Diversity, equity and inclusion are everywhere these days. It’s hard to pick up a corporate publication or business magazine without encountering a reference to DE&I. That’s fantastic, but companies must remember that DE&I initiatives only carry weight—and spark progressive change—when they’re aligned with a business’s core values and culture.
In other words, diversity, equity and inclusion can’t simply be tacked onto a broader HR agenda. I’ve spent more than 20 years in human resources, and I’ve witnessed that meaningful diversity in the workplace often boils down to leadership and recruitment.
Architecture, engineering and construction is America’s sixth-largest industry, based on employment data. More than 12.5 million people worked in AEC in 2020. We have a responsibility to ensure that the AEC workforce reflects our world. That mission starts with company leaders’ messaging and HR teams’ hiring efforts.
In 2020, when McKissack & McKissack received Inc. magazine’s Best in Business Award for its leadership in workforce diversity, the company’s top executives were the engine behind that achievement. For me, inspirational leadership is No. 1. It’s what drives employees—myself included—to feel inspired to do their best work. Inspiration comes from management, from mentorship and from leadership.
Leaders’ shared beliefs and communicated values are an essential ingredient in company culture. Through conscious and unconscious actions, leaders shape culture, Harvard Business Review notes. The most skillful leaders notice when change is required and adjust—and communicate to staff—accordingly. When leaders express genuine, sustained interest in diversity and inclusion and take consistent action to ensure DE&I initiatives are meaningful, employees on all levels are more likely to buy in and feel seen.
The same goes for inclusive leadership. Diverse leadership teams generate more diversity. When diverse job seekers look up a company’s top executives and see a homogenous group, they receive a message that can be off-putting. As a professional Black woman, I know what that feels like. For most of my career, in the AEC industry and outside its borders, I’ve earned a seat at tables where no one looked like me. Fortunately, I’ve arrived at company where DE&I is part of the DNA. As a minority- and woman-owned business, McKissack practices what it preaches. By hiring me as chief people officer and thinking creatively and intentionally about recruiting efforts, McKissack is building an accomplished and inclusive AEC team at the leadership level and beyond.
When McKissack’s CEO Deryl McKissack talks about her 7-point plan to achieve diversity, equity and inclusion and to eliminate racism in the AEC industry, she is speaking from the heart, informed by 40-plus years of experience. Bureau of Labor data for 2021 substantiates her position: Women’s workforce representation was 11% in the construction industry and 27% in architecture and engineering, while Black representation was 6.4% in the construction industry and 4.7% in architecture and engineering.
AEC cannot afford to continue turning away talent because of race or gender. Creating a diverse workplace is not only the right thing to do—it’s also a strategy that pays off. In fact, the relationship between diversity on executive teams and financial outperformance has strengthened, according to a series of McKinsey research reports.
Diversity also extends beyond race, ethnicity and gender. Inclusive hiring efforts should factor in sexual orientation, age, religion and diverse abilities. This is especially important to younger workers. Millennials, for example, are looking for environments that feel progressive and are aligned with their beliefs. The same can be said of Gen Z members, who will soon enter the workforce.
Making sure that you're moving towards a more progressive culture is a key task for human resources leaders going forward. A company’s culture and core values can be alluring for prospective candidates who want to be part of something bigger than themselves. In short, when a company’s core values resonate, they help attract dynamic staff members—and retain them. On the flip side, when core values are vague, company culture is ailing and DE&I effort are lackluster or ignored altogether, employees leave, as the Great Resignation has proven.
HR leaders should also lean into creative strategies for building solid, diverse teams. My approach to team building is not to wait for individuals to come to me. I reach out to my network. I cold source and scour the web. I live and breathe LinkedIn. When you’re looking for talented leaders to enlist for key leadership roles, you can’t sit back and wait. Everyone is fair game. I leave no stone unturned when trying to find the right candidate.
Like a garden, workforce diversity programs require careful tending and consistent monitoring to flourish. Equity and inclusion can’t just be buzzwords or onetime efforts. They require ongoing hard work, thoughtfulness and enthusiasm.
DE&I nourishes a company’s culture, allowing it to thrive. Having individuals from all different walks of life and all different backgrounds coming together creates something dynamic, engaging, and inspirational. You can’t have that kind of energy without diversity and inclusion. At McKissack, we’re attracting diverse talent because we are a diverse organization through and through, working each day to become ever more inclusive and inspire the rest of the AEC industry to follow suit.