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Vol. 42, No. 4

How to achieve diversity and inclusion in leadership? Don’t just check the box

by Robert J. Derocher

As an attorney and a woman of color in a mid-sized city (Madison, Wis.), Michelle Behnke figures that she’s gotten more than her fair share of invitations to take on a leadership role at various professional associations and organizations.

“I hit a lot of [diversity] check-boxes,” she laments. “I’ve had people ask me to join and say, ‘Diversity is our number one goal, and therefore, we’re talking to you.’ OK, but do you know me? You have now reduced me to one thing: diversity. You haven’t taken in my expertise, and that’s insulting. And if I’m insulted, I’m not likely to accept.”

It’s not that Behnke doesn’t relish bar leadership—when she is asked to serve because of reasons other than the need for diversity. In fact, she is currently treasurer of the American Bar Association, having previously served on its Board of Governors; as the Wisconsin delegate to the ABA House of Delegates; as chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services; and as treasurer and president of the State Bar of Wisconsin.

As bar associations move from diversity alone (thinking in terms of numbers and "boxes") toward inclusion (meaning that everyone's contributions and needs are fully valued and appreciated), Behnke and others say, it's important to ensure that this is reflected in the bar’s leadership and organizational structure—and in how new volunteers and leaders are engaged.

If associations want to succeed in that quest, they add, it will likely mean stepping outside the comfort zone of traditional leadership and communication paths to provide meaningful opportunities for a wider range of diverse members. From new-school social media and analytics to old-school conversation and outreach, associations can make strides in finding and keeping those diverse members and leaders.

Beware the 'fatigue factor'

A longtime consultant to bar associations and similar organizations on leadership and strategy, Glenn Tecker says it’s vital for organizations to understand the differences between diversity and inclusion—and how they can improve an association.

“Diversity means celebrating the differences among folks and the differing perspectives they bring. Inclusion means [that] you create a culture where everyone feels welcomed and equally involved in the work of the organization,” says Tecker, who has worked with the State Bar of Wisconsin, the District of Columbia Bar, the Canadian Bar Association, and the National Bar Association. “More and more organizations believe they have made progress in diversity, and are now focusing their attention on inclusivity.”

And numerous studies have shown that businesses and organizations that embrace diversity and inclusion perform better. The more homogenous the group, Tecker says, the less innovative and the less creative they often are.

But just persuading a few people who fit diversity categories to get involved in association activities and leadership does not necessarily make those associations inclusive, he says. Denver attorney Neeti Pawar agrees. She recently resigned from one volunteer position and declined two other opportunities to serve, feeling that her presence as a lone woman of color did not make those organizations inclusive—and that (a sentiment expressed more and more these days) time scarcity necessitates that anything she commits to must have larger meaning.

“It felt too much like ‘check the box,’” she recalls, regarding her past service. “There wasn’t a recognition of my opinions. It was not malicious, but one voice cannot represent the voice of all of [diverse] categories. It’s OK to have a woman and a person of color.”

Pawar and Behnke add that there is a growing “fatigue factor” for them and others like them who are called on by multiple organizations because they check more than one diversity box.

One solution: dialogue and outreach that goes beyond the traditional newsletter item and occasional email.

Don’t forget to reach out to affinity bars

A good place to start that dialogue and outreach, Tecker says, is by “creating cooperative relationships” between the boards of state and local bars and those that serve lawyers of color or that have another special focus (often called affinity bars).

Many state and local bars are doing just that; for example, Behnke notes, at the State Bar of Wisconsin, the Building Bridges initiative was successfully created to promote greater interaction between the state bar’s Board of Governors and African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic, and Native American affinity bars.

Who should initiate that interaction and cooperation? As a member of the Colorado Bar Association and a founding member of the South Asian Bar Association of Colorado, Pawar says state and local bars should take the lead in developing and improving ties with affinity bars.

