373: Rohini Anand—Yes, Businesses Can Create Cultures Based On Diversity, Equity and Inclusion But It Requires A Commitment To Change

Hear how to really live diversity, equity, and inclusion, not just talk it 

I just love women who are changing the world, and Dr. Rohini Anand is one of them. A pioneer in DEI, Rohini and I did a podcast together in July of 2022, and I enjoyed it so much I wanted to share it with you again. In her latest book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: A Guide for Systemic Change in Multinational Organizations, she doesn’t just talk diversity—she offers a blueprint for changing your culture into one where everyone is welcmoed, respected and listened to. Does your organization need to change? Listen in as Rohini tells us how to do it.

Watch and listen to our conversation here

Rohini video

Rohini’s 5 principles for bringing about DEI change:

  • The first principle: Make it local. Global change has to be anchored in an understanding of the local context. Change has to be rooted in the local particulars informed by the history, the culture, the language, and mores of each place.
  • The second: Leaders must change to lead change. Commitment from senior leadership is absolutely fundamental to ensuring that DEI is sustained.
  • The third: It’s good business to institute DEI. Frustratingly, 70% of change efforts fail. That’s why a change narrative has to be congruent with the organization’s purpose and how business is done.
  • The fourth: Go deep, wide, and inside out. Organizations are interconnected systems that work in concert with each other. DEI needs to be infused in the internal processes and systems, as well as externally. There must be a systems approach.
  • And the fifth principle: Know what matters, and counter. Metrics clearly provide a global framework, a cohesive narrative to spotlight problem areas and solutions. To be instruments for change, leaders have to have the right metrics, and they have to hold their teams accountable.

How to connect with Rohini

You can find her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and her website www.rohinianand.com, or email her at rohinianand1121@gmail.com.

Want to know more about DEI and culture change? Start here 

Additional resources for you

Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Hi and welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. I’m Andi Simon, and as you know, I’m your host and your guide. And I’ve started to tell people on our podcast a little bit more about me, because they keep asking, Who are you? So I’m a corporate anthropologist, and I’ve specialized for most of my career helping organizations and the people inside them change. And you must recognize that people hate change, your brains would just as soon I go away. But the podcast came about after my book, On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights, was published and won an award. And my second book just won an award as well, Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business. I’m honored to be able to share with you my insights into how people can change, and particularly how corporate cultures must change.

So today’s guest is a very special woman. I can’t wait to share her with you: Rohini Anand. I met Rohini through the Women Business Collaborative, where I’m a member, and she is as well. I read her new book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: A Guide for Systemic Change in Multinational Organizations. Rohini has a wonderful perspective. I’m going to tell you a little bit about her and then let her tell you about her own journey.

But remember, our job is to help you see, feel and think in some new ways so you can do something. And the questions around diversity, equity and inclusion are profound. I cannot tell you how many CEOs have said to me, it took me three months to hire some people to diversify my culture. They only lasted three months. And I said, Okay, we have a bigger question here about what is your culture? And why should people belong to it? And humans want to belong.

So here’s Rohini’s background. She is a strategic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion expert, highly sought-after board member, a published author and speaker. She is recognized as a pioneer in DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) and has been on the forefront of leading businesses through lasting change for corporations, not for nonprofit organizations and government agencies worldwide. She was previously senior vice president of corporate responsibility and Global Chief Diversity Officer for Sodexo. And under her leadership, the Sodexo brand became synonymous with leadership in diversity, corporate responsibility and wellness.

And I have a hunch she’s going to tell you a little bit about her journey. But I’m excited because both in her book and in her work, she’s actually making things happen. And for all of you who are wondering, How do you make DEI happen?, you need to listen carefully because this is what’s happening. And now the question is, how can we share it so you can do it as well? Rohini, thank you for joining me today.

Rohini Anand: Thank you. I’m delighted to be with you, Andi. And looking forward to the conversation.

Andi Simon: Let’s begin, who is Rohini? What’s been your journey? Share it with the listeners, they love the stories.

