Doing the Work and Doing it Right: Deconstructing DEI with Author, Speaker and Consultant Lily Zheng

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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Author, Speaker and Consultant Lily Zheng returns to The Will To Change to discuss their new book, DEI Deconstructed, which centers on accountable and effective practices to achieve DEI outcomes in organizations. Discover why even leaders with the best of intentions find it difficult to achieve the DEI outcomes they desire. Lily also discusses the outcomes that they typically advise leaders to achieve and how to measure them. They also reveal how they work with leaders who may be resistant to DEI efforts.

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:


LILY ZHENG: Oftentimes when I speak with leaders who are skeptical, they're actually pretty aware of what type of person does DEI. They're just like, Okay, maybe DEI is one of those kumbaya hold hands leaders that are really soft with their followers and ask people about their feelings all the time. And that's great, good for them, but not me. The industry has tried to approach these folks from a number of different directions. One is to sort of meet people where they're at approach to say like, "Okay, let's go to where you are and try to gently nudge you in the direction of this industry." And then another is to use sort of pressure to say every leader needs to be more like this. If you're not, then like we're going to put the hammer on you and put you on blast for not being inclusive. The approach that I've tried to take is to deconstruct DEI, if you will, to turn it less into a unified body of like you have to be all in or you're not one of us to, regardless of how you feel about the industry, there are practices that achieve certain things.

It's a toolkit. Practitioners are really skilled at using ideally many different tools in that toolkit. But there's no reason why we can't teach managers how to use a wrench, even if they don't want to learn how to use a hammer.


The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling author, and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She's a passionate inclusion and equity advocate, committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advised top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now on to the episode.

Hello and welcome back to The Will To Change. This episode features the return of diversity, equity and inclusion, speaker, strategist and organizational consultant Lily Zheng, as they talk about their most recent book, DEI Deconstructed, which centers on accountable and effective Practices to Achieve DEI outcomes in organizations. And in the conversation Lily talks about how leaders with even the best of intentions find it difficult to achieve the outcomes that they want, what outcomes Lily advises leaders to achieve and how to measure them, and also the difference between outcomes oriented and inputs oriented DEI. All this and more. And now onto the conversation.


JENNIFER BROWN: Lily, welcome to The Will to Change.

LILY ZHENG: Yeah, it's great to be back.

JENNIFER BROWN: You are back. Thank you for coming back. You and I have these super stimulating conversations as only long-term practitioners can and long-term authors. And so this is your third book coming out. And everybody on the Will to Change. Please make a note. November 8th, Lily's next book is coming out, DEI Deconstructed, which is super cool. First solo effort, although you are, I think of you as such a writer, always Lily, because I follow you on all the socials and you're incredible. You're prolific and brilliant and insightful. I'm amazed at how quickly you put things together and share them with us. And then your audience is extremely in involved and passionate and numerous.

So everybody that's listening to this, I think of Lily as such a light in our conversation about this field. So someone that you should absolutely follow, listen to, learn from, and just tune into the dialogue around you, Lily, because it is, it's awesome. To me it's extremely cutting edge, and your book is going to be a wonderful addition to the bookshelves. So we have releases kind of at the same time of year, a month apart here. And so I want to talk about it more and talk about you and how would you introduce yourself for those who are listening that don't know you and your work and how you identify and something about why this is your life's work.

LILY ZHENG: Yeah, so I'll just give the full intro then. So hi, folks. Hi to our listeners. My name's Lily Zheng. I use they/them pronouns. I am a DEI strategist and consultant. My bread and butter, so I do consulting. I work with organizations from, at this point a range of industries and a range of sectors, whole bunch of different sized orgs, different type of companies, non-profits, you name it, mostly on how to turn people's intentions to do DEI work into actual outcomes that they feel good about in the long term. So my focus, especially in the last five years, has been to do long-term sustainable DEI work. And so what that looks like in practice is typically starting off with things like DEI assessment, surveys, focus groups, helping the clients that I work with understand the starting point of their organizations and then working with them from those findings, that data to build initiatives that last right, to build long-term mentorship programs, to fix policies and processes to ensure that leadership training is something that's embedded into the day-to-day experience of every people leader.

