After 20 years working to foster diversity, equity and inclusion in a variety of leadership roles, Elise James-DeCruise joined the Ad Council as our chief equity officer in early 2021. As we reflect on how her first 100 days laid the groundwork for her role, we thought we’d use the opportunity to share her learnings in an effort to help other organizations set themselves up for authentic, tangible success.
Lonny Pugh: Elise, what are the most telling and effective things leadership can do before a chief equity officer’s first day to set this person up for success?
Elise James-DeCruise: Leadership involvement absolutely sets the tone for our tenure before we even walk through the door. There are four great ways for leadership to effectively prepare:
One is to do a cultural assessment on where they are as an organization. You can’t begin to address issues you haven’t defined.
The second is to ensure they’ve done a proper internal listening tour, from leadership to interns. This can help to ensure the organization has clear, realistic expectations on what they can hope to accomplish. This also helps establish leadership’s sincere belief that everyone’s voice should be heard—and everyone has a role to play, no matter where they are on their DEI journey.
The third is ensuring they’ve started to do the work on DEI to know what their why is—why they are focusing on it, why it matters, why they are bringing this person in. Over the last eighteen months, unfortunately, some companies have created these roles for optics. But it’s so important for executives to really consider all the reasons why DEI initiatives are absolutely important for the way they do business, for their employees and for their stakeholders.
And finally, it’s important for leadership to be very thoughtful about the philosophy and the values that they introduce into an organization. Some may need help from a chief equity officer to help define and articulate them—others may need that person to help ensure that their values are truly being upheld.
LP: With all that in mind, how were those needs met, or not, in your onboarding with us?
EJ-D: The Ad Council had publicly published its DEI commitments on the website in 2020—one of those commitments was to hire a chief equity officer. And I thought it was progressive, thoughtful and intentional that they built a core team to find this person. I also really appreciated the way they reached out to CDOs and CEqQs to learn more about how the role worked within other organizations, and even hosted a virtual panel for the whole team to learn more about what this role would or could look like once the person came aboard.
In my early conversations with Lisa (our president and CEO, Lisa Sherman), we talked a lot about athletics, which are an important part of both our journeys. We both played basketball, she founded the Women’s Sports Network, and shortly after graduate school I founded a nonprofit called Athletes Work, which helps athletes prepare for life after sports—and beyond that, I think we both consider athletics as really formative parts of our personal and professional journeys. There are so many skills that transfer over from playing sports to the corporate world. You learn to nurture relationships, build confidence, connect with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences, and you’re all learning to think strategically and be present together while working toward a common goal—I take a lot of those skills into my work, and I learned that she does, too.
Personal experiences came up very organically, and I think she believed that was what was needed—this sense of personal connectedness to each other and to the work.
This carried through my process of coming aboard—I felt a real openness and curiosity from leadership about how this was going to work, which I think is really important as we learn and grow.
LP: What resources does a chief equity officer need at their disposal from day one?
EJ-D: First I’d say it’s very important to have permission to be a change agent—this work will inherently run up against existing ways of doing things, and that can be challenging for everyone.
It’s very important to have permission to be a change agent. This work will inherently run up against existing ways of doing things, and that can be challenging for everyone.
Human capital is also important. Having a diversity manager on my team, and having her already in place on my first day, with all of her institutional knowledge and all of the work she had already done, has been so great.
I also think of time as a critical resource when I’m entering a new role and building new practices. How much time will I receive from leaders and stakeholders? Sharing that time and space is so important, and for me that’s non-negotiable. If the CEO and the leadership team aren’t onboard from the very beginning, it’s a tough sell for a diversity executive not only to do productive work but to convince employees that anything is going to change, especially team members who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), allies and people from other marginalized groups who’ve seen promises made before.
And I’d also say it’s critical to have a healthy budget so that this work can be executed in a thoughtful and meaningful way. For me, a budget has meant that we’ve been able to engage with best-in-class consultants and practitioners right away—we were able to do an engagement survey focused on DEI policies and best practices to get a real sense from employees on where we are, and an inclusive talent management audit. We engaged a top firm to work with us on an audit that reimagined our compensation framework as a baseline that will enable us to move forward with a DEI-specific audit in the months ahead. Those actual dollars have been extremely valuable.
LP: What does a typical chief equity officer’s first day look like?
EJ-D: Lots of meetings, lots of listening, lots of learning and connecting. A lot of vulnerability and empathy.
In many cases, a person brought into this role is the first person to hold that role. So that means you really have to be there to listen, and you have to be open to sharing your own journey while assessing where the company is along their DEI journey so that you can really be thoughtful and strategic about the micro and macro experiences that will resonate.
