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Driving DEI change through a Center of Excellence

Change is hard.

Driving change requires you to do something you haven’t done before (at least you haven’t done it before within the organization or team) and you have to convince others to do it differently with you. And even if they want to come along (and many don’t, preferring the familiar routine over the unknown), it will be a bumpy journey.

The path is unfamiliar, unpredictable, and at times uncomfortable. Even with all your due diligence, you won’t have all the answers, you won’t know all the risks, and you can’t avoid all the failures. Change is also not a once and done, it is a continuous cycle of learning and improvements as you pick your way down the unknown path. And, if you are successful, for all those who follow you, tomorrow will never again be like yesterday.

Yes, change is hard.

But change is also powerful and enabling. It is growth, it is success, it is disruption in all the best ways, and it is the fundamental requirement of improvement.

When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), change can mean the difference between building an organization with strength into the future and one that will not exist in the future.

So, how can you effectively lead an organization through DEI change?

One answer is by using a Center of Excellence.

Center of Excellence – a tool of change

Contrary to a common belief, a Center of Excellence is not a place to implement excellence. It is a place to create it.

A Center of Excellence is a place to test theories and try new techniques. It lets you explore if an idea will work or not. It enables optimization and tinkering to continuously improve and grow your ideas. It gives you a chance to measure (or figure out how to measure) the impact of the new solution, to run into challenges and determine how to address them, to create and test adoption plans and training, and to fail and learn from the experience.

And, when all your testing and tinkering results in excellence, the Center of Excellence is the stage for which you can show off how amazing your solution is to the rest of the organization. And once the organization sees how amazing your solution is, not only will they be less resistant for change, they may just end up begging you for it.

So, how do you set up this amazingly powerful change tool?

The four steps for creating an excellent Center of Excellence (CoE)

1. Identify your CoE group

Find a group within the organization who are willing and excited to take part in the CoE. This group should be:

  • Supportive. There will be enough challenges and learning moments as it is. Don’t add to it with a hesitant or resistant team to the mission, purpose, or CoE approach.

  • Isolated or semi-isolated. Choose a group that is fairly self-contained to control the variables – a single team, department, function, location or whatever else works for your organization.

  • Autonomous or semi-autonomous. The CoE needs the freedom to try new things – both in terms of process and systems / technology.

  • Risk tolerant. Like with everything new, you aren’t always going to be right or have the best approach at first. The CoE can’t be afraid to get it wrong, learn, and make changes.

  • Open-minded. The CoE participants must thrive in experimentation and embrace the discovery process that comes with a CoE.

TIP: don’t forget the CoE participants have their own incentives, motivators, and responsibilities beyond the CoE. Incentivize, reward, and celebrate them liberally.

2. Secure support for the CoE project

Like any project, the CoE project will require support in the form of funding, resources, and leadership sponsorship. Set up the CoE for success by securing the support (at least for the first step/milestone) before launching the CoE.

To do this, take the time to clearly define the goals and purpose of the CoE in a meaningful and compelling way. Then, follow good techniques to communicate that plan to gain the support.

TIP: the same techniques to secure support for the CoE apply to any DEI program. The CoE is also a great way to take the first step in a larger initiative. Fund the CoE first to prove the case to budget for a larger initiative.

3. Apply the change cycle

Once you have your CoE team and support for the program, execute it as a CoE program. Don’t have the expectation of once and done (though if it works out that way, fantastic). Assume you will be learning and adjusting as you go.

To do this:

  • Measure frequently to gauge if you are on the right track.

  • Set up frequent check-ins with the team to discuss what is working, what is not, and what should be done differently.

  • Learn quickly from mistakes, turning lessons into actions, then evaluate if the actions had a positive or negative effect to the intended outcome.

  • Document everything – it didn’t happen if it hasn’t been documented. What you did, the results, measurements, CoE participant reactions and challenges; the path that ultimately leads to success.

  • Establish a culture of embracing failure up front – the team must not be afraid of it but, rather, they must be open and excited to learn from it.

TIP: If possible, find outside peers with similar programs. A peer group will provide an opportunity for mutual learning, problem solving, and outside perspectives on approaches. Peers are also fantastic for maintaining motivation and energy, reinforcing accountability, and seeing new approaches to challenges that could have your organization stumped.

4. Showcase the results

A CoE is not just for creating excellence, it’s also to prepare it for the rest of the organization (and beyond). What good is excellence if it is never shared or adopted?

When you have achieved the next level of excellence, show it off!

Showcase to the organization what you’ve achieved and why it’s so important and impactful. Use a combination of:

  • Logical: success by the numbers like ROI

  • Emotional: why they want to have this change

  • Empowering: here’s how we do it step-by-step

Support the conversation with the documentation you gathered in step 3.

When done right, showing off the results will not just gain your program support, it will leave the organization begging you to adopt what you have created.

TIP: when showing off the results, tell the story THEY need to hear, not the one you want to tell. This is all about selling the program and driving the adoption so tailor the message to your audience. This includes the focus, tone, style, and format.

Bringing it all together

Center of Excellences are powerful tools of change. By creating a Center of Excellence, you can cultivate and perfect your DEI approaches on a small, controlled scale, then use your proven success to gain support, funding, and desire for adoption.

You can do it, but you don’t need to do it alone. Find peers on a similar journey – in your industry or in others. Peers will help you learn faster, see past obstacles, and keep you motivated. Find a peer group or join one of ours.

Career.Place has partnered with Association for Talent Acquisition Professionals (ATAP) to offer a TA DEI Center of Excellence training program. Together with a group of peers, we explore how to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion across the many facets of Talent Acquisition. Each topic includes a multitude of actionable content that can be brought back and explored in your own Center of Excellence.

Join us and together we will stop bias and drive diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the hiring process.

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