And that DEI competencies are embedded within manager evaluations, like all sorts of things like that. And why it's my life's work, I think this is a good question to start with. I really care about ensuring that the things that people want to do result in actual change and actual impact in the long haul. And that matters particularly to me because I see way too often the opposite happening. I see too often people having these really ambitious intentions, setting out really to make better organizations and make better teams, become more inclusive people. And frankly, I see them failing a lot. And more broadly, I see a lot of frustration and disengagement and distrust of organizations and leaders directly associated with this sort of constant failure of our ability to turn our intentions into the impacts we want.

And so, I don't know, I think if we want to live in a world that's better, we need to believe that the world can be better. And if we want to believe the world can be better, we need to understand how we get there. And a lot of my work is focused on getting from that point A to point B, telling people not just why they should care or what a better world looks like, but to give them the real concrete, solid tools that they can use at every step in the process to get to where they want to get to and to know that when they've arrived there, it's because they've done the right things and they can measure their success and they have a leg to stand on. So that's why I do the work that I do. It's always a matter of, and I'm sure you can speak to this as well, there's always so much more to do.


LILY ZHENG: I can work for the next five decades if I want to, and there's still going to be more to do. So that's honestly one of the reasons why moving the topic a little way from my work to the book, that's one of the reasons why I'm really excited about the book because I found that in the last few years I've been saying the same things on repeat over and over and over and over again. And at some point someone was like, "Lily, maybe write this down so you don't have to keep repeating yourself." And I'm like, "Yeah, I think it's a really good idea because I'm getting really tired of saying the same things over and over." So yeah, I'm so thrilled to have this book out in the world and I can't wait to see all the waves it's going to make.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, it's going to even more so solidify your voice, speaking as somebody who has just been amazed at what a book changes in us in the writing of it. And then it almost legitimizes and solidifies our body of work. And it also gives you something that you can give people a piece of you, a piece of you what you think, what you believe, what you always say. And I can really relate though. The repetition is a lot that we've been doing over the last, well, for years and years, really. I know you and I have been in the work for a really long time, but particularly sounding like a broken record, I do worry about that. I have to struggle to find the new stuff and the stuff that hasn't been said and the concepts that I'm still thinking through, which is where I go to get my own kind of challenge.

What have I not connected the dots on? Or how can I dig deeper or perhaps choose the more vulnerable tack of something? Because it is true. And yet all that we teach bears repeating and it's always new audiences and audiences may not have heard it ever. And so Lily, you and I were talking about how the book is both, I guess, hard-hitting but also accessible. And it was important for you to make sure it met the learner wherever the learner is, where they're at. So I wondered how was it to know so many things about this topic and have been swimming in these waters for so long and yet sort of simplifying it for the beginning learner and writing to that audience. That must have felt really like an interesting challenge for you.

LILY ZHENG: Well, luckily it's not a new challenge to me. I mean that that's the day to day work. I don't often find myself working with DEI practitioners. I find myself working with people who know very little about DEI and haven't been exposed to the large body of literature on diversity, equity, and inclusion. So it's something that I do all the time. And you find with these folks, these true beginners, that it's actually a breath of fresh air because they have no patience for your buzzwords. It's actually very fun. If you go in and be like, "I want to create a culture of belonging." Some folks will just look at you and be like, "Will I get paid more. I don't care. I literally don't care." And so there's something in the DEI space. I think maybe it's a matter of chasing prestige or reputation or status or the academic influences on the work.

But I feel like sometimes really easy for practitioners to spin their gears and to say a whole bunch of really meaningful, powerful things that don't actually mean anything. We need to create true cultures of belonging where authenticity and inclusion are the bedrock of our commitment to creating a diverse and equitable workplace where everyone can feel like they can bring their authentic selves to contribute productively to this environment we've created. It's painful. It is. Oh God. And the number of keynotes I've heard that sound like that. And people eat it up. I hate to say people eat it up because they're like, "Yeah, I don't know what any of those words mean."

But when you work with skeptics, and I actually work with quite a few skeptics, they see right through it. Like they say, "I couldn't care less. Are there going to be people like me at the top? And if not, why? Am I going to get paid fairly? Are people going to stop discriminating against me? Do I have fair shots at promotion? And if you can't answer these questions, I couldn't give a what you say or how you dress it up." And it's these folks who are really kept in mind as I was writing the book. I'm not here to contribute to a new academic body of knowledge. I'm here to give people the real answers they need and to help the people who are responsible for building better organizations, CEOs, leaders, middle managers, HR, the tools that they themselves need to be able to create these environments.

