Monday, May 22, 2017

Choose Your Dimensions of Diversity and Get Started

Spark Consulting is out with another white paper -- this one on the sometimes challenging topic of diversity and inclusion -- and it's another thought-provoking read for association CEOs. If you're interested, you can download "Include Is A Verb: Moving From Talk to Action on Diversity and Inclusion" here. It's free and you don't even have to register for it.

For me, there were several key concepts. Here's one.

Research demonstrates that millennials think about and define diversity in significantly different ways than members of previous generations. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers tend to think of diversity in terms of protected classes. Millennials are more focused on "cognitive diversity, or diversity of thoughts, ideas, and philosophies."

In either worldview, as Joe Gerstandt points out: "We can be different from each other in many ways, but the key words here are 'from each other.'" This is leading many organizations to try to think about diversity more broadly than protected class. Gerstandt emphasizes that diversity is not -- or not just -- race or gender relations, affirmative action, compliance, or sensitivity. Diversity is contextual. For instance, in a teaching association, diversity in volunteer leadership could mean recruiting K-12 teachers into leadership roles traditionally held by college professors.

First, it's good to see Joe Gerstandt getting some love in the association community. I've been reading his blog for years and, even though he doesn't post as often as I would like, you should too. We've never met, but his 2011 video on flying your freak flag should be required viewing in order to call yourself a member of the human race.

Second, when I was chair of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives (WSAE), that Board was wrestling with its own diversity initiative. After a lot of discussion, one of the first things we decided was that we needed to define what diversity meant for WSAE.

There was universal agreement on the returned value of embracing diversity and inclusion in our association and in our association's leadership. What there was less agreement on was what the categories -- or what we would come to call the dimensions -- of diversity should be. If my memory serves, the lines of disagreement that rose to the surface were consistently drawn between camps representing the generational viewpoints described in the above excerpt for the Spark white paper. Some could only view diversity through the lens of protected classes, and others -- not necessarily those of younger generations -- saw added value in viewing diversity through a cognitive lens.

As the discussion progressed, we also recognized that not all the protected and cognitive classes that could be enumerated were necessarily relevant in our association's environment. And, even if they were relevant, there was no way that we could focus on improvements on any more than a handful of dimensions. We needed to be selective -- both about which dimensions of diversity mattered most, and of those, which would be choose to focus on in the short and long term.

One dimension of diversity we selected was gender. Our view was that association management was a profession dominated by women at the manager level, and dominated by men at the executive level. After surveying our membership rolls, we discovered that WSAE clearly reflected that trend. Its membership was 70% female, but the Board, which was dominated by association CEOs, was only 25% female. Getting more women onto the leadership track became a compelling priority for our Nominating Committee, work that clearly continues to this day. The current elected WSAE Board is 55% female.

Gender is one of the protected classes, but many, if not most of our dimensions of diversity fit more squarely in the cognitive class. One unique to our association was the career aspirations of our members. What was the split, essentially, between those who viewed themselves as an association professional, on a career track towards the association executive, and those who viewed themselves as a specialist (a marketing or information technology or accounting professional) who happened to work for an association, on a career track towards a directorship within an association or perhaps another organization? Knowing that (and according to one survey that latter category represented as much as 20% of our members who worked for an association) would, should and did have a consequential impact on the kind of education we offered in our programs.

In summary, while a commitment to diversity and inclusion should be universal among associations as organizations dedicated to representing a specific profession or industry, the dimensions of diversity that define that commitment can and should be as numerous as the number of organizations pursuing them.

One final word. As WSAE chair, I frankly chose to focus less on which dimensions of diversity were chosen and more on the culture and structures that needed to be built in order to understand and embrace them. I suspected that an organization built to on-board diverse populations into its leadership and its activities -- however it defined those diverse populations -- would have the tools necessary to on-board newly identified categories when they inevitably arose in the future. That ability is hopefully one of the legacies I was able to leave behind.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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