Rohini Anand: Yeah, as you know, anyone involved in diversity, equity and inclusion work, this book is very personal for them. And my story is integral to who I am. I actually grew up in Mumbai, India, and growing up in India, almost everyone sort of looked like me. It is a country with a lot of diversity, many socio-economic classes, religions, ethnicities, languages, etc. I belong to the majority religion, Hinduism, and surrounded by others like me. I had the privilege of not having to think about my identity. So I moved to the United States as a teenager, and went to graduate school. And that really was my inflection point in my both literal and metaphorical journey.

And I have to say that my identity shifted from being a person who saw herself as the center of her world to being a foreigner to being an immigrant to being a minority, and I was totally unprepared for that. So it was only when I was identified as a minority did I realize the privileges that came with being part of a majority. I was part of the majority growing up in India, but I had not recognized my privilege in that way. And honestly, I was unable to until I was perceived as a minority and I experienced things differently. So the realization that identity is situational is fluid and informs the research that I did for my PhD and still informs my work.

So I would say that this vocation is very personal to me, understanding what it means to be perceived as a minority, as an outsider, is very much at the heart of diversity, equity and inclusion work. And I am fortunate that my vocation and my avocation are perfectly aligned. So it’s a little bit about my journey to the work that I do today. I continue to do this work. You’re right, I worked for Sodexo for 18 years. And we were hired from Sodexo in 2020, just before COVID hit, was the time to write my book. And since then I’ve been doing booktalks, strategic coaching and advising, and I’m on several boards, but I continue to do this work that’s so meaningful to me. It is part of who I am.

Andi Simon: Well, being who you are, when you were at Sodexo, I have a hunch you explored and learned a great deal about the challenges of building a diverse culture, particularly a global one. Now is that a good place for us to start to talk about the learnings that went on there because it was very profound. You went from India, I’ve been to India, it’s quite a complicated place. And coming here, discovering a culture that had a different attitude, different values, everything about you being here was different. And somehow you had to find a way of belonging, and humans want to belong. Some of the insights that came from the Sodexo experience would be really helpful, I think, to our listeners.

Rohini Anand: So Andi, when I joined Sodexo, there was a fairly serious lawsuit. And I didn’t quite understand or really recognize the seriousness of that lawsuit until about six months after I was hired, when it was certified as a class action lawsuit that was settled for over $80 million. It was a discrimination lawsuit filed by African Americans in the company. And I share that because you know what I say in the book, and the journey really was from class action to best in class. So that was the sort of situation that I stepped into.

But with the support of leadership, we were able to change the culture around and became known for leadership and diversity, equity and inclusion in the United States. And then it was a question of scaling this work globally. So what I found was that doing this global DEI work is very complex. It’s very dynamic. There’s no checklist, there’s no playbook, I don’t even think any best practices are adequate. But there were these five principles that showed up each time when I did the work that are absolutely critical. And they provide a true line.

Each of the principles is simple. It’s a simple statement. It’s based on my experiences, but also experiences of my colleagues who’ve done the heavy lifting in their organizations. They’re simple, but they’re disruptive. And they don’t provide any sort of standards, the plug and play templates based on what’s worked in the US, because that’s been a foundational mistake—to replicate what works in one part of the world, in other parts of the world.

So these principles can be applied with sensitivity to any culture, and really empower global leaders to develop their own solutions, not to mimic any one experience, but really develop their own solutions. So the principles are, and this is what I think is absolutely foundational in doing this culture change work, because it is about transformation, it’s about culture change.

The first step is make it local. And global change has to be anchored in an understanding of the local context. It has to be rooted in the local particulars informed by the history, the culture, the language and mores of each place. We have to consider the power dynamics, identify those that are the subordinate and not subordinate in dominant groups, identify how identity is defined, how it’s expressed. But understanding doesn’t mean accepting the status quo. Because outside influence can be cancerous for change. They can raise issues that those within a culture may not be able to see. Like, I was not able to see my own privilege, because of power dynamics. But this works best when local change agents are empowered to partner with outside influencers. So it’s about pushing the status quo, disrupting and pushing for change, but doing it with an understanding of the local context.