So in that sense, this is one of the easiest things I've ever written because every single time I doubt what I'm writing. I reread the last two pages that I've written from the lens of let's say I don't give a damn. Is this content still useful to me? And a few times during my writing process, I've read what I've written and I'm just like, you know what? I haven't said anything of substance here. And I've deleted the whole thing and been like, I can replace this with one paragraph saying this thing is broken. This is how to fix it. And yeah, I did that for the entire book. And I think the result is, maybe it's a little dense, but I think it's really high value content because the book treats the reader like they're an adult. The book treats the reader like they're someone who has the ability to get it.

Something that I say often is meet people where they're at, but take them to where they need to be. So I think I do a good job of saying, wherever you are, I want to make space for you, but I'm not the type that lingers there. People all need to know this content. And if you're way off in the distance here, I will have empathy for you. I will meet you where you're at. And I'll say, "Okay, what's your plan for getting to where you need to be?" And I think that's the tone that the book takes. It's very unapologetic with by the time you're done with this book, you might struggle a bit, but I want you to get to a place where you can do the work and to feel confident doing it. And that might be easier or harder for some people, but everything you need is in there. Good luck.

JENNIFER BROWN: Good luck. Yes, you've done all the work for people. You've laid it out. You've made it practical. I wonder on the give a damn question, I find the toughest conversations are the leaders who don't give a damn on the flip side. They hear the talking points and they're like, "Well, less for me, or now this is another thing I have to do or it's still side of desk." I thought maybe we had really this had been discovered to be more central to the way business works and the way leaders lead and the way that they generate colleagueship. I don't like followership necessarily, but I'm still encountering Lily, and I'm sure you are too, people who just don't give a damn and don't want to be bothered.

And yet I feel like the house is on fire. I'm giving this warning and cautionary tale, but also laying out, like you have done, all of these mechanisms to investigate, to explore, to try on trying to make it as easy as possible to step into the costume, even if it doesn't feel like it's native to you, but step into it, try it on, hey, it might fit. Hey, this might make you not almost a better leader, but a better human or parent or partner, whatever. But how do you deal with that resistance at the top these days? And I wonder if that has changed at all over either the writing of the book or the recent couple years? Because I know it's been a deepening couple of years for both us and the whole field in general. How do you deal with that?

LILY ZHENG: Yeah, that's a good question. I think what I've tried to do in the last few years is to take a different approach than what I've seen in the industry. And the approach that I see a lot is treating DEI and the body of work that makes up DEI as sort of the purview of a certain kind of person. Like you mentioned, trying on a costume, why is there a DEI costume? And oftentimes when I speak with leaders who are skeptical, they're actually pretty aware of what type of person does DEI, right? They're just like, "Okay, maybe DEI is one of those kumbaya hold hands leaders that are really soft with their followers and ask people about their feelings all the time. And that's great, good for them, but not me. I don't care. This doesn't matter. I haven't been able to connect it to me."

And I think the industry has tried to approach these folks from a number of different directions. One is the sort of meet people where they're at approach to say, "Okay, let's go to where you are and try to gently nudge you in the direction of this industry." And that's, in my opinion, not worked super well. And then another is to use pressure to say every leader needs to be more like this. If you're not, then we're going to put the hammer on you and put you on blast for not being inclusive. And that's worked a little bit sometimes. Sometimes the stick works better than the carrot. But I think the approach that I've tried to take is to deconstruct DEI, if you will, to turn it less into a unified body of you have to be all in or you're not one of us to regardless of how you feel about the industry, there are practices that achieve certain things.

It's a toolkit. Practitioners are really skilled at using ideally many different tools in that toolkit. But there's no reason why we can't teach managers how to use a wrench even if they don't want to learn how to use a hammer. There's no reason why we can't be sharing some of these specific tools that we've developed in the industry that are proven to work with anyone, with everyone. And so when I meet leaders who have some resistance to this larger idea of DEI as an industry, I say, "Okay, that's fair. Then what are you concerned about? What do you care about?" And they'll say things like, "Meritocracy matters a lot to me." And I'll say, "Okay, great. Help me understand to what extent you have a meritocracy in your team, in your organization. Help me break down these processes and these policies and these practices. Tell me how it's working or not. Because if you really do care about meritocracy, I think you want to make sure that it is a true meritocracy. Wouldn't it be really undermining if what you thought was a meritocracy wasn't?"

