How companies can ‘do the work’ of DEI

Strategist shares three-phase process to fostering a culture of inclusion within an organization.
289
Ana Ramirez-Saenz. Courtesy Ana Ramirez-Saenz

A local consultant says now is an “optimal time” to begin the work of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), but many organizations might not know where to start. 

Ana Ramirez-Saenz is founder and president of LaFuente Consulting, established in 2000 and based in greater Grand Rapids. The firm uses a straightforward, business-focused approach, an objective perspective, and data-driven strategies to help companies align their diversity, inclusion and cultural intelligence with corporate objectives.

The Business Journal featured Ramirez-Saenz’ journey to becoming a DEI consultant in a recent Inside Track profile.

Ramirez-Saenz works with clients in many industries across the country, from West Michigan to Washington, D.C., both as a solo operator in her firm and via strategic partnerships with other service providers.

With a background in finance and corporate leadership, Ramirez-Saenz’ journey to DEI expertise came about organically, as she found herself invited to the table and trusted to advise, both formally on committees and informally in conversation, on how the companies she worked for at the time could diversify their talent pools.

When her daughter entered kindergarten, she felt the time was right to start her own firm, and LaFuente Consulting was born. “La Fuente” means “the fountain,” or “the source” in Spanish.

For Ramirez-Saenz, the source of her passion stems from her experience as an immigrant from Mexico to Holland, Michigan, as a child, and her sense that West Michigan had much room for improvement when it came to the equity and inclusion components of DEI — much like many companies did when she was starting her career in the 1980s and ’90s. They were striving for diversity, the “D,” but not always understanding the equal importance of the “E” and “I.”

Today, Ramirez-Saenz gets a front-row seat to the breakthroughs companies experience when they put in the work.

“I’m going through those moments right now with a company that I’ve been working with for four-and-a-half years,” she said. “It is so exciting to see that they are engaging, that they have taken on building the capacity in turn with my recommendations, my structure, my guidance, and they’re following it in collaboration, and it’s really working. The comments that I get in our team meetings and in my follow-ups is, Ana, I tried that, and you wouldn’t believe it. It worked. People are engaged. There are so many ideas. People are so enthusiastic. They’re on fire. They want to do this.”

Ramirez-Saenz said it’s crucial to de-mystify the idea of DEI work for her clients.

“It’s no different than running a production line, understanding logistics, doing accounting — it’s no different because you have to invest in it, and you have to do the work. And so, putting it in a perspective where you see it as being part of your business, that you owe it to your business to create a culture that will attract talent and, more importantly, will keep them, is critical to your survival,” she said.

“Many times, people have been thinking about this as a side initiative, and that has to stop. People, hopefully, will begin to see that this is part of who they are. … People are looking now, and the way that we think about the guiding principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, we really need to (arrive) at the inclusion and belonging piece, because of where we are today in our economy, in our society, and how we want to move forward together.”

So, how does Ramirez-Saenz help companies begin this journey? She engages with them in an intensive, three-phase process.

  1. Discovery

Ramirez-Saenz said, as a consultant, she needs to understand what a business is facing — what some of the critical issues are that are impacting their business; how they view diversity, equity and inclusion within their organization; and what they need to do to become more competitive. 

“The term used to be ‘employer of choice,’ but (it’s really about how) to be able to attract that talent, and what culture are they building, what culture they have now,” she said.

To assess this, the discovery phase includes listening to who the organization says it is versus who its employees perceive it to be and learning what work it does and how well it functions.

“I would say that 90% of the time, the discovery phase leads us do some type of climate assessment, some type of cultural assessment, some type of survey to take a pulse of the organization and to gain some insights and sentiments and perceptions of the employees, relative to where the organization wants to go with diversity, equity and inclusion — to say, OK, where are we as a baseline?” Ramirez-Saenz said.

