Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Higher Ed - A Conversation with Trisha Daho

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In this episode of the Higher Ed Happy Hour podcast, Ian spoke with Trisha Daho about initiatives related to creating more diversity in hiring, development, and leadership in higher ed. Trisha's own company, Empowered, partners with leadership teams to create sustainable and measurable diversity, equity, and inclusion results.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. And if you'd like, you can listen to the conversation here:


Ian Evenstar: So Trisha after having spent over 16 years at a big four firm, and earned the title of partner, I know that you've clearly worked and led at the highest levels of corporate America. But you've left it all to enlighten the world and empower leaders to create, basically, greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. So I want to start with your why. Why is DEI so important to you?

Trisha Daho: Wow. Well, I started doing this work probably in the year 2000. So I've been doing the DEI work as part of a big four, and then on my own, since about 22 years ago. I would say the reason it's so important to me is that we have so many reasons and events outside of our control that limit our fullest potential. Think about all the people that have died in wars, who have died during childbirth, who have died because they were malnourished in the first two years of life. You can come up with a million different reasons why someone doesn't get to do the things they were meant to do. And I decided a long time ago that I was not going to be one of the reasons for anyone else. That I was going to make sure that if someone came into, at the time, my firm, and now my own firm, yes, and the firms we work with, that I was going to make sure that they had everything they needed to achieve their fullest potential. And that is kind of the mission of the firm. How do we help firms and their people reach their fullest potential? That's universal.

IE: That's great. I mean, thinking about limitations in general, just across the board, whether it's leadership or in your operations, but helping people realize their fullest potential is a great mission. That's a mission, certainly, a lot of us could get behind. If we kind of turn or focus our conversation quickly to higher education, I'm wondering about senior administration and the leadership that we see within universities and colleges, how do they seek a more diverse student base or faculty bench?

TD: Well, it's complicated, right? There are a couple of things. So if you take diversity and you take equity and you take inclusion, there are three very distinct and kind of their own lanes. So the first thing I would have them do is focus on inclusion. Are the faculty feeling like they're fully included in what they need? And do they have the support they need to do their jobs well and feel like they're reaching their fullest potential with those universities? Inclusion again is a universal concept. It is not about certain kinds of people. It is about everyone. Are we giving all of our people, in this case, faculty and students, the tools and the support they need to be at their best with us? That's what inclusion is all about. So start there, because if you bring greater diversity, you bring more underrepresented groups into your firm or your university or your other kinds of school systems, and you haven't handled the equity and inclusion pieces, it's going to be very problematic. They're just going to bleed right back out again. So start with yourselves. Take a good, long look at yourselves and decide, am I giving the fullest inclusion experience to all of the people that work for us already, the diversity we already have, and everyone else? And are we equitable in the way we give those opportunities? And the way we support our people? And the way we offer certain levels of development for those people? Are they getting paid equitably? I'm imagining there's a great deal of discretion in how faculty get paid. How are we determining that we've decided we are equitable and how that's getting needed out? So start with those things. As far as talent acquisition, what we call talent acquisition, and that can be talent acquisition of students or faculty, in this case, you need to come up with what I call expansive and explicit criteria. Because what you're going to discover is you've probably never really developed it, it might be up here, it might be understood among a small group of people. You need to come up with expansive criteria, because I am assuring you that you'll find talent in places you never thought to look. And you need to be explicit about what that is. What is the real skillset that makes someone truly thrive in our culture, in the organization we're putting together? And once you've done that, you communicate it broadly. That becomes a marketing exercise, both internal marketing, and external marketing to draw more underrepresented groups. Now, if you're just starting out and you have a very homogeneous faculty group or student body, I'm a big believer in being honest about it, and transparent. Your potential students are already looking at your websites and experiencing your campuses and saying, "Wow, do I really feel like I belong and fit in here?" It's probably even more critical that they feel that way in this environment versus the one I'm usually in, which is private sector stuff. So think about that. If you're not there, just be honest, "We want more diversity. This is why we want more diversity. This is how we think you can benefit our environment and our learning environment, because we have you." Be honest about it.

