Human at the Heart of Leadership
WP Engine, a leading tech company headquartered in Austin, TX, with several international offices, places diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEI-B) at the core of its strategic pillars. Recognizing the significance of these principles, WP Engine incorporated DEI-B as a prominent focus during its annual leadership summit. This case study delves into how Emerging World successfully integrated crucial elements of DEI-B and leadership development principles to create an experience aimed at transforming leader perspectives and catalyzing actionable change.
At the outset, Emerging World gained first-hand insights into WP Engine’s specific challenges, opportunities and aspirations for DEI-B initiatives and leadership development by engaging with key internal stakeholders. Information about the company’s culture was gathered through social media posts by the company and its leadership. We also considered the agency of DEI-B and its significance to strategies and goals inside and outside the company. Our aim was to gain a comprehensive perspective on the organization, its DEI-B needs, the desired outcomes of the leadership summit, and the unique dynamics at play. This perspective would serve as a solid foundation for designing an impactful and tailored DEI-B initiative that aligns with the organization’s goals and fosters a mindset of inclusive leadership during the session.
Designing the Experience
To design an impactful leadership development experience with a DEI-B lens, the Emerging World team leveraged our collective expertise, along with extensive research into constructs, frameworks, and ideas that highlighted the intersection between leadership and DEI-B. Key themes such as empathy, active listening, self-awareness, and cultural competence emerged as essential components of inclusive leadership. There was careful consideration to create an immersive experience that would effectively engage over 200 leaders during the 2.25-hour session for both in-person and virtual participants. We explored innovative approaches to activities and interactive elements to ensure participants would be intimately connected to the DEI-B content.
During the co-designing phase with WP Engine, Emerging World employed elements of human-centered design to foster breakthrough moments and facilitate critical shifts in our design perspective. Through this approach, we landed on power dynamics, privilege, biases, and assumptions as key issues to lift during the session. Finally, we sought to elevate the voices of leaders from marginalized groups, ensuring their experiences were heard and used as a catalyst for action.
The Emerging World session of the leadership summit commenced with WP Engine’s senior leaders emphasizing the company’s key DEI goals, and the opportunity for leaders to be catalysts for change. Throughout the immersive experience, participants were prompted to reflect on their own identities and consider those of their fellow colleagues. They were encouraged to challenge their assumptions, reimagine their relationships with power and privilege, and explore the intricacies of interconnectedness. Sense-making exercises were incorporated to enable leaders to process their learnings effectively. The activities were simultaneously conducted in both physical and virtual spaces, ensuring broad participation through a live feed into the leadership summit.
One pivotal component of the experience was the talking circles, where small groups of leaders openly shared their vulnerabilities around biases and assumptions in a safe and empathetic space. This provided a foundation for the subsequent panel discussion, facilitated by Emerging World, which comprised of leaders from diverse backgrounds, encompassing different races, ethnicities, genders, and nationalities. These panelists shared personal stories that evoked emotions and highlighted the significance of safety, visibility, respect, agency, and insight when navigating power and privilege. The experience concluded with a call to action from the VP of DEI and was reinforced by the company’s CEO and Chair, emphasizing the collective commitment to continue the journey towards a diverse and inclusive workplace.
Initial observations and a follow-up survey indicated that the immersive experience profoundly impacted participants, generating numerous ‘aha’ moments and a desire to continue learning. One leader said, “I want to learn more about how I can do a better job of being aware of those who are marginalized and don’t get the same privileges and power I do.” Another reflected, “There are so many layers to DEI. Happy to see we are peeling back the layers and we are comfortable with conversations that can feel uncomfortable at times.” Many leaders want to cascade learning to their teams and build on trust, allyship and belonging to create high-performing teams. On a scale of 1-5, 83 percent of respondents gave the session a rating of “4” or higher. It was one of the top three sessions of the two-day Leadership Summit.
The journey undertaken by WP Engine, as depicted in this case study, serves as an inspiring example for other companies whether their DEI journey is new or well established. This immersive experience shows how a deliberate focus on DEI-B can complement and enhance leadership development, contributing to a more inclusive and impactful organization. WP Engine demonstrated a deep commitment to fostering inclusive leadership and driving real change within their organization by giving DEI-B an important platform. As you consider your perspective, goals and strategies for your DEI journey, here are some key ideas to consider when incorporating a similar solution at your company:
- Embrace Allyship: Become strong allies in your organization’s DEI efforts by actively supporting and advocating for marginalized communities. Foster a culture where everyone feels empowered to contribute to a more inclusive workplace. Recognize that allyship requires ongoing education, self-reflection, and taking action to challenge systemic barriers and biases.
- Identify Interconnections: Leverage existing processes and activities to identify transformative strategies that uplift DEI-B, with a particular focus on the intersections with leadership development. By recognizing the interconnections between DEI-B initiatives and leadership development, companies can maximize their impact and create synergies that drive organizational growth and cultural transformation.
- Seek Stakeholder Input: Engage with key stakeholders within your organization, including leaders, employees, and marginalized communities, to gather diverse perspectives and understand the specific challenges and opportunities related to DEI-B. Actively listen and create safe spaces for dialogue to promote open and honest conversations. Involve marginalized voices in decision-making processes to ensure solutions are inclusive, relevant and equitable.
- Design Immersive Experiences: Create immersive experiences that go beyond surface-level training or checklists. Design interventions that challenge individuals’ assumptions, biases, and privilege. Incorporate interactive activities, role-playing, and experiential learning to foster empathy, deep reflection, and behavioral change. Encourage leaders to actively participate and model inclusive behaviors.
- Amplify Marginalized Voices: Elevate the voices of employees from marginalized groups and provide platforms for them to share their experiences. Actively listen, empathize, and learn from their stories. Use their insights as a driving force to shape your DEI initiatives and ensure that solutions address systemic issues and create meaningful change.
- Foster Continuous Learning and Action: Establish a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Encourage leaders to reflect on their biases and assumptions and challenge them to take proactive steps towards becoming inclusive leaders. Provide ongoing education, training, and resources to build DEI-B competencies across the organization. Set clear goals, measure progress, and hold individuals accountable for creating sustainable change.
By incorporating these ideas and tailoring them to your organization’s unique context and goals, you can pave the way for a transformative DEI-B journey. Remember, change begins with a commitment to action and an unwavering dedication to building a more inclusive and equitable future. Let WP Engine’s case study serve as a powerful inspiration to embark on your own DEI-B journey and create a positive impact within your organization and beyond. Together, we can create a world where diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging thrive.
If you are interested in learning more about how Emerging World can help your company in your DEI-B journey, get in touch!