“A question to ask the state bar is: ‘Do you go to [affinity bar] events? Why not?’” Pawar says. “Flip it around and take action. Nobody is going to come to you unless you build a trusting relationship. Show up [at an affinity bar meeting] and make some friends that aren’t like you.”

For The Florida Bar, outreach to the state’s affinity bars has become a critical part of a multipronged effort to become more diverse and inclusive, according to bar President Michael Higer.

“I started soliciting [affinity bars] throughout the state before becoming president. I said, ‘Send me your list of who is seeking appointment, and who among your list are your superstars,’” he recalls. That list is key as the bar moves forward on some 2,200 committee appointments for the year ahead.

Such efforts got a kick-start about four years ago, Higer says, when the name and mission of the bar’s Diversity Committee was adjusted and became the Diversity & Inclusion Committee. “This committee’s sole purpose is to promote diversity and inclusion throughout the bar, from the judiciary through every aspect of our bar,” he explains.

Now in its sixth year, the bar’s Leadership Academy is also part of the effort, Higer says, with a third of the academy’s 200-plus graduates being members of diverse communities. “These folks have gone on to take on leadership positions in every place in our community—political, bar, civic,” he adds.

Can’t find diverse leadership candidates? Keep looking

Diversity and inclusion improvement efforts begin, says Tecker, with a change in approach from bar leadership and the various committees involved in leadership appointments. While he praises leadership academies such as Florida’s, perhaps the biggest change, he says, is how the leadership views its task of finding and recruiting new leaders.

“You need to ask the nominating committee to change its role from a job placement firm to an executive search firm. Take the criteria of what the board is looking for and actively search for individuals that fit that criteria,” he advises. “And sometimes, that means talking to the single [diverse] individual and saying, ‘Do you have any friends and relationships with individuals who are traveling in your circle, and may not be traveling in mine?’”

Social media, particularly the likes of LinkedIn, are also good places to see, be seen, and communicate with more diverse members, according to Tecker, while online surveys and polling of members are also helpful—as well as relatively simple and inexpensive. “It’s about asking a basic set of questions. Understand their behavior and what motivates them,” he says. “Then you can be responsive. Just the act of gathering information is a signal [of change].”

Behnke agrees, adding that relying on previous methods of reaching out to diverse communities is not enough. “If a diverse pool doesn’t step forward, the assumption is, ‘I can’t find them,’” she says. “You have to try and stop and think like the people who are not involved.” Affinity bar meetings, the local gym, the neighborhood grocery store (if you happen to recognize a lawyer there): No place should be off limits to reaching out and finding diverse members, volunteers, and leaders, Behnke adds.

Also critical, she says: making the case not only for why the bar needs their input, but also for how joining or actively participating can help the member.

“You need to figure out how this work can satisfy their obligations, or how well this helps them professionally. If you try to guilt them in, it won’t work,” she explains. “I think in ‘the ask,’ bar associations have to help them make the case as to why this is going to be beneficial to them.”

A culture, not a one-off initiative

Pawar points out that associations risk losing diverse and inclusive voices if they don’t embrace those concepts. “Inviting diverse individuals to a board without the willingness to substantively respond to their voices and experiences is meaningless,” she wrote in a recent article. “Worse, it’s leveraging the person’s status as diverse to justify the appearance of inclusion. As though the perspective is valued, when it’s merely there to ratify decisions made by the majority. Nothing changes.”

In Florida, Higer says, the bar and its leadership is “not just a bunch of white guys. It’s about a culture, ultimately, and you need to have people committed to it. And if you get leadership who are not devoted to it, it can fall into jeopardy. Changes in leadership can have an adverse impact on momentum.”

Pawar agrees with Tecker, Behnke, and Higer that “It has to come from the top down. You have to create the culture from the outset. Bake it into everything you do. You can’t just keep going to the same ‘go-to’ people.”

Adds Tecker: “Nobody likes to be isolated. Nobody likes to be the only one. Bar associations have no choice than to find a way to be more innovative and creative, and that means they’re going to need to construct leadership cultures that should be sufficiently diverse to achieve that.”