IE: It touches on branding a little bit, and being authentic, making sure that your communication strategy or your marketing strategy is authentic to who you are at the organizational level. And I was going to ask you, well, how do you be expansive and think about your ideal desired state, but then also be honest? And I think you answered it, by just saying, "Hey, this is the direction we want to grow. This is why diversity is so important. And we're not there yet, but we're still reaching for that."

TD: I can give you an example of a particular lane, because it's one I'm very familiar with. So I just did a keynote with a big alliance of a bunch of middle-market accounting firms yesterday. That industry in particular is in desperate need of greater diversity. They have almost no Black accountants, no Latino accountants. They have a real struggle finding it. And, frankly, the accounting industry isn't considered a very sexy industry. And so it doesn't attract people from all different kinds of places. So my advice to them was to focus on the skill sets and it's a marketing job for high schools, to get people into the programs that end up being available to them on the back end. It's the same with universities, where can I go and let people know... If I have great majors in education, in accounting, in whatever MIS, whatever it is that you're known for as a university, go into the communities where you usually get talent from, and that's usually somewhat geographic depending on who you are and where you're sitting, and go to the places you haven't been before, because you just didn't think that anyone was interested, and say, "Do you know how many things you can do with an accounting degree? Do you know how many different things you can do with the MIS degree?" If you've become a coder, all these different things. Open the eyes of people, so they know, they can see a path to it. I know it's a long haul, right? You're going to have to wait for four to six years on the back end of that. But that's how you get a pipeline built of potentially great talent that comes in from completely different places.

IE: There's a lifecycle to it. And that pipeline, as you refer to it, takes time to nurture and obviously build from the ground up. I love this point that you made, so I just want to highlight it again as part of this conversation that there are distinct lanes within DEI, and if you're not sure where to start, start with inclusion. Start with how you are including your current student body or faculty cohort, and making sure that they feel supported and included and equitable and kind of build from there. It's more foundational in a way. We just did a podcast recently talking about the empowered professor. And it was a similar thesis statement, in that episode, that discussion was about how to empower or include your professor, and have an open dialogue in everything from the performance review all the way down to what you're advising that they teach within their classes, making sure that they feel included in those decisions and that conversation?

TD: Right. And understanding that students and faculty, too, are going to need different things from you. That's why this work is so difficult and challenging, frankly, because you need to do strategic development, high-end strategy, and vision, and implement those strategies. At some point gets reduced down to, how do I personally handle each person and give them what they need to be successful? And how do I hold myself accountable for that? How do I hold my people accountable for that? Because people need very different things.

IE: It's true. Even just the diversity of how you deal one-on-one in the wide variety of relationships that you have. It seems like there could also be a case, and I'm going to try to draw this out of you a little bit, where, one does help the other, there's an overlap. So although there're distinct lanes that you can focus on from a strategic point of view or operational point of view, there's probably also synergy that starts to happen among these three different lanes. Would you agree with that?

TD: Absolutely. And there have been a lot of people that do statistics and research that I don't do, I just read their results. And what they say is that, "Once you get about a third, a third of your leadership, a third of your faculty, in this case, a third of your student body that comes from underrepresented groups, organically start to change the culture of how those places run, and the way they run with regard to these issues around DEI." I have yet to work with any organization that has actually achieved that yet. But if you do, you start to see that those voices at the tables, where things get decided, and where things get determined how they're going to run and how we're going to engage, they actually have a massive impact on what happens. And it happens more organically. And it's already working with the strategies you've put in place to make that happen.

IE: What is it about the current, say, hiring process for faculty or the current recruitment strategy for prospective students, what is it about those processes that kind of limit diversity?