The discovery phase involves looking at the data gleaned with the executive leadership team in the room — a process that can bring surprises, particularly for organizations that are unaware of employee sentiment — then discussing what it will take to achieve the goals the leaders want to accomplish.

“Many of them have a good sense of where they truly are, but what they don’t have is a sense of how their employees feel and even their middle managers,” Ramirez-Saenz said, noting this could be because the leadership team has had those conversations but has not shared them with middle management. This disconnect or gap can then mean that goals aren’t being carried out like the leadership team desires.

  1. Strategy

The strategy phase is about using the knowledge of an organization’s gaps and disconnects to chart a new path forward, Ramirez-Saenz said. Only once you know the gaps and how they are putting you at a disadvantage can you begin to address them.

Some questions to answer in this phase might include, “Where do we want to go? Do we have what is necessary in place to be able to do that, whether it’s capacity, whether staff, whether budget, whether resources, whether understanding and clarity?” Ramirez-Saenz said.

She said shortcuts cannot be taken during this strategy-building phase.

“It needs to be done to be able to understand an organization and then develop in conjunction with the broad spectrum of people across the organization to build those strategies and action plans to then implement,” she said.

Ramirez-Saenz added different consultants have different approaches.

“Many of them might do the first two phases — the discovery, the strategic plan and recommendations — but not necessarily get into the implementation,” she said. “They will take the data, give it to the organization and say, here are recommendations for you to do this. … We do all three phases: discovery, strategy development and implementation.”

  1. Implementation

Ramirez-Saenz said LaFuente Consulting walks alongside clients to assist them on their path to improvement, however long it takes. 

“This is not done in isolation; this is done with a cross-section of the organization, because diversity, equity and inclusion, and now belonging, as we are now moving forward into that phase of inclusivity to belonging, cannot be looked at as a side initiative. It really has to be part and parcel,” she said. “For the past 10, 15 years, I have been saying this is not an initiative. This is part of how you do business. This is part of your culture, and this is part of how you engage your employees, because without that, it’s not successful.”

Ramirez-Saenz said every company is at a different point in their journey, and it’s the consultant’s job to meet organizations where they are and assess whether they have the wherewithal to put the discovery and strategic plan into action.

“This is not a short-term situation,” she said.

It’s her job to act as a facilitator and trainer, helping companies through the process of motivating behavioral change when it’s needed to create organizational change.

For many reasons, some companies have had to put the implementation phase on hold, due to the economy, due to the pandemic, supply chain challenges, the labor shortage — the list goes on.

“Many organizations are trying to figure out (how to) survive first. ‘I need to really get my operations in order, things are changing so fast that right now, this is all that I can do.’ I know that there are some issues … with talent acquisition/talent retention, and so a lot of organizations right now are trying to figure that out and also trying to bring some calm and a steady hand to their operation, and I think that is absolutely the right thing to do,” Ramirez-Saenz said.

“However, you cannot do it without thinking about the impact to your corporate culture. That’s one of the things that any organization, no matter who they are, no matter how big or small they are, has to ask themselves: ‘I am in this state of flux, and I need to understand what my culture is. Maybe I knew what it was pre-pandemic, but what is it now? What do I want it to be in the future?’”

Ramirez-Saenz said now is “the optimal time” for organizations to ask these questions, “because they have a phenomenal opportunity to change and/or build upon the strengths that they had pre-COVID” and because millennials who grew up with a more diverse workforce than ever before now are stepping into roles of power and leadership and are ready to make changes.

“It is an optimal time to be able to engage in these discussions and then take things in a phased progression,” Ramirez-Saenz said.

“(People) want what is called cognitive diversity, meaning they want to work with people of different backgrounds, experiences and knowledge bases, bringing a whole new way of thinking about issues, which then drives innovation.”

Ramirez-Saenz said the best consultants pay attention and work to build bridges.

“I focus on those that are engaged and who want to move forward,” she said.

More information on LaFuente Consulting is at lafuenteconsulting.com.

Facebook Comments