And then usually leaders will say something like, "Yeah, okay, I guess that's fair." And then we'll explore things and maybe we'll do a DEI assessment. And one of the findings will be like, "Hey, it seems like we explored things by demographic characteristics and white men, 90% of them feel like there is a meritocracy. But let's say only 55% of black women feel like there's meritocracy. What do you think about that data?" And then they might be confused and they might say, "You know what? That's odd. That's a really big gap. That's weird. Maybe they have some different experience that's weird." And then I say, "Great, let's try to understand that different experience."

And then I mean, it should be apparent to most listeners that this is DEI work. All the things I've been talking about, that's just DEI work. But at no point did I frame it as DEI work. At no point did I bring in the hammer of we need to create cultures of belonging for everyone all the time. It's just really understanding the concerns that people have and finding ways to tie that in to the equity and inclusion and diversity work that we do, and then connect to point A to point B. We help people build what they want to build and embed in all of these really important practices to ensure outcomes. That's what the work is about.

When I give talks, I talk about making DEI work boring. I really would love if we could make this work boring as all hell, because I think that's what it is at the end of the day. It doesn't need to be this super charged thing around we're going to talk about the morality of equity or whatnot. Look. Your employees want to get paid fairly, so let's pay them fairly. Your employees don't want to be discriminated in promotions. Let's eliminate discrimination. Your employees want to be hired at the very top. Let's find a way to do that. And there's so much of that problem-solving that we can just give folks, especially the skeptics, without dragging them into this larger conversation about who's good or who's bad or all in or nothing. So yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: I have that exact thought when somebody thinks they're doing a little gotcha moment for me with the question about political diversity in the room. And it's funny. You see the group or people trying to make this that. And I love what you just said, which is that hold on a second. We're talking about de-biasing an organization and different processes and policies, which by the way is not glamorous work at all, but it doesn't need to be framed in the way that it's been framed. We've probably participated in making it more of a moral choice versus a good practice versus an equitable practice which enables better organizational performance. It's so much in the messaging of this work. It's how we talk about it. It's so true, like what you say, making it boring because it is the scut work is looking under every rock for the inequities that exist and how processes can be evaluated and redesigned so that they generate better outcomes.

And I've often thought if we could not even use the words DEI in anything and speak about it completely separately from that, that we would get more traction, that we would get a more productive conversation with people. So anyway, it's interesting. And yet you and I are still in this field, and we love this field too. It's not like we want to get rid of the monikers of it. But the ideas that we're talking about are, I think are so much more larger and more important and more universal to human potential and unleashing that. And yeah, I'm constantly trying to find new words and ways to describe this in order to create that openness, not just the aha moment, but the openness to then going where selfishly want someone to go.

And I love that you have a point of view when you describe your writing, it's very tactical, but the point of view is strong, which is our world is changing. And I wonder to what degree, I know you agree with this, but how would you articulate the mismatch between the way the world is changing, that's our talent, that's our marketplace, and where kind of organizations are lagging behind? And do you see this as a gap that's risky for business? And how do you speak about that? Because you're so wonderful with vocabulary. I would love to hear how you articulate what is the opportunity that we all face when we consider it in that way?

LILY ZHENG: So that's a good question. And this answer will only get at one facet of that question. We could spend hours talking about it. But there's a particular concept I talk about in, now I'm forgetting which chapter I talk about it in, but there's a particular concept in my book that I bring from the sort of social science, cultural psychology work. And that term is called power distance. Power distance refers to the degree in a society to which people are more or less comfortable with hierarchy, with power differences. So a high power distance culture is one where people are fine and accept there being these large disparities between the haves and have nots. A low power distance culture is one where people don't accept that. They really push back against it. They reject it.

I think what's going on in the US at least, and in some parts of Europe, and to some extent the world, though I think it's most concentrated in the US, is that society is becoming less and less tolerant of power distance in the sense that it's less and less in society for people to say that certain social groups are better than others. It's less and less for people to say people of these genders just have to be, or by nature are better or deserve better outcomes or more successful than other genders. But organizations are lagging behind that because in organizations, power distance has been something that we've accepted for a long time. And so some of the tension is that the new societal pressure to make inequities go away is butting up against these long standing, sometimes decades long hierarchies within organizations, within institutions, within government, within academia, within industry that have unspoken rules about who it is that deserves to be on top.