The second is what I call leaders change to lead change. And we know very well that commitment from senior leadership is absolutely fundamental to ensuring that the DEI is sustained. And when leaders embrace the DEI with authentic purpose and passion, the organization goes from performative action to sustainable progress. So leaders really need to internalize the benefit of doing it to themselves personally, and to the organization, that often requires the destruction of their worldview, and the painful work of introspection. And this happens often through stories, not necessarily data. But I think it’s important as leaders do seek out these disruptive experiences as they take ownership of their own learning, and be mindful of the toll that it takes for people with those lived experiences to share the experiences again and again and again. And so it takes leaders who intentionally prioritize the DEI as they would any other business imperative. So that’s the second principle: leaders change lead change.

The third is: it’s good business to, and without a compelling reason for change. We all know 70% of change efforts fail. But there’s reasons this sort of change narrative has to be congruent with the organization’s purpose and how business is done.

The fourth principle is: go deep, wide, and inside out. And that really speaks to the fact that organizations are interconnected systems that work in concert with each other. And DEI needs to be infused in the internal processes and systems and externally, so you have to take a systems approach.

And then the last one, the fifth principle is: know what matters and counter. And metrics clearly provide a global framework, a cohesive narrative to spotlight problem areas and solutions. And to be instruments for change, they’ve got to have the right metrics, and you’ve got to hold your teams accountable. So make local leaders change to lead change. And it’s good business to go deep, wide and inside out and know what matters. These five principles I think are absolutely critical to any change.

Andi Simon: Well, I love your principles. They are very much congruent with the culture change work that we do. But there are some things I’d like to dig a little deeper into, because the leader changing the way they see diversity, and equity and inclusion are essential. They’re the leader. The question is, how do you get them to change? Remember, we live the story in our minds. If we don’t collaborate with our mind, our mind does exactly what it thinks we want it to do. And so the research on the mind is so compelling.

Now, the question is, how do we get leaders to change that story, so that it isn’t the outsider who you’re bringing in sort of gratuitously, the outsider is essential to the growth of the organization, and how we now build a culture where we value that diversity as opposed to want to eliminate it, or control it or put it into a certain box. The thing that always worries me, having been an executive in two banks, you said you tend to bring in the diversity and put them into buckets where they belong. And they were sort of a stereotype of what kind of jobs they should hold, and where those people should be. And that by itself wasn’t diversity, or equity or inclusion. It was a different way of building mosaics, which wasn’t particularly good. Share with us. And I’m particularly interested in, How do I start with the leader? Because I think that’s where we have to start.

Rohini Anand: You’re absolutely right, we do have to start there. Let me share two quick stories. So you know, one story is about a particular leader who mentored a woman who is part of the organization, and she managed high security facilities. And after mentoring her, he came to me and he said, “If you had presented me with two candidates, a male and a female, and asked me to hire the best qualified candidate for a high security facility, I would have chosen the man because you need an aggressive, assertive leadership style. So it’s a dangerous environment, I would never have chosen the woman.” But he says, after having mentored this woman, who’s extremely effective, “She has a different leadership style. And she is very effective. She gets the assignment. I will never let an unconscious bias impact my talent decisions again.”

So I think that’s the story of basically providing leaders with disruptive experiences that help to shake their worldview, provide them a different perspective, expose them to people who are not necessarily like themselves, in this case, a woman with a different leadership style, so that they can actually do this work of introspection and emerge in a way that really shifts their perspective, their thinking, their worldview. We don’t know what we don’t know. So this leader was able to internalize that experience.

The other story that I have is a leader who listened to all these stories about diversity, equity and inclusion and was not buying. I had some Sodexo specific data, but he was not necessarily convinced. He got involved in a cross-company mentoring program along with other CEOs. He wanted to network with other CEOs and this was networking on the topic of diversity and he mentored a woman from a different organization and developed a trusting relationship with her. She got laid off, and she had discussed and shared with him her lived experiences being marginalized, being discriminated against as the only woman on the executive team, and he listened with sort of this newfound interest.

And he came to me and he said, “I just cannot believe that women have these kinds of experiences in the workplace. She was the only woman on her executive team.” He said, “This is unacceptable. I want all 12 of my direct reports to mentor a woman from a different part of the organization.” So they did, and of the 12 women that were mentored/sponsored, because it wasn’t just mentoring, these were senior executives who actually sponsored these women, nine out of the 12 got senior positions, either as country heads, or heads of large pieces of business. Now, again, it took the lived experiences of this woman. It came close to home, he developed a relationship with her. He listened to her, and it was her lived experiences that helped to shift his perspective.

