A Q&A with DEI Leader Dr. Sandra Upton, Keynote for Our March 12 Event

Dr. Sandra Upton, founder and Chief DEI Strategist with Upton Consulting Group, will be the keynote speaker for our Inclusive Leadership Development event, 9-11 a.m. Tuesday, March 12 at Grand Valley State University’s Kirkhof Center in Allendale.

She met with Carly Smyly, TalentFirst’s director of Employer Talent Strategies & Engagement, to discuss the state of DEI, her new book — released this week — and what to expect at the Inclusive Leadership Development event.

Read a summary of their discussion below and be sure to save your space for the Inclusive Leadership Development event. The first 50 to register will receive a free copy of Dr. Upton’s book: “Make It Last: A Roadmap and Practical Strategies for How to Do DEI Work.”


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Smyly: What motivated you to write your book, “Make it Last”?

Upton: In my 25 years of working in this space, I’ve been able to observe a lot. I’m privileged to work with organizations across the country and across the globe. And although we have made some progress in the space, my experience has been that there are still a lot of organizations that lack a strategy to do the work, a strategy that is data-driven, that is outcome driven. I see a lot of organizations taking what I call the activity-based approach where they’re just doing a lot of different things — and they’re not bad things — but it’s not really a coordinated strategy that again, has data that is informing it, and that is moving toward real solid outcomes.

Another reason why I wanted to write the book is because when you think about DEI, it’s all about change. We’re simply trying to change behaviors and systems, and so there’s a lot of evidence-based research out there around how we can manage change in a way where it truly does make a difference and the work actually lasts.

The research that we already have around change management and marrying that to DEI, I thought that would be a very helpful tool for organizations to use to one, develop a solid strategy, and two, not just tell them what to do, but also how to do the work. That’s been another big missing piece, helping them how to do the work.

Smyly: If you had to choose, what are three key points you hope readers might take away from the book?

Upton: The first point is that the importance of using evidence-based strategies. The second thing is the importance of having a solid strategy that is data-driven and outcome-driven. And I think the third thing is I want them to get practical insight on how to do the work.

Smyly: What’s your assessment of the DEI space right now?

Upton: Well, you’re hearing people say in different places, “DEI is dead.” I completely disagree with that. DEI is not dead. It is alive and well, and I have evidence of that because I work with organizations every day who are really committed to doing the work and want to see change in their organizations. They just don’t know how.

So, I would argue that, despite all of the backlash and all of the language that we’re hearing and the challenges — and there are some real challenges, so it’s not to be in denial about those challenges or have our head buried in the sand — but to not be overwhelmed by all of the noise. Don’t get distracted by the noise. That’s all the more reason to put together a solid strategy to really move the work forward and make a difference.

A lot of organizations are panicking. They don’t want to be sued. They’re afraid of any kind of litigation. And so, you want to be wise, of course. And I’ve talked about that. In fact, I intentionally asked Steven Drew, a nationally known civil rights employment law attorney from Grand Rapids, to write the forward for the book. I wanted him to lay the foundation for, “Yes, we’ve got some challenges that we have to deal with but do not fear and we can keep moving the work forward.”

In fact, given the backlash, we have to move, we have to keep moving the work forward.

Smyly: What are the bright spots that you see?

Upton: There are lots of bright spots, and I think part of the process is really making sure we’re taking the time to educate ourselves on the challenges and realize that some of them aren’t as big as we think they are. And even the ones that are big, there are ways to work around them. So, I think the education piece is incredibly important.

Part of the backlash is just people spreading misinformation about what DEI is, right? DEI is not a zero-sum game. It’s not if Sandra wins, Carly loses. It’s not. It’s about putting together systems and policies and practices and encouraging behaviors that create work environments where everybody is thriving. It’s that simple. Everybody is thriving, and ultimately the organization benefits in many ways, from bottom line impact, all the way back to being more creative and innovative.

When you look at some of the real challenges of the legal requirements that have come out right now focused on education, they will make their way into the corporate space. But we need to understand there are ways around that. So, when we talk about things like “you can’t use a quota to say, we’re going to try to promote X number of women into leadership.” Maybe you have to be careful about how you talk about that. But there’s absolutely nothing to say that you can’t go back to the very beginning of the employee life cycle and make a commitment to attract more diverse talent, where it starts people in the door, and then to move them through the pipeline and up the ladder of the organization.

And you absolutely can make commitments and build strategies around attracting a more diverse talent workforce. And you absolutely can use your data to inform where you need to focus your energies. So just understand what you can do, understand the limitations, being mindful, again, using wisdom.

Smyly: You work with employers outside of Michigan across the nation. What are some of the universal challenges to DEI that you do encounter at the organizational level?

Upton: I know I keep harping on this, but I still see so many organizations, whether they are in Michigan or in Boston or in the U.K., that still don’t have clear strategies. Another really big one is, even if they have a strategy in place, they don’t do a good job of communicating the strategy to others across the organization, both vertically and horizontally.

And then I think the third piece is even if they have a strategy, it’s often high level and there’s not real clarity around how to operationalize the work. I think that’s a big one as well.

Smyly: So, you’re going to be our keynote speaker at our March 12th event at Grand Valley. What are you most looking forward to about this event?

Upton: I’m excited to dialogue. It will be an interactive session. I’m not about people coming to an event and “sitting and getting,” even though it’s a keynote. So, I’m excited to interact with these senior leaders and to get their thoughts and perspectives on where they see their organizations on this, what I call the DEI Propel change management process.

And then I’m excited to give them some action steps on things that they can do to move the work forward in their organization. DEI is a journey. I’m excited to, again, give them opportunity to share their experiences and engage, but also give them some real takeaways, some action items that they can go back and implement immediately and hopefully move their organization one step further in their journey around DEI.

Smyly: Talk about why you think people should attend this event in our inclusive leadership development series, and what more can they expect?

Upton: My experience again is that I think organizations are still very hungry for the how, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. I think they are like, “OK, we know what our gaps are. We’ve maybe done a little bit of data analysis and disaggregated some of it, so we have some sense of where our opportunities are, but how do we move the needle?” So, I think if you’re interested in going deeper on the “how” part of the work, I think you’ll absolutely find value in attending this session.


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