And that's where the tension is coming. It's not just that corporations don't know what's going on. It's that the folks who are leading companies, the folks who are leading institutions are relying on outdated ideas of what degree of power difference is acceptable. And so to the folks at the very top and you can speak to some of them. They'll say the same thing. They'll say essentially, "Some people like me have worked really hard and we've earned what we have, and these people are coming to take it away from us." And that comes from, I think, a very similar place of this unspoken people like us deserve to be on top. And everyone who isn't us has their place and that place isn't here. That implicit belief is getting really challenged by newer generations of workers, by younger employees, by queer and trans folks, by people of color. And so you're seeing this growing group of marginalized folks saying, "You know what? That's not okay. That's not right. That's not acceptable." And the corporation is one of the big battlegrounds of this big conflict.

JENNIFER BROWN: I mean, that's fascinating. And I agree. The pressure is getting intense and the hierarchies are so old, they're so ancient, and they have not really been revisited, challenged. They don't really reflect actually the way I think people work best even. They might be effective for command and control, but we all know that that that very sort of structure is being challenged. And so there's a mismatch between the conversations going on outside of that and the sort of way we do business as usual. And I guess where have you seen then us collapse this model effectively whereby institutions are beginning to look at these fundamental assumptions about how work needs to be structured in order to get done? What are the opportunities there to think about structured differently and hierarchy differently?

I was hopeful and am hopeful, summer 2020, we began to listen differently. We began to convene different conversations I thought. And some of us with power took a listening stance, took a sort of receptive receiver stance. And that stance, I was hoping going through that year that the dynamics would change and the center of gravity would change in structures. And I don't know, because some of us are returning kind of back to are we all kind of going to sleep again? Did we forget what we were told? Did we forget what we learned and experimented with at that time?

So I wonder, but what is lasting? What have you seen or what would you think a lasting of challenge to the way we think about controls and hierarchy and structure, what would that more enlightened workplace structure and flow look like that would enable greater performance, greater belonging, for sure? Because I think this is something that's deeply prized by incoming talent and younger generations, and yet they're coming into this sort of antiquated system and then they're trying to challenge the system. The system's not ready to change. It doesn't even know what it would change towards. What would you say it should be changing towards? And are you seeing any good models?

LILY ZHENG: Yeah, I feel like there were at least three questions there, all of them really interesting. So I'll sort of tee up what I thought were the most interesting parts of that complex question. The first one being what I'm hearing as why didn't things change as much as they could have in 2020? What has changed? What hasn't? I think 2020 was a really interesting time. I was not super excited in 2020, and honestly, not too many things changed for me at least. I think 2020 was interesting in that it forced a lot of employers to grapple with topics that they hadn't dealt with before. But I think the outcome that emerged was a spike in employee voice for marginalized groups, especially Black employees. And this spike in voice doesn't necessarily mean that outcomes changed. And I think you can look at the companies that took action in 2020 and almost directly tie back that action to the efficacy of the Black employee resource group or the DEI council or whatever Black employees were advocating for at the time.

If those advocates were successful, their companies took action towards a certain limited set of things. And if those advocates weren't successful, nothing much happened. I think the reason why we're seeing a shift back or people going back asleep is because they were never truly awake. This was an external shock to the system of most companies. And some organizations did ride the wave of Black advocacy to change decision-making practices, to change DEI initiatives and so on and so forth. But in my opinion, and in my experience, the vast majority didn't. They saw this advocacy, they were threatened by it and said, "What one thing can we do that doesn't change the system that makes these folks happy?" And would you look at 2020 and 2021? I wonder how many heads of DEI were hired in that time? A lot. I think hiring jumped by 68% between 2020 and 2021.

Please don't quote me on that number. It's close to 68%. But this is, I think, something that happens every time there's a big shake up in the corporate world. There's a big burst of employee advocacy. And then leaders in positions of power try to recalibrate and regain equilibrium with as little action as possible. And another change, I think that maybe in my opinion has just as much impact as 2020, is COVID and the shift to remote work. And we're actually seeing the same thing play out in real time. Even right now, some companies have really reevaluated their stance on remote work, for example. And some companies that have said, "We're going to do remote work forever." Whereas other companies said, "You know what? This was just a temporary thing. We're going to double down and go back to how things were." And we're seeing this pretty extensive variation on how companies have emerged from this similar external shock.