TD: Oh, well, we don't have that much time to talk, do we? Well, I'm going to take a stab at this and you can tell me what you think. Okay? So we tend to recruit from places we're comfortable with the people, and they look like us. We tend to use our networks, which look a lot like us. I call it existing in a bubble, to a certain extent. I'm going to date myself here, but if you went to a lot of people's Facebook pages and looked at their friends and looked at the pictures where they go to social events, they are with people that look just like them most of the time. So that translates to how we come to work and how we hire faculty and how we recruit students. We are more comfortable with people who look like us, that's a whole unconscious bias discussion. And so we can shortcut what we decide about people, because they look like us, and make decisions about whether to hire them based on that. I'm from Ohio, it's a big deal to people when they find out I'm from Ohio, and they're also from Ohio. Not at all, if they're not from Ohio, right? I went to certain universities. I'm Gen X. So if I'm in their generation and they understand... I can shortcut the cultural relevance of that. People pick people they feel comfortable with, and that typically means they look like them. They come from the same backgrounds. You have to intentionally decide to do something different to disrupt that, and that goes for students and for faculty, in this case. So it is getting comfortable, having really important conversations, and holding yourself accountable to that, to have people that do not look like you. It takes an intentional movement in another direction for that to happen.

IE: And I want to come back to your reason why, because I think it's important for our audience to hear this, the reason why you want to be intentional with that shift away from hiring people that look like you, or recruiting students that kind of match your student body. It's because you don't want to limit your full potential, either at the organizational level, the leadership level, or even from a curriculum standpoint, in terms of like maybe the academic research that your organization is putting out.

TD: Right. And the results are better. I mean, every single way this is measured is about a 700 to 800% increase in performance, however you define performance in your organization, when you do these kinds of things over a 10-year period. So in businesses, it's literally revenue and bottom line profit, and in nonprofit organizations, it's all the other measures that mean you've been successful.

IE: Can you actually apply attribution back to this initiative? Let's say DEI is an initiative, and I know that your firm makes this claim that, "Hey, it's going to help you with the bottom line, advancement, revenue, enrollment numbers, et cetera." Can you actually tie those DEI results back to measurements?

TD: Yes. We always implement measurements in the firms we work with. If you're not willing to do that, you're probably just doing performative work and it's not really substantive, which is going to actually negatively impact the way that your organization works. So, yes, we do measurements around all kinds of things. Talent pipeline, so pipeline management is who do we have up and coming in, let's say, the faculty realm? Who is potentially up for potential promotions, running the department, whatever it is? How are our faculty rated? And I don't know how performance management happens in that realm, so you'll have to inform me of that. Are we considering how all the attributes they bring to the table are considered, for whether they get promoted, whether they get access to new opportunities, whatever it is? And it's the same with students. For example, if you have a rating system, do we have high performers? How many high performers do we have? How many of them are retained? It's very easy to do the diversity, right? We have 10% underrepresented people in our organization now, our goal is 15% by 2026, whatever it is. So there are many ways to measure it, for sure. Just employee engagement, student engagement, you can measure those things and you can survey them and you can determine all kinds of things from that data.

IE: I agree. And I think putting some measurement tools in place is part of the solution here that you're describing, correct?

TD: Yes, absolutely. Because if you don't, well, I mean, I'm a business person, you'll never achieve it as fast as you want to. And if it loses momentum, it has negative backpedaling effects on your culture and how people react and experience your organization.
IE: Let's talk a little bit more about marketing and communications, because I think for those who listen to this podcast, this is probably the number one issue that they're facing. If it's not capital raises or increasing the endowment, it's ensuring that the quantity or quality of students is increasing. And obviously, the way you communicate, and the way you show up on your marketing channels is a big part of that recruitment cycle, so being intentional, upfront, and focusing on inclusion is part of this mission. What are some other ways, or maybe there's one other way, that you want to highlight where we could actually develop the right marketing technique or enhance our marketing technique to achieve a higher level of diversity, equity, and inclusion?

TD: The environment of universities is extremely competitive, that's just first off. I am certain that the people who listen to your podcast have already had a lot of work that they've put in to figure out how to differentiate themselves against the competitors they have in the field. I'm a big, huge... I call it finding the magic. So what makes you uniquely qualified, in this case, to attract exactly the kind of people you're most interested in? So that's like three steps, who is my ideal student? What does that person look like? What are the expansive criteria I'm applying to that? What differentiates me as a university against all the other places someone could go to school with this person, this ideal student avatar, so to speak? And then, what are those differentiators that are relevant and meaningful to them? Now I'm a big believer in asking them. Look at the students that you have now that you'd love to have 150 more of, if you could, ask them why they feel like they're thriving in your university. They're going to give you really interesting stuff that you'd never come up with on your own. And then bring that back and message it, determine consistent messaging. Consistency is extremely important. If you are inconsistent, it makes people really nervous, and they do not engage. So consistent messaging around what makes people that you're looking for thrive in your university? And why do you most want them in the university? How you're uniquely qualified to make them have a great experience.

