A Provocative Perspective on Diversity & Inclusion


by Dr. Kristen Liesch

“So, meet your people where they're at, listen to them, learn from them, then act strategically on what you learn.”

In November 2018, Crescendo co-founder and CMO - Stefan Kollenberg - reached out with some questions about Diversity & Inclusion for a piece of content he was creating.

My thoughts - as well as those of Danielle Strang (Head of People Ops at Jobber), ZJ Hadley (Consultant at Bright + Early), and Jeff Waldman (founder of SocialHR Camp) - were compiled in an article, “4 HR Leaders Talk: Creating Inclusive Workplaces.

Below are my (sometimes contentious) answers to his questions, in full:


What does D&I mean to you?

To be frank, my relationship with "D&I" is fraught.

The work that D&I is associated with has, in so many ways, been underway for more than a century. The messages have evolved, the stakeholders have played musical chairs, the contextual focus has shifted, but at the core of the core of the movement - in my opinion - is justice.

Today's D&I (or DIBs, or EDI, or gender equality, or equity...) is yesterday's suffrage movement, civil rights battle, affirmative action, etc.

In any case, we seek to create a world where every person has an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential, unfettered by unjust barriers and discrimination.

Your background and how you became an advocate for D&I.

The journey that has brought me to the work I do today has by no means been linear.

I grew up in a relatively conservative religious community in a homogenous small city in central Alberta. In that context, I learned the incredible power of empathy to create and foster community and forge connections across diverse individuals and groups. Later, as a teacher in rural Alberta, I saw firsthand the divergence of possibility - an expansion of possibility versus a narrowing of possibility - that was reflective of a child's socioeconomic status, and the injustice of a system that saw underrepresented groups disadvantaged. This paradigm was doubly evident to me when I taught in the public school system in Auckland, New Zealand. In this role, I worked to see this divergence narrowed through innovative inclusive education programming that considered the diversity of the student population and emphasized an empathetic learning process.

My trajectory into the space where equality champions were working was truly determined when I was pursuing my PhD. I remember very distinctly holding my infant daughter in one arm, and reading firsthand accounts written by women who, more than a century ago, fought for legal personhood. On a day-to-day basis, however, turn-of-the-century women were also fighting for many of the rights, privileges and access that we continue to demand today.


This made me angry.

Really angry.

Looking down at my daughter, I knew that I had to do whatever I could to accelerate change. I've spent the past six years researching, refining and implementing a systems-based methodology for change. Today, my partner at Women's Work Institute - Anna - and I work everyday to help leaders and organizations connect the dots between equality, effectiveness, and prosperity.

What are some things that folks can do to build D&I into their company's DNA?

There are any number of strategic interventions that an organization can deploy (progressive parental leave policies, reformed sexual harassment reporting procedures), and a lot of innovative tech tools (I won't call them 'solutions') that can be implemented (recruitment/hiring de-biasers like Applied, GapJumpers, TalVista, employee engagement tools like Kudos, sexual harassment reporting mechanisms, and, of course, an individualized approach to increasing inclusive capacity like Crescendo).

However, in my mind, the most powerful way an organization - small or enormous - can move toward becoming a more just enterprise (and therefore, more diverse and more inclusive) is by cultivating an empathetic culture. 

Listen. Really listen to your people. All your people. Not just the people you think you should listen to. And listen well. Don't listen to interrupt, to argue, to defend, to confirm, to tick a box. Listen to learn.

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That way, not only do you gain valuable insights that can equip you to become more efficient and prosperous, but you have the opportunity to encounter an individual's singularity and see things through their unique perspective.

There is ample evidence that shows when we get to know a person who is different from us, we become more attuned to their experience and act, in many cases, in a way that is more just.

Do you know of some companies or communities that are doing an incredible job at building inclusive workplaces? What are some of the things that they are doing right?

Again, to be frank, none spring to mind.

That isn't to say there aren't many, many organizations working admirably and emphatically toward this goal.

Let me offer this: if you're looking to a role model organization - one that is hitting all the right notes - their D&I efforts should be mainstreamed. Look for the following:

  • A D&I champion (Chief Diversity Officer?) who has teeth at the decision-making table and who has the mandate to educate themselves on research-based strategies. SIDE NOTE: Equality champions in STEMM are beginning to share, open-source-style, research and strategies via #sharedmandate.

  • A true strategic linking of overall org. objectives and D&I strategy (D&I is, after all, mission-critical)

  • Frequent data capture, analysis and publication: who are you hiring, in what numbers, to what salaries, who is being promoted, when and to what salaries? Allow data to identify symptoms.

  • Systems-based interventions: review policy, procedures and even the physical working environment. Interrupt bias in the recruitment, hiring and promotion practices with tech tools (they will help bridge the gap between intent and action).

  • A human component. 

Allow me to linger on that last one.

The conversation in society (think: #MeToo, etc.) is seeing a lot of organizations rush to plug the leaks in their system. This rush is primarily motivated by compliance and risk mitigation. This means that, in many cases, tech "tools" that promise to advance D&I are being seen as "solutions" when, at the end of the day, the effectiveness of those tools still rests with humans.


People who will either be extrinsically motivated to comply, or intrinsically motivated to act in ways that will foster a community of collaboration and empathy.

So: meet your people where they're at, listen to them, learn from them, then act strategically on what you learn.


Kudos to Stefan for creating space for the exchange of ideas in candid, courageous conversations, designed to advance equality and effectiveness.

Kristen Liesch