So the question here isn't how do we get people to wake up. It's when there is a really big event, when there's something that shakes the foundations of the corporate world, I think we need to recognize that outrage by itself is not enough to change systems. And I want people to get more fluent and more efficacious in using those big social movements to target the right aspects of their companies to change things. So when something big happens, we can't just say, "Listen to X group." We need to say, "This big thing has happened. We need to change decision making. This big thing has happened. We need to change the way we engage with our employees in general. This big thing has happened. We need to completely revamp how we hire, how we retain, how we select leaders, how we reward, how we incentivize."

Unless we use the momentum of those big events that will keep happening. By the way they happen every couple of months at this point in our world, unless we use that momentum, it'll just keep going like this. Some big thing will happen, small changes will be made, and then as soon as the new cycle moves on, everything returns back to how it was with everyone none the wiser, and people just frustrated and disappointed, We need to get better at capitalizing on these social movements or else we'll just keep seeing the same failures.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Right. That's so insightful. It's very true. And people love and tend towards the big bang, the public, the gesture, whatever it is. But then we all kind of go back or we give up fighting. I mean, it seems like then to do what you're talking about, I wonder what is the most strategic stakeholder group to pull together of architects and champions to ensure that the momentum is utilized in the most effective way? I just feel like nobody knows how to do that, particularly in the activism world or in the employee base, so many younger people are not familiar with the levers and buttons of change as they exist in an organizational context. I mean, how would you know that if you don't study organizational change and that's not your discipline? Or if you don't know where the power really lies, there's the official and unofficial power as well, and you certainly don't have the access and maybe in that old hierarchical model, which still exists, the seniority to and the influence. So how-

LILY ZHENG: You're giving the flashbacks.


LILY ZHENG: This was actually the exact reason why I went into DEI work actually. In college I did a lot of student activism when I was in undergrad and it was really intense. We did a whole bunch of things. We fired campus and did campaigns against certain folks and protested and blocked bridges. And I got arrested and a bunch of people got arrested and it was a lot. And at the end of the day, what was one of the most sobering things to realize was that we didn't actually have very much impact at all. And when you look at the things that we actually were able to change through our advocacy, I can't name very many, if not zero. And I think one of the big reasons is because we had a lot of outrage and a lot of, I think very right shift energy and frustration and momentum but we didn't understand any of the levers. We didn't understand what we were asking for or how we would ask for it.

I hate to say it, years ago there were a few students who were like, "We're actually going to join this committee to push for changing this thing." And many of us said, "That's too slow. It's never going to do anything. We should protest right now and get this thing changed." And years later, you look back, the committee actually succeeded. It took them five years, but they changed something and I don't think I did. So there's so many stories like that. And to get to your question of what stakeholder group is best to put together, I'm not sure if that's the right question. Because when we look at how change happens in organizations, everything sort of depends on everything else happening and the tactics that apply best in context to depend on what's happened before.

And so rather than saying what is the universal best practice to do this? I instead encourage the folks I work with to see each tactic as setting up the conditions for another tactic. So for example, if you want to change the policy in an organization, you need a few things. You need folks who understand that policy, first and foremost. You need folks with the energy to change that policy. But you also need a shared understanding that something is wrong, that the policy isn't working and that something needs to be made better. So a very simple theory of change for that might be you start from a state of no one thinking that there's any challenge, no one thinking that there's a problem, maybe a few employees being pissed off, but they're not loud enough.

You could say, "Okay, let's try to start a movement with these employees that raises the visibility of the challenge of the inequity with the goal of that movement being to make more people understand how that policy's broken." So to build that visibility, to build that movement, you would do things like invite speakers. You could do direct action. You could even, I don't know, start a union. You could have employee teach-ins, all of that, build buzz and builds energy. You want to direct that towards a very clear set of asks, We need to change the policy. The policy needs to be X and repeat that forever until people are sick and tired of it. And then at some point, organizational leadership will co-opt the process. They'll say, "Okay, okay, okay, shut up, shut up. We'll change the policy. We're going to put together a group to change the policy." Then you now have another big decision point. How do you staff that group?

Then you need to think about, okay, if you want to change the policy in a certain direction, you want to make sure that folks who are experts in whatever, you want to change the policy to make it into that process. If you don't have an expert, you need to bring in a third party advisor or make sure that their name comes up for consideration before that group's been established. If you can succeed doing that, then you have everyone in the right room together. Then it gets into a really complex process of negotiation where people figure things out, when people try to put new policies into practice. You can again start a social movement to raise the visibility of certain solutions to say, "Okay, we tap this committee on board, but all of our employees have rallied to say that they want this one solution. If we don't get this solution, we're going to be pissed."