IE: And in that process, you will find the magic. I love that. I love that.

TD: That sounds like, I guess, that could be determined as a cop-out, but finding magic. Every single place, every single university has some magic that makes people feel like they're exactly where they're supposed to be, and great learning happens and great things happen. They all have that. It's finding how to articulate that to the people you most want to engage with. And that is where the magic happens.

IE: I love it. Too often we talk about brand differentiation and your unique value proposition, your UVP, so it takes it out the world of jargon and makes it a little bit more tangible, in a way. Like, yeah. What makes you special? Where is that magic happening on campus or within your leadership?

TD: Right. And it has to go deep. Don't say the same things that everybody else is saying. Let's take where I spend most of my time, which is with professional service firms. We have integrity. We have a strong work ethic. We're responsive. Well, I would hope so. Don't start with like the things that everyone should have no matter what, start with the things that are uniquely, fantastically yourself, and then find out how they're relevant to the people you want most.

IE: In my experience, we've worked with a handful of programs that they want to differentiate. They want to say something unique. They want to position their program in a way that can actually, by comparison, show how they are special compared to other programs. But there's a huge element of fear of taking that next step. Taking a little bit of that risk of, "Hey, I'm going to expose myself or present our program in a way that maybe feels a little avant-garde or a little bit against the grain." So when you're drafting this communication strategy, and let's say, you've gone through that exercise of asking those individuals, "What makes them thrive?" And you've gotten the perspectives that you need. How do you then overcome the fear that this is the right move? That this is actually going to work. It's not going to be a liability, but rather an asset to your communication strategy.

TD: Right. Well, I guess I'll start with, I have never ever worked with any client that didn't go through this process at a deep level and be much more successful than they were prior to it. That's just the way it is. Niches make money, they make more students, they make better faculty, whatever it is. If you really do the smart workaround of who I most want and what they most want from us, you can't go wrong with that. Trying to be like other people is actually a much bigger problem, and a much bigger liability than actually determining what makes you extraordinary. I mean, I could take my own alma mater and tell you what made me feel like I was in a really special place, where really special things were going to happen that was going to help me the rest of my life. And that's what you're trying to get to. Everyone wants to feel that way when they go to college.

IE: Yeah, definitely. And I think that it's often the case where you learn what makes a place special, like through the actual experience of the place itself. And so from the point of view of a leader, how do you communicate that? How do you get someone to feel or sense what makes a place special before they actually experience it? That's a big challenge. Let's come back to this idea of doing your focus group study, or identifying who your ideal or key avatar is, I'm going to use that word, your key avatar is, and then asking them, "Hey, what is it about this place that is making you thrive, or supporting you in a way that's unique and special?" And then leveraging that as part of your kind of core communication strategy. This seems to be one way to break down some blind spots that you might have about your existing value proposition. Are there other ways to maybe address these implicit biases that we have, or these blind spots, or improve the optics when it comes to seeing who you are as a brand and organization and trying to re-clarify that?

TD: Well, that's actually asking the tough questions, right? The best way to remove blind spots is to find out how people experience you in a way that isn't so great, and isn't that positive. Understanding what they most need from you that they're not getting. And that should be part of any focus group initiative. We get great data from the actual surveys. So a survey is really giving you, this is my perception of what I'm experiencing. This is my observation of what I'm experiencing. It's great data, and we can divvy it up by demographics. So we can see are our Black students experiencing a different thing than our white students are? Are our women experiencing a different thing than our men are? It gives us great data.
When we do focus groups, in kind of open forums, with more diverse groups of people, we get so much depth and context that we don't get from the surveys. And they're going to tell you things that surprised you, and maybe alarm you, but you can act on those things in ways that you can then filter through a talent acquisition strategy and how you communicate to the rest of the world, why you're different. And I highly recommend that. It is just a data point. It's like, no one wants to get on the scale, but the scale is just a data point. It's one point in time that is going to be different tomorrow, hopefully, right? Hopefully, in the right way. But you can't really do that. You're not as effective if you don't know the data point. So ask the tough questions, too. Reach out to people that currently are the underrepresented people in your organization and find out what is challenging for them about your place. And turn that into a positive for what you're doing differently, and then message that.

