Coalition Building: Definitely not Death by Committee

It can be argued that the very essence of effective DEI change within organizations is to grow teams of people that cultivate allyship, safety, equity, inclusion and belonging in ways that are sustainable, scalable and systemic. So, how do we go about doing that?

To Begin

Many initiatives aimed at promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) start with a small group of individuals, typically one or two senior-level employees who are aware of the importance of embracing DEI within their organization, or who are responding to world events — such as the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 — and then begin to assess the mood for change with their people. Major DEI change is pretty much impossible unless the head of the organization is an active supporter who either is initially cajoled into supporting change or will encourage other leaders in the organization to develop a shared commitment to DEI work being done.

This is often the group that will, together, identify current dissatisfaction with the state of DEI within the organization in order to compile early evidence that supports a need for change to occur. Ideally, this results in communication to the organization that seeks to persuade many others to see the need and want to take part in seeing DEI change happen. If you consider Pritchett’s Rule regarding change resistance, this early message will most assuredly excite the change friendly 20%, rouse the 50% who sit on the proverbial change fence and, at the very least, awaken the most resistant 30% of people that something is up and they had better at least take note of it. 

The bottom line is this: Unless some minimum mass of both interest and participation is achieved early in the effort, nothing much worthwhile will happen. Or, as all too frequently occurs, DEI change will sit as part of a portfolio of an already-overworked HR manager who will mean well and perhaps even be a DEI change champion, but who cannot go it alone. When this is the situation it is too easy that DEI change devolves into creating a bunch of practices and/​or one-off training sessions that do not foster change that is sustainable, scalable and systemic, in order to just get something going.” 

Here are some examples we’re sure you’re familiar with:

  • Diversity-based events, celebrations and lunch n learns
  • Having courageous conversations
  • One-off trainings not led by experts in the field and not part of a larger L&D strategy
  • Targeted hiring
  • Ad hoc mentoring & sponsorship opportunities
  • ERGs and affinity groups without a specific purpose

When you don’t tie DEI change into a cogent and strategic change process — not just an initiative that sits on the side of someone’s desk — you will most assuredly be left with most employees remaining unengaged and frustrated. And, for those who were initially excited, they might just look elsewhere for a workplace that is committed to fostering equity, inclusion and belonging — the foundational markers of strong DEI practice. 

So, what is a DEI Guiding Coalition?

A guiding coalition — also often called a committee, council or alliance — is a group powerful enough to lead or drive an organization-wide change effort such as that necessitated in creating DEI transformation. This group will typically be composed of many of Pritchett’s 20% of people who are change friendly — those most committed to seeing DEI change happen and feel a compelling need to be part of the process of that happening. 

Who are the right people to lead within the Guiding Coalition?

DEI change occurs when powered by passion and intrinsic motivation and is sustained when people volunteer” to help; people who feel as if they GET to be involved — not that they HAVE to — have a much more positive impact on others. That is positive fuel for moving the work forward AND engaging others along the way.

Consider these questions when considering the composition of this group:

  • Power: are enough key players on board, including line managers and frontline staff (so that those not on the team can’t block the change initiative’s progress)?
  • Expertise: are various points of view — across levels and silos — adequately represented so that the coalition can make informed recommendations and/​or decisions?
  • Credibility: does the coalition have enough people with strong and/​or positive reputations so the rest of the organization will take the group seriously?
A guiding coalition with good managers but poor or weak leaders will not succeed. A managerial mindset will develop plans first, not vision; it will vastly under communicate the need for and direction of change; and, it will control rather than empower people.”

- John Kotter, Leading Change

The golden rule of coalition building is a diverse many, not a limited few. 

What will the Guiding Coalition do?

Simply put, guided by strong Terms of Reference and collaboratively developed team norms, the guiding coalition will create a DEI change strategy — complete with a DEI vision and fulsome action plan — that will drive the DEI work within the organization. 

Developing a strategy should include the utilization of DEI data that, early on and over time, will measure the cultural health of the organization related to safety, inclusion and belonging — to be able to assess the impact of various DEI efforts you’re undertaking. Ongoing DEI-related learning and development, led by trainers with solid expertise, assists in guiding coalition members to become more DEI-literate and even stronger champions of impactful DEI change.

At its very best, the DEI coalition will emulate, in the way they work together, what the experience of DEI change will create throughout the organization when the outcomes of their efforts are successful. And, these outcomes want to ensure that you’re building a culture where diverse identities and perspectives are welcome, where people feel safe to be who they are, engaged because they are contributing to the team and the organization’s success, committed because leadership cares about their professional growth and well-being, and a feeling that they belong because they are valued, connected and supported. 

How do you create a Guiding Coalition?

Your organization is, naturally, unique — in its size, mandate or mission, perhaps spread out geographically and, depending on where you are located, subject to external factors and forces that will impact the nature and direction of your DEI change work. You will have had past change efforts — not necessarily focused on DEI — realize greater or lesser success. You will generally have either a stronger managerial or leadership mindset, although a balance of the two is ideal. All of these factors, amongst others, will impact how you create, develop and empower your DEI guiding coalition. 

We can help! The MESH/​diversity DEI Builder Program provides a strong framework for helping you build a DEI coalition that allows you to take into account the unique nature of your organization. Tools and templates will guide you through the process of creating your guiding coalition and set the foundation for the work the team will engage together — with a strong emphasis on useful practices not just practices” to move your DEI transformation needle. Learning together within a community cohort of other HR and DEI professionals will expose you to the challenges faced by other organizations and offer relevant insights into setting a course that makes sense for your company.