That puts pressure on the committee. Ideally the committee changes the policy. And then following that, you can then have people say, "Okay, now we want to make this policy succeed. How can we start another movement or another employee generated thing to make sure that that continues? Now that the policy's changed, we must train our managers. We need to make sure that everyone understands how to put that policy into practice." And that you could say is a relatively isolated arc of making one organizational change. And that's already more detail than most movements have been able to tackle because they focus on the first thing and then they stop. They say, "This thing's broken. We are mad." And then nothing. We're mad, we're mad, we're mad, we're mad, we're burned out. And then it's over.

And then you wait until everyone's quit or fired in the next five years. And then five years later you say, "Okay, I think we're mad again. Let's try again." And we don't understand, not enough people understand how to make organizational change, and we don't talk about that enough in the DEI space because it's so much more visible and flashy and profitable to over focus on the very first spark of a movement than it is to carry that movement through all the different aspects of organizational change making. And if we want to actually do what we say we want to do, we need to get through all steps of that process, not just the loud and the fun ones.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's right. And in a way, do you think it's actually good for our resilience? I'm sure you get the question all the time of burnout. But I actually feel like what you're describing, the challenge in our own selves in the way we approach it is causing more burnout.


JENNIFER BROWN: I mean, just wonder if it would be in a weird way, even though it's not the glamorous work, but what you just described requires us to dig into things and take step by step processes towards change, lasting change, and so much less maybe frustration, maybe more frustration because it's a slower road.

LILY ZHENG: Oh, there's definitely frustration in it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure, it's a different kind, right?

LILY ZHENG: Yeah. So I think we just need to get our expectations aligned. I want people to be frustrated at the process but not frustrated at having to go through the process. I want people to disagree and to fight and to butt heads on how it is we solve problems because I think that's where our energy is best spent. It just means realigning our energy and realigning our capacity to make change. I see a lot of activists have a really incomplete theory of change. They say, "Well, such and such person owns this policy. If we just put them on blast enough, they will cave and reverse the policy." And it's like, y'all, if that's how things worked in organizations, I wish. We would have campaigns every other week to oust people in positions of power. But unfortunately, most organizations, especially old ones, especially large, powerful ones, can absolutely weather the entire employment cycle of one or two angry employees.

That's something that we said a lot in college. We are up against this university that's been here for hundreds of years. You know what they can do? They can be really tired of us and wait four years until we graduate and they don't change and we're done. So many organizations can do that. They can just stall out the energy of anyone who goes up against them. It's horrible. I don't love it. It's really frustrating and I think it means we need to get better at working towards the long-term because what we're up against, these big structures, these systems are really strong, they're really enduring. And we need to come up with strategies that are just as enduring, that are just as resilient as the systems we're trying to change.

JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful. I think we're going to title this episode, The Long Game. And Lily, this is amazing. One more thing, when you mentor then people, practitioners, which I'm sure you're asked to do a lot, I wonder if this happens to you. I find myself saying, "Well actually to do DEI effectively, there's all these other disciplines that you should be studying." Because it is about these other things that you've just laid out and it's truly interdisciplinary as a discipline. And so I wonder what are the other domains you recommend people study so that they can create this kind of longer term, more sustainable change in a system that is extremely entrenched and slow to change? What do you mentor people to get good at?

LILY ZHENG: Interesting. It really depends on what people are trying to do. I never give people a full list of things to study because it would be everything. It would be communications, it would be sociology, organizational change, social psychology, God, behavioral psychology, sometimes even some economics. No, I'm not going to tell people that. Instead, when I work with folks who ask for mentorship, I say, "What is it you want to do? What do you want to achieve?" And then I just ask questions. So someone said, "I want to get paid fairly." And I say, "Great, how does compensation at your company work?" And usually that very first question they say, "I'm not sure." And then I say, "Good, good. Find it out, learn it, figure it out. Talk to folks. Do some research. You don't have to get a degree to find out how compensation works at your company, but you have to talk to people."