So I think storytelling and lived experiences can be very beneficial. But I will caution that it is very tiring for those that have experienced these lived experiences to share them again and again and again. And we have to really maximize the impact of those lived experiences. But also, leaders have to take responsibility for their own learning at the end of the day. So I think those are sort of two stories. I have one more if you have time.

Andi Simon: I’m a storyteller. And I think that what you capture in the story, that you said that the leaders have to change their leadership. And the question is, Okay, how do I do that? And experiential learning is where we learn best. You can’t learn from a book and you can’t learn from listening to me. What is it you really mean? How does that really feel? Another story?

Rohini Anand: So this story is actually the CEO, previous year, to Excel. And globally, as you know, most companies focus on gender just because race and ethnicity translates very differently in different parts of the world. It doesn’t translate in many parts of the world. And this was a Frenchman in France. The word “race” was actually struck from the French constitution in 2018, for historical reasons. So when we started talking about ethnicity and race, he said to me, “Why dilute the focus on gender by bringing in all these other strands of diversity, because race doesn’t translate in France, it doesn’t translate in many parts of Europe.” And he was right. And so I realized that I needed to expand his worldview. And to do that, I invited him to an employee resource group meeting by the African American employee resource group in the United States.

He attended that meeting, one of maybe two French men who were at that meeting, one of the only white men at the meeting. He listened to the lived experiences, particularly of the Black men, Black leaders in that meeting. And it was very moving, because now he knew these people, again, these stories came close to home. He listened to the experiences outside and within the organization, so that listening to the lived experiences, combined with his experience of being a minority, was very disruptive for him. And he went on after the murder of George Floyd to send this really heartfelt message to the organization, something he wouldn’t have done under normal circumstances, and in succession planning meetings and talent review discussions.

Yes, you cannot gather data about people’s race and ethnicity in Europe, but nothing, no one stops you from asking the questions. So when individuals say, “We have diversity, we have Belgians, and we have folks from the Netherlands and from Switzerland and Austria, and Germany,” the question would be, “That’s wonderful. And how many of them are Black people?” So he was able to ask those questions. Again, it was a very disruptive experience for him. And what’s wonderful is, many of these leaders have gone on to other organizations and have taken this secessionist connection, this learning that they’ve had, and become allies and started to bring about the culture change in the other organizations.

Andi Simon: You are alluding to something very important. Two things I want to talk about. People are copycats, and they need to see others. You can call them role models, but unless somebody who they can admire is doing something differently, they would just as soon move away from it, hijack it and not be the solo solitary leader there. So building that base is important.

Rohini Anand: If I can just add to that, you’re absolutely right, Andi. And when he talks about this notion of belonging, we often say an employee’s sense of belonging to the culture of an organization, but there’s another dimension of belonging. And that dimension of belonging is the need for a leader and organization to belong to an elite group of companies that are committed to DEI. So I want to identify with other companies that are seen as diversity elite companies and want to be part of that. There’s this desire to belong to other organizations that are seen as having credibility.

Andi Simon: Because they feed off each other. Because the contagion is a healthy one, because if I’m doing it, and they’re doing it, somehow together, the whole ship rises. But if I’m doing it alone, that’s a long road home all by myself, solitary. It’s very challenging. The other side of what you were talking about, though, I experienced as a woman, and I am not a woman of color, although I have a niece who’s biracial, and we talk all the time about the challenges of being different.

I was an executive in a bank, and I went to a board meeting, and there were 49 men, a nun and me. I didn’t say anything. And for many years, I was the sole woman on any executive team. And the challenge for a woman in that story is how to navigate what role to play. We’re role players, I often think of life as theater. And I remember changing the conversations. I learned new ways of behaving, how to dress, how to perform, particularly when you are in a room of mostly men, and you are not exactly being asked anything to contribute. I can’t tell you how many times I was the only or among the few. And I do think it’s changing. And I’m glad that I can date myself.

But the other thing is, how do you advise or counsel those who are now being brought in to diversify? The gentleman I mentioned who spent three months recruiting a woman of color to join his organization and they only stayed three months was angry at her for not belonging. And I said to him, “Why is it her problem? And a combination? It’s not your problem or her problem? You brought her into a place that wasn’t welcoming, where there was nobody who looked like her. How are you going to change this? And what is the role of the person being anointed with this diversity banner to have to come in and do something for you?” Some advice or experiences, stories to share?