A lot of that learning takes place before you begin, of course, but on the first day you’re moving from high-level conversations about the culture to actually experiencing it. You start having those watercooler moments—even if the watercooler is virtual right now, in the first couple minutes of a Zoom meeting, for example.
It’s also important to recognize that while there is absolutely such a thing as a company culture, each department is a culture within a culture. So for me it’s critical to spend time with each department as early as possible. From day one, we want to see where these subcultures match up to the organization’s stated values, where they don’t, and what opportunities there are to take steps forward.
While there is absolutely such a thing as a company culture, each department is a culture within a culture.
My own first day here would probably be pretty recognizable to most people—tech setup meeting at 9am, paperwork with HR at 10 (laughs). I then met with our chief talent and facilities officer and our diversity manager, spent an hour with Lisa and met with all her direct reports in the afternoon. Meetings were done at three.
In the days ahead, I really appreciated the department-specific meet-and-greets. I had those a couple times a week. Since my onboarding and first days have been completely virtual, it’s been even more important to find ways for us to really connect and get to know each other when we don’t have the opportunity for the watercooler conversations.
At the same time, I wasn’t immediately booked in endless back-to-backs from day one, which I appreciated. They really created the space for me to meet with people internally but also have the opportunity to process and reflect, which was very brave of them to do. And that is what I’m asking people to do—process and reflect.
LP: What are the lenses that you use to examine an organization’s culture and start to define the path forward?
EJ-D: When I talk about DEI initiatives, I use four lenses: the workforce, the workplace, the marketplace and the community.
Workforce is about who we are hiring into the organization—making sure that we are seeking qualified talent from diverse backgrounds at every level of our organization. To do this, we need to identify and eliminate any biases in the process.
Workplace is the day-to-day culture of the organization. The goal is to foster a culture that encourages collaboration, flexibility and fairness to enable all employees to contribute to their potential, and by doing so, we’re increasing retention across all demographics.
Marketplace—that’s your relationships. By actively building partnerships with external companies and initiatives, such as minority-and women owned businesses, industry-wide initiatives, strategic partners and organizations, you can live your DEI values not just internally but in every aspect of how you conduct your business within your ecosystem.
And then there’s community. By collectively giving back to the community that we support and serve through a DEI lens—such as fostering career and community development, volunteering within underserved communities and so on—you can continue to amplify your goals to support diversity, equity and inclusion in the world at large.
Two of these lenses are internal, workforce and workplace, and two are external—marketplace and community. For example, hosting office hours to build trust, that’s a good example of an internal “workplace” effort. And thinking externally, the ANA is about to launch their supplier diversity program, with so many great tools and resources. This would fall under the “marketplace” lens, since it’s looking at building partnerships and relationships in new ways that will help bring access and opportunities to underrepresented groups.
And talking about the Ad Council specifically, we sit at a unique intersection of so many industries—advertising, marketing, tech, media, philanthropy and social good. There’s a real opportunity for us to lead and model what DEI practices can look like and feel like across multiple sectors. I’m so excited to get the chance to work with everyone here to bring those opportunities to life.
LP: I know that getting the hard data is important to you as well—could you talk about that?
EJ-D: Yes! Think about pulling up a map on your phone to get directions—you have to know where you are before you can figure out how to get where you want to go. What is the makeup of your staff? How many identify as BIPOC, LGBTQ+ or part of other marginalized groups? And in terms of how you’re doing business, what is the makeup of your suppliers and vendors? How many are BIPOC-owned?
Once you have this information, you can really start to look at where your opportunities lie for growth and transformation.
LP: So looking at the first 100 days more holistically, what can a chief equity officer do to set expectations for the short- and long-term?
EJ-D: You want to set the tone from the start that you were brought in to create real, systemic change. At the same time, it’s important to set time-bound goals around what’s going to happen and when.
I often talk about the importance of maintaining a constant drumbeat of communication. You have to provide transparency right away and see how that transparency is received.
In terms of a typical plan to get started, the first 30 days is spent doing a lot of listening and assessing where the organization is. For people who do want to get under the hood and see how things are going, it can be helpful to set up office hours, one-on-ones and internal listening tours.
The next 30 days is looking at the frameworks that would apply to a specific culture through the four lenses we talked about—workforce, workplace, marketplace and community.