And then they say, "Okay, I figured out how compensation works." And I'm like, "Great, what's your problem with it?" And maybe they say, "This part of the process isn't fair." And then I say, "Great." And then sometimes they say, "I don't know, but the outcomes aren't good." And I'm like, "Okay, then you need to figure out what's causing that. So go back, learn more, understand how that system works, understand where the bias might come in and where the source of the challenge might be." And then they have it. They figure it out and I say, "Great, how are you going to fix it?" They're like, "I don't know."

And I'm like, "Great, do some research. Figure out how you can fix compensation practices. Figure out what policies and processes work. Google Scholar is your friend. Libraries are your friend. Do some research. I'm sure someone's written about it on online before and you don't need degrees to do this stuff, but you need curiosity and you need the willingness to admit that energy and frustration and rage is powerful. And unless you equip that with efficacy and information, you're not going to be able to make the change you want to make."

So I push people to understand what they're trying to fix and how they're trying to fix it. And that's already gotten people 75% of the way. Once you know what you're trying to fix and how to fix it, then you can start a movement, then you can push for things. And then you can know that if you put your energy into advocating for A, B and C, it's because you've done your homework and that's going to work and you're going to fix it. And then oftentimes they do

JENNIFER BROWN: A wonderful theory of change. I would ask too, I mean, recommend too that we find our place in the change mix. So I've come to terms with that I'm a messenger and I'm best utilized as someone who's out in front, which is a comfortable place for me. It may be much less comfortable for someone else, but someone else may be able to construct what you're talking about from a technical perspective. So we also need each other. And I think how we utilize each other and our gifts and our strengths in the DEI mix is really important because like you said, this touches everything. Ideally it's a coalition of all of our best contributions. And then pulling that together, we have visionary, we have execution, we have details, we have technical, we have financial details, we have process details.

The best, I think, solutions touch on all of those and put them together and become the best of each of our thinking and contributions. So stylistically, personality wise, we each play different roles depending on as we get to know ourselves over our lifetime. Maybe we start out and we want to do everything for everyone all the time and be all the things. But over time we specialize. And I think that's beautiful too, to specialize and say, "This is my absolute zone of genius. This is what I bring to the party." And as such, then let's put together that complimentary mix that's really going to get this over the finish line and embed it. And that should be our goal, maybe longer term, but much more thorough and I think makes us so much smarter about how we get the work done, what you just described, and just really, I think lessens, it might sound like a lot of work up front, but then the conversation, once you have access to the conversation, you can have the right conversation, you can ask the right questions. And that feels so satisfying.

I think that feels like, "Okay, I was prepared, I was prepared, I anticipated, I knew sort of to a degree how this would go. I knew the obstacles that might appear. I've done my homework, I've done my research and I was prepared and I thought this through." And I think that that feels very, to me, very strengthening and encouraging instead of the sort of blunt instrument of anger. Yes, it's fuel, but we have to put it in a place that makes most sense and then buttress it with a lot of these other pieces that you're talking about that consider how do systems change, and under what timeline, and who changes them? And towards and understanding the problem and crisply and being able to contextualize that is so much a part of the efficacy and so little of what I think we focus on in the field. So I appreciate that.

LILY ZHENG: Yeah, no, what you just said, there's an entire chapter on different roles people can play change making movements, which is chapter seven, Change Maker Everyone, which we can't dive into right now unfortunately. But yeah, no, I talk about every single role required for a successful movement and I cover a lot of what you just said. So yeah, I invite our listeners to check it out.

JENNIFER BROWN: Check it out listeners. Okay, so November 8th, everybody, DEI Deconstructed, pick it up. There's audio, ebook, all the formats anywhere you purchase your books. But follow Lily. Where can we best tune in to you in the conversations you're having in social?

LILY ZHENG: LinkedIn. I love when you started with Lily's active on all the socials because that's wrong. I'm only active on-


LILY ZHENG: Only LinkedIn.

JENNIFER BROWN: I did not realize that.

LILY ZHENG: I can't stand Twitter. Instagram, I hate pictures of myself so nope. And Facebook, no thank you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, no thank you.

LILY ZHENG: So it's just LinkedIn for now. You can find me on LinkedIn @LilyZheng308 or just put Lily Zheng in search and I'll probably come up. And you can learn more about me and my work if you'd like on my website as well at Yeah and follow me in my work. I'm excited to have you as part of my network.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh Lily, thank you so much for joining me and keep up all the amazing teaching that you're doing. And it just makes me feel good to know you're out there and writing and contributing your voice to this work because you're making the field so much better. So thank you.

LILY ZHENG: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.


JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.

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