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In the wake of George Floyd's 2020 murder and the racial reckoning it sparked, businesses across the country started setting new standards for how to be more diverse and inclusive.

But not every company felt it had the resources — particularly leaders — to help the organization reach those aims.

That inspired Eddy Rojas, executive vice president and provost at the University of St. Thomas, to create a master of arts degree in diversity leadership to address that need and accelerate progress on companies' diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) objectives.

In announcing the program's creation, he said, "more inclusive workplaces are also more productive workplaces."

Courses opened in September, making St. Thomas one of a few universities in the country with a graduate degree in diversity. It has attracted applicants from a variety of industries and states.

"We're going to have people who are engaged in the cultural landscape, in depth, and they will be able to navigate these issues with confidence, understanding their organization and how they can move forward," said Prof. Paola Ehrmantraut, who directs the program. "We're going to have students who will build teams and lead teams and build spaces where everyone can thrive."

If you are interested in implementing or supporting DEI initiatives at your job, here is some advice on how to develop inclusive leaders and workplaces from a couple of employers who have earned recognition for their DEI efforts in recent years.

Engage everyone, starting at the top

Jenny Guldseth, chief human resources officer at Allianz Life, said the commitment to diversity and inclusion has to begin with the leadership team and extend throughout the organization. Having a DEI team to support and drive opportunities for inclusion also is critical.

"It's a business imperative. This isn't just an HR person's job. It's everybody's," she said. "The more people that we get engaged in this process to help build these skills, build that knowledge, the better."

Allianz Life is one of 15 private companies that achieved high-scoring status in the Center for Economic Inclusion's 2023 Racial Equity Dividends Index. The index from the St. Paul-based nonprofit measures business performance against racially equitable standards. Allianz Life received high scores in the categories of hiring; culture; retention and advancement; and philanthropy and investment.

To promote inclusion, Guldseth recommended backing creation of employee resource and inclusion groups (ERG), which are voluntary, employee-led groups of those with shared interests or characteristics.

"Those groups especially have been so critical in helping drive employee engagement, awareness around DEI and a culture of inclusion," she said.

Employers need to listen to employees in different departments to offer DEI programming that will meet needs that vary by function, Guldseth said. Listening to employees on diversity and inclusion matters is especially valuable in organizations that don't have ERGs.

A priority at Allianz Life is "operationalizing DEI" so it's "part of every decision" companywide, Guldseth said.

Commit to changing outcomes

Developing or strengthening a DEI program requires three focuses: commitment, consistency and stamina. That's according to Greg Cunningham, U.S. Bank's senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer.

The work of diversity and inclusion must be real, not performative, he said. It must continue through downturns, with consistent effort helping to accelerate growth. The effort must be long term.

"This is about changing outcomes for an organization," Cunningham said. "Outcomes happen when you make real systemic and cultural change, and that takes time, and that takes patience."

He said the successful formula for instilling DEI into an organization's culture consists of performance evaluation, accountability and transparency.

"Leading with inclusion is on every one of our managers' performance reviews, and so it is a performance expectation, and I think that's pretty fundamental to building a culture of inclusion," Cunningham said.

U.S. Bank measures the DEI performance of its most senior leaders across all business lines. Each leader's scorecard also goes to directors and CEO Andrew Cecere.

Transparency — allowing third parties to evaluate company data on employees, workplace practices and accountability — also helps improve DEI performance, Cunningham said.

That's why U.S. Bank took part in the Center for Economic Inclusion's index, where it received high scores in leadership; hiring; products and services; and philanthropy and investment.

"It helps identify areas of opportunity and areas where we can get better," he said.

Recognize DEI is critical for growth

Successful DEI leaders, Cunningham said, need the skills and cultural competencies to engage three constituencies:

• Employees, working in diverse teams that serve markets in the most relevant way.

• Customers, who increasingly scrutinize companies' role in society and want to see themselves reflected in the brands they support.

• The broader community and issues of concern to community members, such as wealth disparities.

The most successful leaders "don't see DEI as something that is 'other,'" Cunningham said. They see it as "another way to catalyze growth and innovation."

Give employees a voice

Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union set out about five years ago to embed diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging into its culture, said Julie Cosgrove, chief talent officer.

Giving employees the confidence to voice their thoughts on DEI matters has been critical, as has learning from those ideas and sharing ownership of the cause among all employees and leaders, she said. Affinity Plus has two ERGs and hopes to double that number, in response to employee feedback.

To expand its talent pipeline, Affinity Plus eliminated degree requirements from every position, Cosgrove said. It might waive a preferred qualification when work and life experience could compensate for the lack of a degree. At the same time, Affinity Plus pays for tuition, books and other expenses of employees who earn an MBA degree at Metro State University.

Further, Affinity Plus has changed its hiring model to recruit a wider band of applicants and attract "more diverse candidates, more diverse perspectives, more diverse life experiences," Cosgrove said. The process doesn't require diverse candidates, but it has resulted in greater diversity among those hired.

Affinity Plus invites employees to share stories of their life experiences or cultural backgrounds.

"That creates openness and understanding from other employees," Cosgrove said, "which creates more inclusion across the organization."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is