Four Lessons in DEI Leadership Shaped By My Career

From an Assistant Account Executive to Head of DEI at WE Communications, this is how I apply the lessons of my career in how I lead. 

In my first six months at WE, I was certain I was going to be fired. Swamped in acronyms and overwhelmed by highly complex content, I was a beginner techie on an advanced enterprise tech team, and I simply had no idea what people were talking about.

Twenty-three years later, I’m still here. From those early, anxious days as an assistant account executive, I cultivated a career that eventually steered me to my current role leading the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) team at WE Communications, which I stepped into in 2020.

What has kept me at WE this long? It has always been about the people. Advocating for DEI in the agency and the industry at large has given me a strong sense of purpose. Throughout my career, I learned important lessons about listening before acting, prioritizing progress over perfection, leading with a growth mindset and advocating for representation. These lessons have shaped the way I lead today and are vital to any DEI team.

Pursuing purpose

At the start of the pandemic, I was brought into a WE account to guide the CEO on some of the communications and employee engagement concerning their DEI efforts. I worked with them through the social and racial reckoning that was sparked by the murder of George Floyd, which brought a greater sense of urgency to the need for DEI. I found I had a passion for the topic — for helping organizations navigate the tricky, nuanced changes needed to advance DEI. Ultimately, finding that passion and purpose led to me becoming WE’s Head of DEI later that year.

Four pieces of DEI leadership advice

It’s not been an easy or smooth journey. Those years spent building my craft and confidence were met with many moments of doubt. It’s shown me the might of having the right leaders along the way who see your talents in a way that you cannot.

When I look back on the journey, four important lessons in leadership stand out that have informed how I approach my DEI role now:

1. Listen before springing to action.

Early in my career, and eager to prove myself, I wanted to jump to solutions before giving myself time to really engage with the problem I was trying to solve. Gradually, I learned the value of asking questions and actively listening to understand other viewpoints.

I spend a good amount of time talking to employees and leaders at WE to get a better sense of our strengths, weaknesses, gaps and opportunities. I look at the employee-engagement survey to identify where we can have the greatest impact. I leverage data to point me in the right direction and give focus to my efforts.

How I’ve applied this to my DEI role: When it comes to diversity and inclusion, the power is in variation. We can be stronger because of our differences, not despite them. Taking others’ viewpoints and available data into consideration and being open to feedback and change are pivotal steps to achieving inclusion.

2. Prioritize progress over perfection.

Easier said than done for this self-proclaimed perfectionist! Even as a kid, my perfectionist tendencies led me to play it safe and held me back from taking big leaps. What you quickly discover in the client services business is you won’t always have all the information you need. Sometimes you must make the best decision you can with what you’ve got.

How I’ve applied this to my DEI role: No one hands you a DEI playbook ensuring success. Testing and learning is a critical step in my work today. You learn only by doing, and pivoting if something doesn’t have the intended impact.

Someone once told me, “If something is happening, something can happen. If nothing is happening, nothing will happen.” The first step is often the scariest, but it’s the only place to start.

3. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know” if you follow it with “but I’m ready to learn more.”

As a client consultant, it can be uncomfortable to admit that you don’t know something. This pressure increases as you take on more and more leadership responsibilities.

It’s great to see today’s evolved view of leadership that acknowledges you don’t have to have all the answers — and that encourages curiosity. The truth about DEI is there are no easy solutions to address the complexity of the systems that have held us back from making progress. If systemic change was simple, we wouldn’t have a need for this work.

How I’ve applied this to my DEI role: Emotional and cultural self-awareness is an important place to start when it comes to DEI. We all have implicit biases, and the good news is they can change over time. We can expand our awareness through the people and perspectives we surround ourselves with. At an organizational level, we have to admit when we haven’t gotten it right and commit to actioning a better path forward with input from the people it impacts most.

4. Pushing through our differences delivers better outcomes.

A big part of my role in the latter half of my career was leading new business pitches. What I loved about the process was the opportunity to bring different people across the agency together. Navigating different perspectives could often be challenging, but as the concepts took shape, I could really start to see how one colleague’s analytical mind led to another colleague’s “big idea.”

How I’ve applied this to my DEI role: We are in the business of using communications to drive a broad range of people to action. It’s critical that we have diverse voices, viewpoints and lived experiences represented in our teams and reflected in our work so that the end product is reflective of the people we are trying to reach.

Leadership Advice

When I started at WE, I was focused on learning all the jargon and having all the answers. Now I understand that the key lessons I’ve learned throughout my career — listening before acting, prioritizing progress over perfection — are essential building blocks for a career in any field. By encouraging others to speak and share their experiences, I was able to grow as a leader — and, with the help of my fantastic WE colleagues, address this enormously complex and vitally important challenge.

April 20, 2023

Elizabeth Herrera Smith
Executive Vice President, Head of DEI