When I think about why real progress on diversity and inclusion feels so slow, I keep coming to this concept that it’s about the journey, not the destination. I’m afraid people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of journey vs. destination, at least as it applies to diversity and inclusion. But a recent experience at one of those large Southern California networking events that we introverts dread has given me a new way to articulate it.

My journey vs. destination story doesn’t start in Southern California, though. It starts with some good friends of mine who once travelled to Russia. They arrived in St. Petersburg via cruise ship during a multi-day Baltic cruise and spent one day on a sightseeing tour organized by the cruise line. The ship stayed for another day in St. Petersburg but my friends elected instead to take a day trip to Moscow. They took a bus from the ship to the airport and then flew to Moscow. Once there, they boarded another bus to take a sightseeing tour of the city. Given the travel documents they had for the cruise, they weren’t allowed off the bus in Moscow. So, they drove by Red Square and saw St. Basil’s Cathedral through the window before returning to the airport and flying back to St. Petersburg. They told this story to illustrate that they have been to Moscow and, therefore, can check it off their list. For them, travel is about the destination.

I don’t mean it to sound judgmental (though I fear it will) to say that there is nothing about that experience I would find satisfying, nor would I look back on it and feel I had been to Moscow. My way is more to rent a room from a family, spend several days in their neighborhood living (and eating) as a local, and dedicate a whole day to wandering with my camera or visiting a museum. For me, travel is about the journey.

I was reminded of this dichotomy recently during a conversation about diversity and inclusion at that networking event. In talking about my work, I mentioned diversity and inclusion. The reaction of the business owner I was talking with reminded me of my friends describing their trip to Moscow! “Yeah, we did that,” he said. “I brought in a guy like you, actually, and he did some training. Worked out pretty good.” Everything about the way he shared that information made it clear he had nothing further to say on the topic.

I realized that to him diversity and inclusion is a destination. He had hired the trainer, he’d done the program, and now he could check it off his list. Clearly, he saw diversity and inclusion (if he even made a distinction between them, which I doubt) as finite. Except that they aren’t. Diversity and inclusion are as infinite as the experience of being human, and you can’t pretend that you’ve mastered its complexity in a two-hour PowerPoint presentation. (If that sounds judgmental, I’m OK with that.)

Let’s give this business owner the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that at the end of the training program he had learned that:

  • There are several dimensions of culture and what those dimensions are,
  • Our own implicit bias shapes how we perceive others, and
  • An inclusive environment is one in which each employee feels safe to be him- or herself and to fully contribute to the enterprise.

Is he “done”?

No. The training is essential, just as it’s essential to me to study before I travel. But knowing that shopkeepers in Mexico will expect me to negotiate is one thing; actually doing it is quite another. Nothing substitutes for experience.

That’s the piece I think the business owner didn’t understand. Even if he understands the framework, the reality is that every day offers the potential for the unfamiliar and the challenging. That’s particularly true in urban Southern California—where I live—which is a textbook example of diverse. Training or no, he must already understand that. But is he ready for the change in dynamics when someone with a different cultural framework is assigned to an existing work team? Is he prepared to welcome his first transgender employee, or to provide space for an employee to practice her faith? Will he be able to adjust his expectations when his star employee becomes a first-time parent or faces elder care responsibilities?

You get the idea. If he pays attention, he’ll see that his workplace is different every day. How can it not be? The world is different every day. And things that happen in the world at large, in his market, and in employees’ personal lives all are pebbles (or stones—sometimes boulders) that will create ripples in the water.

If you aren’t thinking about diversity and inclusion, those ripples can rock the boat and feel like disruptions or problems to be solved; obstacles to overcome. If you are focused on inclusion, you see beauty in the ripples. You are excited by the challenge and embrace the opportunity to learn more about your employees and about yourself. You see facing the challenges as rewarding. You appreciate the diversity and inclusion journey.

My friends argued that seeing St. Basil’s from the bus was better than not seeing it all. Perhaps that’s so. But you’ll never persuade me that it’s better than getting off the bus, going inside, and losing yourself in the experience.

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