ITWC Digital Transformation Conference – Gartner’s senior executive partner Debra Christmas on DEI

At the ITWC’s annual Digital Transformation Conference, ITWC President Fawn Annan explored the topics of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) with Debra Christmas, senior executive partner, Gartner.

Christmas has had extensive experience with diversity initiatives over the last thirty years. She said she cares about it and can talk to this very sensitive topic without being militant. “I am far more curious than indignant,” she said. “I am so very curious as to how someone gets that way. Where do the prejudices and judgments come from?”

Annan gathered Christmas’ views as she examined the current DEI situation within Fortune 1000 companies and governments.

DEI is on everyone’s radar…but only a few carry out real initiatives

According to Christmas, there’s been a change over time when it comes to DEI. “The events of the last two years have certainly raised the visibility to these really important issues. It’s on everybody’s radar. There isn’t a CEO on the face of the planet who doesn’t have to address this in some way,” she said.

“The real question is, what’s the way, because we know there are ‘check the box type’ things and then there are ‘real initiatives’. So that’s really what’s at the heart of what’s going on now – ‘what are people actually doing?’.”

Every single one of us has a part to play in promoting DEI…it starts with simply having conversations

Where do leaders and influencers start the conversation around DEI besides in HR?

Well, according to Christmas, every single one of us has a part to play in ensuring DEI. So what we all need to figure out is, what’s our part and then do our part, says Christmas.

“It starts with simply having conversations – one person at a time. Get curious about people around you, raise your head up and pay attention to the things that you might not have ever paid attention to before,” she explained. “Organizations have been talking about this for years, decades. We’ve got programs, we’ve got policies, we’ve got an initiative, and they do have their place, like any other policy of the organization, but that’s not what really drives to change – it’s our behaviors. One person at a time.”

Leaders must start by assessing if they are walking the talk…are they clear about the values and behaviour expectations of their organization?

“We all understand that these company values are the guiding principles, the fundamental beliefs that the organization operates under,” said Christmas. “So the hard part is, how do they manifest in behaviours in the organization? And how do we hold ourselves accountable for those behaviors?”

“It takes courage on so many levels because no one wants to be on the wrong side of this. But executives are almost paralyzed to know what to do. So here are some things that I think about:

  • They can start really, truly assessing what does the organization stand for?
  • Are they clear with the values and the behaviour expectations
  • How are they behaving as leaders?
  • What is their brand?
  • Are they walking the talk?

“In some cases, there might require a changing of the guard in some respects because not all executives are actually on board, like recognizing their own biases, recognizing behaviours that don’t align, and it isn’t about the big things, meaning we know when somebody says something really inappropriate, like the N word, no one’s going to argue a wrong and no one’s going to argue that there should be consequences for that. But some of the other microaggressions that might not be so recognizable, they’re hard…they’re harder,” she added.

“And the thing about leadership that people need to understand is if you’re sitting in a position of leadership, not handling things is a really poor reflection on you as a leader. Human beings are going to make mistakes, they’re going to do the wrong thing, they’re going to say the wrong thing. But you as a leader have to stand forward and say, that’s not acceptable…what’s the plan?…what are we going to do about it? Because if you don’t, and if you ignore it, you’re kind of in the same bucket as a person who made the big mistake, because you don’t have the courage to go and deal with it,” she explained.

Behaviour has consequences…everyone needs to be educated!

“We do see organizations taking swift action, and that’s actually the best use case whoever you are,” said Christmas. “They have shown that inappropriate behaviour, commentary, whatever it is, is not going to be tolerated in any way.”

“Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone has to be fired. We’ve got this cancel culture thing. You might have to be depending on what you know, what the issue is. It just means there are consequences for what we do. So often one very swift public action is a test of leadership, and everybody understands right away, it catches everybody so everyone knows what it can actually take,” she explained.

Education is key in promoting and ensuring DEI, she added. “So there are things where it might be a very public response. In other cases, it might be, ‘we’ve got to get our organization together very quickly and deal with this’.”

Christmas used the example of Starbucks to illustrate this.

“Two years ago, I think it was, when two people of color that were treated very badly within Starbucks, they closed their sites down for like a week to do education and training. The financial cost of doing that was huge, but it sent a very big message that everybody needs to be educated and that this is not going to be tolerated. But we’re going to educate first..and we’re going to also take action, that’s a perfect example of addressing something and not letting it go by the wayside.”

What can Fortune 1000 companies really do to live up to this new decree?

“Fortune 1000 companies are being very public. They’re publicly stating on their website, in their LinkedIn presence, in their Facebook presence, what they stand for and what they’re doing. They’re promising very, very clearly that this is who we are as an organization for the world to see – ‘for the world to see’,” said Christmas. And then, she added, there are some things that she’s seen organizations doing that really elevate employee/people’s awareness of the multitude of challenges that exist around them. “Organizations need to create an environment where people coming from different backgrounds and cultures will really want to tell you about their experience, how they feel and what they go through on a daily basis.”

Christmas explained it simply and clearly: ”Ask your people. We have organizations that have representation across many fronts. Maybe the C-suite is not as diverse, but the organization certainly is and there are people from different backgrounds, and different cultures, there is a wealth of insight and information within the four walls of your organization. Start asking questions, start asking people, ‘What would you do? What do you need to see?’ Maybe even say, ‘can you tell us about your experience? Can you share what has been like to be a person of color in a predominantly, white environment?’ I’ll just use it as an example. People have asked me that question. You know, they’ve had no insight into what my journey might have been, but you asked me to share some of my stories, and I’ll share it. The key is to create an environment where they will tell you and that’s a great start.”

Let’s be the change you want to see in the world

“In this very complex world, we often have a lot of things coming at us and we can only take in so much at a time. So we filter and we take things in that reinforce some of the things that we believe, and this is where we have to make the shift is that – times have changed.”

“Things that might have been acceptable 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, or maybe even five years ago, are no longer acceptable. We’re smarter now, we understand that certain terms are inappropriate,” she said.

“When you know better you do better”, Maya Angelou.

“That’s really what the ticket is,” Christmas added. “If we could all just acknowledge there is stuff for us to learn. We don’t know at all some of the things that we think were correct or are correct or not. So let’s get ourselves educated, because it doesn’t have to be former corporate education. And let’s be – here’s the other quote – ‘let’s be the change we want to see in the world’.”

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Pragya Sehgal
Pragya Sehgal
Born and raised in the capital city of India - Delhi - bounded by the river Yamuna on the west, Pragya has climbed the Himalayas, and survived medical professional stream in high school without becoming a patient or a doctor. Pragya now makes her home in Canada with her husband - a digital/online marketing fanatic who also loves to prepare delicious meals for her. When she isn’t working or writing around tech, she’s probably watching art films on Netflix, or wondering whether she should cut her hair short or not. Can be contacted at [email protected] or 647.695.3494.

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