An Apex Approach to D&I: Acknowledgement, Accountability and Action – A Case Study

Erikajoy Daniels, 
SVP & Chief Diversity Officer,
Advocate Aurora Health

When Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care came together in 2018 to form Advocate Aurora Health, we wanted to ensure diversity and inclusion (D&I) remained a top priority for our newly combined health system. To make this aim a reality, our D&I strategy had to permeate throughout the organization through shared ownership and accountability among leadership and all 70,000 team members. As one of the top ten largest not-for-profit health systems in the country, we needed to start at the top with support from our board of directors to achieve alignment among all stakeholders.

Like many organizations, our board provides a high-level view of the current and future state of our work and aids in aligning efforts to our broader organizational strategy. Our decision to obtain our board’s commitment to D&I at the outset stemmed from a desire to infuse D&I into our organization’s strategic plan. Oftentimes, without support from the top, efforts like D&I can remain siloed, unsupported and can even become stalled when not built into the organization’s foundation. As a large health system, we wanted our D&I strategy to weave into every facet and function and not stand alone as a separate initiative. We wanted D&I to be embedded into our DNA and echo the sentiments of our values and commitments.

To generate interest and support from our board, we yielded a three-pronged approach: 1) leverage my years of handson experience and role as Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer (CDIO) to produce a strategic plan for D&I, 2) launch in-depth education and learning sessions for our executive leadership team, and 3) build a board-liaison model to foster connections between the board and our D&I progress.

By creating a system-wide D&I strategic plan, our team was able to frame D&I as a comprehensive strategic effort that could grow through shared ownership and accountability.

The impetus for this approach lied in our vision for D&I. When asked, “How will you grow a D&I department that is capable of staffing this comprehensive plan?” I’d respond, “How many people work for the organization? Because I believe D&I will require action and support from every single person in our workforce.” By creating a plan that embedded D&I into everything we do, we were able to inspire our leadership to take ownership over D&I in their respective areas and reach every corner of our health system.

Considering that leadership support was fundamental to ensuring the success of our D&I strategy, we had the fortune of an engaged executive leadership team (ELT) that was willing to dedicate hours to learning about D&I through thinking and learning sessions. These sessions helped our ELT build their muscle for addressing challenging D&I situations, raise awareness about D&I issues and elevate their sense of judgement and discernment toward D&I gaps in our organization. These sessions required a great deal of honesty and vulnerability but were vital for empowering our leaders to drive meaningful change.

The thinking and learning sessions sparked subsequent buy-in and support from our CEO, who wanted to make the most out of this great momentum by endorsing D&I’s key role with our board. The CEO diligently kept the board apprised of our D&I progress and led a candid discussion around our areas of strength and opportunity in hopes to activate change within the organization. After months of discussions at the board level, we realized it would be valuable to proactively gather feedback from board members about their curiosities and interests concerning D&I to ensure we were providing them the most valuable and actionable information. This sparked the launch of our board liaison model. The board liaison is a board member who provides insight and mentoring from the governance level to aid in D&I decision-making and prioritization.

This board member also serves as a fully-informed D&I ambassador who champions D&I and provides fellow board members with context around our D&I efforts. This approach has allowed us to strike a healthy balance between transparent connection with our internal leadership and open communication with our CEO. Through this model, D&I has remained a top priority that is intentionally discussed at regular board meetings and has served as a strategic imperative for our entire organization.

Our journey to obtaining board support for D&I helped us evade three common obstacles that arise during an organization’s D&I journey: lack of communication, competition for resources and lack of accountability among the masses. From a communication standpoint, without leadership support, D&I efforts run the risk of falling victim to back burner syndrome. As leaders set the course for an organization, businesses often gather their workforce in town halls, webcasts and large forums to rally the troops and build momentum and morale around strategic goals and efforts. As the CEO steps to the podium and the leadership team gathers to share their insight, independent initiatives oftentimes become placed on the back burner. Seemingly siloed initiatives go unmentioned, let alone emphasized, as critical bodies of work. To prevent this misfortune from striking our D&I strategy, our board and leadership team’s support enabled us to leverage our internal communication channels to paint our D&I strategy as a strategic imperative and not a separate initiative. Our communication channels served as a catalyst for generating interest and energy around the value of our D&I strategy and helped our workforce understand its connection to these critical D&I efforts and their role in the future of our organization.

Business lines across all industries understand the challenge of competing for resources. Budgets are often constrained and opportunities for lean stewardship are often championed. In this environment, independent D&I initiatives typically struggle to obtain the appropriate dollars, time and people to grow meaningful efforts to scale. However, by prioritizing support from the top and aligning D&I with the system’s overall strategy, it is easier to obtain the necessary investment to grow a D&I platform that truly makes a difference. Because we had support from our board from the beginning, we were able to secure the necessary resources, support and enthusiasm to ensure the longevity of our D&I efforts.

A D&I strategy is only as strong as the people who have the influence and desire to execute it through shared accountability. Recognizing this strategy impacts more than 70,000 team members, we needed a mechanism for evaluating our progress and ensuring the success of our desired outcomes. To achieve this, our D&I progress is continually measured, evaluated and reported to leadership at the top. This transparency allows us to identify any barriers to our success, create actions plans for addressing gaps, and establish channels for shared accountability throughout the organization. Shared accountability is quite a tall order; however, when paired with access to data, tools and resources, leaders are more equipped to fulfill our D&I goals at the local level.

For organizations attempting to achieve shared accountability for D&I and executive support from the top of the house, it is important to keep two priorities top of mind: CEO engagement and D&I measurement. Above all, our D&I journey would have remained stagnant without the support of our CEO. When a CEO is engaged in the work and stays up to date on the latest advancements from the D&I office, they are better positioned to bring about change. Your CEO serves as a bridge between your efforts and the board’s interests. It is important to lean on your CEO, who can provide candid feedback and healthy discussion before presenting your D&I efforts to the board. Secondly, a D&I scorecard has served as our north star. By sharing a D&I scorecard with our ELT, we have been able to collectively build creative action plans and celebrate wins, progress and shared learning with our leadership team. This has proven to be a successful way to measure progress and provide the system with regular visibility and transparency.

All D&I strategies will stumble from time to time. But when you have support from the top and a board liaison who aligns your work to the organization’s future direction, those stumbles are merely minor bumps in the long road ahead. Your board of directors is rich with knowledge and experience from various industries and not only does their support help your D&I strategy achieve much-needed legitimacy, but they can also provide insights and guidance that help forge an even stronger program. The voice of the board has helped us drive further and strive higher to ensure our D&I strategy is an organizational strategic priority and will remain one for many years to come.