear once or twice that DEI is an important and interesting area, but then the message kind of dissolves over time and the other priorities are pushing it out and depending on who is pushing stronger. And what if we imagine that DEI in the sense of leadership behaviors is just kind of learning a different language of management. I know companies which are in the process of transforming the whole understanding to what a leader is.

It’s a long journey. So a long journey is like learning a new language. If we go to language classes, we have them weekly, regularly one hour every week. Why don’t we take the same approach to learning the soft skills around building inclusive workplaces, creating the belonging and caring about diversity, equity and inclusion in teams? I have seen not so many but very powerful examples of very fruitful long term approaches to creating this new language of leadership. So I’m also recommending it to our listeners. Let’s bring it back to someone who has the role of this DEI lead in the company. Different companies solve it in a different way. It might be a separate position.

Sometimes this position is an add on the regular job of a different kind. But it’s all good in the sense that there is an assigned person to take care about these topics. But if this person is just starting their first DEI jobs what would to recommend?


What are the three things they should do right away in order to jump start DEI within the company?


Figure out your own organization

I think the first thing is to actually figure out your own organization. So figure out who are the influential leaders in your company, who are the more difficult leaders, who are your key stakeholders. What data has already been collected? Have there been any attempts to create a strategy before? This investigation is really important because you don’t want to repeat work that’s already been done.


Find that executive sponsor

The next thing I would say is find that executive sponsor. It can be difficult to have that connection with someone who might be a few levels above you, but if you create a role description to essentially explain what is expected of this role, what the commitment they need to take, what kind of learning journey you would like them to go on and essentially start meeting with people, discuss the role, discuss trying to fill that role and a network within your organization and try to find the right person and also be very transparent about what kind of commitment is needed. So if they don’t want to take that step and they don’t want to become the sponsor, that’s okay. It’s better for people to say “no” because they don’t think they’re up for it, than say “yes” and then not actually be able to make the commitment.


Create your strategy

Once you’ve done those two things, I think the next most important thing is to actually create your strategy. So bringing together all those important stakeholders, could be people in HR and communications, people who are already involved in employee resource groups, if you have those. Bring everyone together and decide as a group where you want to go as an organization. This is really important to kind of align together on what you want to achieve five years from now, let’s say.

And then once you align on that, then you can start working backwards and saying: okay, if we want to be there in five years, what do we need to do to get there? Then you start to put a roadmap in place with initiatives that you can measure, and essentially that gives you the tools to work towards that destination.

So those would be the first three things. I’ve summarized that up very shortly. But I will say in my book, I’ve gone into a lot of detail about those three things and specifically about creating the strategy. I think that’s the most time consuming thing. But if you set up a really strong strategy that has by in from your executive team and it’s properly resourced, you’ve really set yourself up for success for the next several years.


What’s your goal or maybe what’s your dream for yourself in the area of DEI?

I’m working on my second book at the moment, which is working on DEI for tech startups.

So essentially not just at sort of a general audience book like this, but really addressing the specific challenges that tech startups have. They’re often founded with a very small number of people. They’re often getting investment from private equity or venture capitalism. And essentially how do you take all of the challenges that exist in the startup space and also add DEI into that in a way that makes sense. It’s not about taking what Microsoft is doing and scaling it down for a tech startup. It’s saying: okay, what are the most critical decisions we’re making in the next year? How do we make sure DEI is a part of that? That’s my next journey. I’m really excited about this. I think it’s a really relevant topic for, as we see tech companies expand a lot and we see a lot of growth in that area. I really see a need for those companies to have access to a resource that’s really tailored for their needs.



So I’m imagining how many of these startups that are working with or will be working with DEI thanks to your book have this DNA of DEI. The DNA of diversity, equity and inclusion embedded in their core culture. I think there is so much sense in doing it. So my fingers sincerely crossed for this.


Thank you!


Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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