A few weeks ago, John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, was interviewed in Fortune magazine about on his thoughts around diversity and inclusion and how leaders can make a difference in changing culture.

His remarks confirm that in companies that are best in class for diversity and inclusion, executive leadership is critical for success.

According to Chambers in the Fortune article, “You have to do things dramatically different to achieve dramatically different results. We have done many programs, but perhaps we go back with a renewed emphasis and focus on doing a couple of them dramatically different. My worry is that when you have 30 or 40 different ideas, all of them are good ideas. What are the three to five that will really move the needle in a meaningful way? That is how you get a CEO’s attention. Any CEO will tell you that if you have 30 to 40 priorities, you don’t really have priorities. You have to get it down to three or five areas to make a difference.”

Obtaining executive sponsorship is a key component to kicking off any diversity and inclusion strategy. To be successful you need to show that your initiative is taken seriously and has the support from the top levels of the organization. A senior level executive lends credibility to your efforts and can promote your cause among his/her peer group and give the initiative the visibility it deserves.

But, as Chambers says in the article, executives are busy people and are bombarded with many programs and ideas every day. Before approaching a potential executive sponsor, remember to always do your business case homework and be prepared before your meeting. In order to get to the top of their list and get their attention you should have your bullet points ready and know your outcome.

Never start a conversation with an executive talking about the diversity initiative and what you have been doing in your department. Always begin with a business question. Present yourself as a strong business partner and begin with what is important to them, their business goals. ALWAYS KNOW YOUR ORGANIZATION’S BUSINESS GOALS and know how diversity and inclusion can help your executive get closer to his or her goals.

5 things to always ask your executives to do when seeking executive support of a diversity and inclusion effort:

  1. Lead by example and serve as a change agent in day-to-day business operations.
  2. Be a visible resource of support to local and regional management and employees.
  3. Lead in promoting diversity activities and helping to establish and promote a communication strategy to inform employees, customers, and the community about the organization’s commitment and progress on diversity issues.
  4. Be briefed on a regular basis to understand issues of diversity and inclusion, diversity best practices, and benchmarking in order to support and promote diversity and inclusion strategies to the organization.
  5. Sponsor and support diversity programs and activities, employment functions, diversity training, and enhancement of workplace productivity in keeping with your organization’s mission.

Finally, it is important to cultivate the diversity and inclusion knowledge that will position you  as the content expert and a trusted business resource.

  • Read, research and secure the best and most up-to-date diversity and inclusion practices you can.
  • Network with others.
  • Secure a trusted consultant who has been where you are now and knows how to work within corporate environments.
  • Be able to share best practices of other companies and the corresponding business results that they delivered.

I know that whenever I spoke with an executive at any company I was a part of, one of their first questions was, “How do we compare with other companies, what are they doing, and what do we need to do here to get better?” Being prepared to answer those questions will make you and your diversity and inclusion initiative shoot to the top of any executive’s high priority list.