Rohini Anand: In terms of being the only, and you know, I think a woman of color is the double only, which is the other piece, as a woman and as a woman of color. And I think you’re right, I think very often, when you are the only one, it’s difficult to speak up. I do think that is what helps a lot, is if you can get allies and male allies within the room. So having the conversations outside to find out who can be an ally, who can amplify your voice, who can say when you talk, “That will work.” Who can say, “We haven’t heard from Rohini yet, perhaps we should hear what she has to contribute.” Those kinds of allies I think are really important. It’s sort of a double edged sword, because in a sense, usually the allies are the ones who have the power, the ones with the dominant group are white males. So in a sense, we’re asking someone to validate us as women, aren’t we.

And the other side of it is, in some senses, you’re using their power to upend their power. So there’s two sides to this. And I think it has to be used strategically, but I think allies are one piece.

I think the other piece of advice that I would give is, just be true to who you are, you have to be authentic. I think imitating someone else’s leadership style or a male style does not work because it does us a disservice. I think being authentic is absolutely critical.

And I think the third piece is, before you can join an organization, do research, because an organization that is not welcoming of someone who looks like you doesn’t deserve you. So do your research. And if you need to, walk away. There are other options that you have, particularly today with the talent shortages. So I think that organizations will have to change in order to provide a welcoming environment. I have millennial daughters, and you know, I know numerous people who have walked away from organizations because they didn’t see someone like themselves. And they didn’t think that it was a female friendly organization.

Andi Simon: Well, as I’m listening to you, it’s not a bad time to think about wrapping up because you and I could talk for a long time about this. And I know you can with great expertise. I think that the times are changing, and I’d like our listeners to walk away from Rohini and take away two or three things that you think they should focus on. And you have your principles, I like them. I love the fact that we’re talking about how to make them actionable principles, but what do you actually do if you’re going to do it local, what would be the top two or three things that they should remember, because I want them to do something when they leave.

Rohini Anand: So I think the one piece of change really happens at the intersection of people and processes, and you have to impact both. So I would encourage, on the personal level, to see how you can be an ally for others regardless of who they are in the organization. And then I would say, look at how you can dismantle those processes that are tenacious, that have advantages for some and have created disadvantages for others. So, work both the people and the process piece.

And then I think this power of storytelling is amazing. Even in terms of bringing along allies, I think it’s really important, but I think, use those stories with discretion because of the toll it takes on those that have lived experiences. But you know, work at the intersection of people and processes would be my one big takeaway.

Andi Simon: Where can they find both you and your book, to reach you?

Rohini Anand: Thank you so much. So my website is www.rohini.com. And my book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, is available on Amazon, and all of the other major outlets. Also you can order it through my website.

Andi Simon: It’s a great book. It’s great to read it. I want to add one last thought to our listeners. If you don’t know Judith Glaser’s work on conversational intelligence, go take a look at it. Judith was an observational, an organizational anthropologist who passed away a couple of years ago, but when she was doing neuroscience work, she said something very profound. If you say, “I’m the brain,” it gets full of cortisol and flies away from it, it becomes a battleground. It’s a threat. But if you say, “We, the oxytocin, the bonding hormones, really make love there.”

So as you’re thinking about this, diversity, equity, inclusion is about us. And if you start talking about what we can do together, it’s a much healthier environment for us to actually do it, the bonding that happens. It is natural for the brain. And so don’t underestimate the power of the body to respond to the way you’re talking and the conversations that we’re having today, around how do we build a better world where people are part of a larger organization that can all together rise, and do better together because they care about each other. And I can’t tell you what a pleasure it’s been to have you here today. Thank you. Rohini.

Rohini Anand: Thank you, Andi. This is wonderful.

Andi Simon: So I’ll wrap up for my listeners and my viewers. My audience is terrific. You’ve put us in the top 5% of podcasts globally. Thank you so much. And you send me great people to interview which I just enjoy tremendously. And my job is to help you see, feel and think in new ways to do something that you hate to do: embrace change. These are changing times. Please open up and try to do it with great joy. Bye bye now. Have a great day. Thank you.


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