The Role of Power: Supporting the Conditions that Enable Companies to Center Equity

This is the seventh in a series of articles based on the guide to Centering Equity in Corporate Purpose published by FSG and the Shared Value Initiative in May 2022.

As strategy consultants, we have seen time and time again that even the best-constructed strategies can struggle to produce successful outcomes if they are not supported by a culture that is conducive to the vision and ambitions set forth. As the saying goes: “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Today, many companies are making bold commitments to equity. However, strategy by itself is insufficient without changing the conditions within the organization to embed equity into the fabric of its culture. In the guide Centering Equity in Corporate Purpose, we recommend five practices for how companies can develop and deliver a strategy centered in equity.

Equity is about who holds power, the role of power in producing outcomes, and the reshaping of power. Through our research and experience working with business leaders around the world to transform their organizations to become more inclusive and equitable, we uncovered four enabling conditions that underpin the success of a company’s strategy and equity work. Because we are talking about a strategy centered on equity, each of these enabling conditions helps companies reshape power in ways that positively support their efforts to reduce inequities.

  • Leadership with authenticity and values anchored in equityhow leaders use their power responsibly for the full range of a company’s stakeholders
  • Comprehensive learning and reflection to advance equitybuilding awareness about and rethinking power as it relates to a company’s equity dimensions
  • Intentional measurement that drives accountability on equityholding power accountable and tracking progress in building power for those communities facing inequities
  • Connection and trust through reimagined relationshipsestablishing inclusive processes, practices, and structures that share power.

Last month, we brought together more than 20 corporate leaders from across industries, all dedicated to advancing equity through their work in some of the world’s largest companies. The off-record virtual roundtable provided space for the leaders to talk about these enabling conditions, and share their experiences, successes in shifting conditions, and areas where they face the greatest challenges.

Fifty percent of the participants shared that, among the four enabling conditions, their company was most advanced in making progress on “leadership with authenticity and values anchored in equity,” followed by 27% sharing that their company was most advanced on “comprehensive learning and reflection to advance equity.” This is an encouraging sign because social impact leaders at companies have long struggled to engage most executives and board members in meaningful and dedicated ways on equity work. Bringing to life a corporate purpose centered on equity cannot happen without senior leaders that embody equity. This goes beyond diversity in leadership and on boards; it requires leaders to dedicate time to learning and reflection, and doing the inner work necessary to model authenticity, humility, and courage for their employees, peers, and partners.

Despite progress in getting executives to engage on issues of equity, social impact leaders at these companies shared that they still struggled to devote sufficient time in meetings for learning and having conversations on issues of equity, particularly in the face of record inflation, rising energy costs, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. When executives are able to dedicate limited time to talk about equity strategies, there is often an over anchoring on data and quick metrics — particularly outputs like changes in diversity hiring or number of lives touched — in lieu of outcomes like shifts in inclusion and belonging for marginalized identities in the workplace or reduction of systemic barriers and inequities.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 67% of participants in last month’s roundtable shared that “intentional measurement that drives accountability on equity” was the hardest enabling condition to work on and where their company needed the most help. This is consistently one of the greatest stumbling blocks for companies that are centering equity in their purpose. There is a tension at play between corporate incentives that prioritize and expect immediate results, and the long-term nature of efforts to shift systems in ways that create equitable outcomes and hold power accountable.

We need to use data to keep equity front and center and get leaders to ‘be’ it. Data helps us with this effort as other business challenges take priority. We can’t have equity be yesterday’s priority and data can help us ensure it is not.” – A Roundtable Participant


The Power of Awareness and Benevolence

The consequences of inequities are material. Leaders who are dedicated to advancing equity, who understand the unique and powerful role corporations can play, and who are fervent to see meaningful change often look for evidence that their work is contributing to progress. While companies seek to identify and implement ways to measure progress, social impact leaders can track their contributions through other ways.

Efforts to advance equity can tax leaders psychologically and emotionally, and progress is affirmation that their work is effective. These ways (listed below) require more than just power: they require imagination and self-care as you exercise your power. Leaders will need to heighten their awareness of the individual contributions they make to efforts that are often under-resourced and take time to accomplish. They will also need to reimagine how they care for themselves in the process. Advancing equity is a journey, and one with goalposts that tend to shift.

Leaders contribute to progress when they:

  • Facilitate clarity of industry or sector perpetuation of inequities,
  • Identify the power dynamics upholding those inequities,
  • Successfully advocate for centering people in internal discussions about the consequences of inequities,
  • Effectively highlight the institutional and societal cost of delaying action, and
  • Support the equipping of more leaders within a corporation to initiate or carry the conversation about advancing equity.

Each of these examples are wins for the leader who championed them. Corporate leaders urgently working day to day to advance equity often do not immediately view those examples as wins, as they can feel like small steps towards a longer journey that produces equitable outcomes in their defined equity domains. Instead, they most commonly unfairly appraise their individual performance or understate their individual contribution and withhold grace from themselves therefore activating or amplifying feelings of defeat. Creating conditions for change can be hard, so benevolence toward oneself and others is indispensable.

The four enabling conditions are deeply interconnected. They require consistent and simultaneous attention and resources, with intentionality in connecting across conditions. Reimagined relationships with the community can help leaders in their individual and collective learning agenda, just as measurement can help guide an ongoing equity learning agenda for employees. Each condition is an essential part of building and sustaining a culture that prioritizes equity and understands the role of power in supporting a successful strategy that centers equity.

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