IE: So taking in some qualitative feedback, in addition to the quantitative or the data point feedback is key. Do you ever find yourself doing more of an ethnography approach, where you go in just as sort of a silent observer? So instead of doing the focus group, where you're studying them, you actually go in, and they kind of study you as you're collecting info. Do you ever position yourself within an organization to just be a fly on the wall and take notes?

TD: Yes. We do a lot of meetings with our clients. So we see how they interact with each other. Who's engaged? Who's not engaged? It's very, very telling. There are usually a couple of people in every meeting that are truly engaged. We've been in this COVID land forever, right? Who has their video on versus off? Who is actually engaging in the conversation? Who is participating? What are they saying? What is the tenor of the leadership with the rest of the people they're working with? Those observations are kind of priceless, but you can't do them yourself. It is extremely hard to do that, to see your own stuff in the realm of how you're interacting with other people and what the resulting culture is. You have to have someone observe that for you.

IE: And that goes back to, I think, something you mentioned earlier, which is you have to be vulnerable, asking the tough questions to break down blind spots. That can feel uncomfortable, but it's that vulnerability that is going to make things a bit more intimate and authentic when you're trying to communicate or adjust to those-

TD: You're going to get way better results. Yes. I call it, self-reflection. So this work is nearly impossible to achieve if you don't have a lot of self-reflection, and that means getting uncomfortable. My best clients, with the greatest successes, no matter what we're doing with them have way better results when they're self-reflective. The work is way harder if there's no self-reflection involved.

IE: Yep. So let's kind of maybe turn the perspective a little bit toward the individual who is being recruited. We'll think of maybe a faculty member in this case, and then maybe look at students. But if you're kind of executing against an initiative like this, and you're trying to have better DEI markers in place, and get to that one-third or that 33% kind of holy grail land that you mentioned earlier, how do you keep the individual who you're hiring from feeling like they're just a token hire?

TD: Well, you don't make them the chairman of the DEI committee right off the bat. That's number one. Again, full transparency. You should be learning about that person a lot more than you're asking them to put themselves in the position of being "a token." "I want to understand your perspective. I want you invited to all these tables." Give that person a truly inclusive experience, and then it's not tokenism. Give them the responsibility you hired them for, give them the authority to make it happen, and give them the bank account that is required to make that happen too. We see a lot of people, when they hire, especially, let's say, leaders of any sort into organizations that are from underrepresented groups, they're often isolated. So they're not fully engaged with the rest of the group right off the bat. They often don't have the authority and support to get things done in the role they're actually hired to do. And they don't get the level of engagement from their own leadership teams that they report to early on, so the onboarding is really faulty. And that's why they bleed back out again. So if you can rectify that by making sure they have a fully inclusive experience. What are your expectations for the first 90 to 180 days? What do you want to achieve? How can I help you achieve it? Where do I need to invite you? How do I kind of power map you into my organization and make sure you have all the right connections? Those things are really important to happen. They happen, I don't want to say naturally, but they happen by happenstance when you're inviting someone that looks just like you into an organization, where everyone else looks exactly like you too. And there's already this perceived connection, and everyone feels more comfortable. You have to, again, intentionally disrupt that by making sure the person has the right inclusion experience when they show up.

IE: Let's refer to it maybe as like the elephant in the room, do you talk about the elephant in the room with this individual?

TD: Oh yeah, absolutely. I'd like full transparency, open book all the time, pretty much. So, yes, absolutely. Here's what that does. That makes me feel like I can come to you and say, "The elephant in the room is starting to bother me a little bit. This is what I'm experiencing." If you don't do that, if you're not transparent about that, they're not going to feel comfortable telling you what the issues are and challenges are for them. And you're not going to be able to do anything about them. And then you're six months down the road thinking, "Wow, this is too hard."