And the last 30 to 40 days is execution—making sure you’re starting to make strides in line with what the organization needs. You start to get the low-hanging fruit, you standardize processes so you can scale the work, you establish parameters for what accountability looks like within the organization, and you make sure there’s that constant drumbeat of information. It’s also a great time to start celebrating wins, celebrating the progress you’ve already started to make.
LP: And how did that approach shape your first 100 days here on a more personal level?
EJ-D: After my initial department-specific meetings, I began to schedule one-on-ones and small group sessions. By then, everyone had already met me in a larger group setting, so then people were able to be much more expressive and personal, which I really appreciated.
I’ve also been so excited to get to the point where we can all start celebrating some wins together. The introduction of the four DEI lenses we talked about, and the adoption of those lenses within the first 30 days here, was definitely a big one for me. Sometimes it can take a year for these lenses to take hold.
LP: How does a chief equity officer balance proactively building transformative solutions at the systemic level while also making themselves available for BIPOC individuals who need more immediate support?
EJ-D: There should be a world where we can do both. I was in a meeting last week talking about the hesitancy that BIPOC employees and others from marginalized groups have to speak up. Some haven’t had the opportunity to flex that muscle. Others are just…tired. So it’s about creating the safe space to have those conversations.
Employees from marginalized groups have been to this dance before. They’ve heard those promises that a company will “do better.” So being really transparent and forthright about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to get there—then doing the work to get there—all of this is related.
LP: What are two or three examples of low-lift, high-impact policies that a chief equity officer can implement immediately to start building a more equitable workplace culture? What are two or three examples of effective policies that require more legwork to bring to fruition?
EJ-D: One thing I like to do immediately is look at the systems that are in place for recruitment—start with the workforce lens. How we recruit, where we recruit, who we partner with, and what documents and playbooks the hiring managers are using as they’re going through the recruitment process. How can we identify and eliminate biases? Policies like rewarding employees for referring a friend—is there any bias there? Do they perpetuate systemic inequities?
And thinking about the workplace lens, I like to look at employee resource groups. If these groups are already in place, do the leads have the resources they need? Are they being supported and celebrated?
More broadly, you can look at doing a learning and development assessment across the organization and providing professional development trainings.
The other really important thing to do right away is establish a shared language as you’re introducing the new DEI framework. Once we know that the words we’re using mean the same thing to all of us, it’s easier for us to move forward together.
Once we know that the words we’re using mean the same thing to all of us, it’s easier for us to move forward together.
As for longer-term, there are so many. For starters, there are certain recruitment practices that are deep rooted, beyond just showing up on the right websites and attending the right recruitment fairs, whether that’s in-person or virtually. It could be working-from-home policies, disability policies, discrimination and harassment policies, systemic inequities that may have been overlooked—all of that needs to be looked at, and when executed consistently and well, these policy changes can have a transformative impact on an organization over time.
There are also measurement tools such as She Runs It’s #Inclusive100 that can be used to collect the important data about where a company is at—if done manually, collecting that data can take some time, so this approach streamlines the process without sacrificing the quality of the information and can help lay the groundwork for those longer-term results. One of their core philosophies is, “What gets measured gets done.”
LP: You mentioned employee resource groups. To what extent are they an asset for a chief equity officer? Is there a danger in leaning on ERGs to be a resource for others in the organization, rather than for its members?
EJ-D: Yes. In many ways they are the heartbeat of the organization—they can set the tone of the culture, they can create safe spaces and enact systemic change. And so it’s easy for leaders to lean on ERG leads in times of crisis. But we have to take a different approach.
You can certainly leverage their expertise through their lived experiences. But ERG leaders usually identify as a member of the marginalized group that the ERG was created to support, and they may or may not have received professional training for this role. So in difficult moments the last thing you want to do is add to their burden.
A few things we can do to support our ERG leads is to talk to them about their motivations for leading the group, set clear expectations around roles and responsibilities, and ensure that there are appropriate development and training opportunities in place.
And finally, compensating them for leaning into this work that enhances the culture and supports DEI initiatives—and doing all of this on top of their full-time roles—is also important.
LP: One of your mottos for your DEI work is “progress over perfection.” What does that mean to you, and why is it so important?
EJ-D: I think it’s important when starting a new role or introducing new policies to identify a guiding principle that is going to be the foundation for your work going forward.
After doing my listening tour, “progress over perfection” just felt right. I’ve written articles about this concept in the past and here it just resonated.
When we commit to this work, it’s going to take time and it can get messy. But we have to recognize that we’re all here to be an active part of the solution and to create real, systemic change—so we need to extend as much grace as possible to ourselves and each other. That’s how we’ll move forward together.