IE: That's great. So transparency as a part of that process, that onboarding process, and keeping that communication open, direct, and then not making any special exceptions to them over others. That's great. You mentioned, or you've spoken about in the past this idea of inclusion peer advisory experience, it's a mouthful. I'm hoping maybe you could just, in your own words, again, describe what that is.

TD: So that, in a nutshell, is an experience where up and comers, we call them up and comers, that come from underrepresented groups are put together in a group that we call a peer advisory group. And what that group is charged with is helping each other be successful, and resolve issues, and develop, up-level skill sets. That's usually with someone like us that helps you do that, makes it very strategic, that has goals and measurements associated with it. But we knew really early on that the power of those people in a room together was greater than we could ever be just being the only voice in the room, telling people or teaching people or whatever it is. So we wanted to create a combination of those things that allow people to kind of strategize their own career path with us, figure out the strategies of how to up-level skill sets, and their team underneath them skill sets. And be thriving and get the right inclusion experience, because they have this peer advisory group that's helping them with everything they do. My peers in my old career were way more important to how I worked, functioned, and thrived in the firm than my leadership was. I just had a lot more access to them. The shared experiences were really important in understanding how to navigate the organization. And my peers were so important to how I kind of accelerated my own career path, but I knew that was something that should be kind of universal for people.

IE: Is there an element of like a support group that is built-in?

TD: Yes. I'm sure you're familiar with the term affinity group, like ERGs, and employee resource groups. I have a really hard time with ERGs, a lot of the time. Because there's usually a complete disconnect between an affinity group or ERG and what is actually driving change in the people culture side of an organization. So that's a problem for me. They need to be connected. So yes, absolutely, it's a support group. It's, "I have your back. I understand you. I understand where you're trying to go, and I'm going to give you my feedback on how to do that based on my own experiences that are very similar." That's it in a nutshell.

IE: Okay. And if we're looking at, I don't know. Let's say, in the school of business at a private university, how would you structure these different peer advisory groups? Are there boundaries or edges on how you kind of create these cohorts?

TD: The only thing I would not do is put people who actually are really directly in competition with each other in the same group. Other than that, likely situated is what I call it. So mid-level faculty should probably be together. People that are in leadership positions should probably be together. And the very top brass leadership should be together. So that is how I would structure it in that environment. It can take all kinds of forms. If you took any other kind of for-profit organization, it doesn't matter what your discipline is, it doesn't matter what your lane is as far as what you do every day, but you should have similar goals, similar aspirations, and similar skill to develop for where you're going next.

IE: Okay. And it's up to the group to come up with an agenda if they're meeting on a regular basis? Or there's an agenda that you would recommend for groups such as these?

TD: Yeah. It'll be different depending on what group it is. But, yeah, we would typically help them figure that out. But it's, typically, what are our individual strategies around what we want to accomplish in the next 12 months, let's say? What are our gaps around the skill sets and the support we need to make that happen? And how are we going to help each other fill those gaps, and get the support we need? And hold each other accountable for it and get the development we need either as a group or individually to make it happen.

IE: That's great. Well, Trisha, thank you for your time and your experience in this area. I know it's a difficult topic. It has been kind of pegged as a little bit of a buzzword or a box that you have to check along the way. So I appreciate a more, dare I say, inclusive approach to this topic. Do you have any final takeaways or maybe some key ideas or thoughts that you want to lead us to, or leave us with?

TD: I guess my last word will be because of what you just said. If institutions are not actually thinking about how to make DEI a very important part of the fabric of every cultural people discussion, HR discussion, with regard to their own faculty, their own administration, and their own student body, they're going to be left behind. It is a cultural imperative at this point. It is not really a check the box. And the people that are coming into your institutions, students, and employees, care about this, whether they are different or not. If you are homogeneously white, under the age of 40, we care about this. So it matters. People are making decisions on where they spend their time based on this, regardless of how they show up. And so it's a cultural imperative that actually benefits everyone, and is going to matter to everyone in your organization.


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