In June 2020, the Greater Omaha Chamber hosted leaders representing approximately 150 Omaha businesses and organizations with a shared objective of initiating action to cultivate more diverse, equitable and inclusive places to work — and ultimately influencing similar transformation for the community. The initiative was called CEOs for CODE (Commitment to Opportunity, Diversity and Equity).
A list of necessary actions was developed at the time, which included learning about the history and ongoing effects of systemic racism in Omaha, listening to people in marginalized groups, supporting nonprofit agencies that focus on underserved populations, using leaders’ influence to amplify unheard voices and endorse policies leading to racial justice, and fostering opportunity and success for people of color in the workplace.
Perhaps the most important action was the intention to continue the conversation through ongoing CEOs for CODE meetings and activities, like the annual conference taking place this year on October 20. More than 300 executives have now signed the commitment statement. In August, the Greater Omaha Chamber hosted a workshop called “Strategic Doing for an Inclusive Omaha” that focused on five topics: “Top Notch Health Care, Transportation and Housing for Everyone,” “Rebranding: Omaha Is for Everyone – An Epicenter of Opportunity,” “A Thriving, Diverse Workforce with more Representation in Leadership,” “New, Innovative, and Inclusive Models of Education and Development,” and “Cultivating a Diverse, Interconnected Community.”
The content for the workshop was seeded in conversations had by CEOs involved in the CODE initiative since its inception, said Nebraska Methodist College President and CEO Deb Carlson.
“One of the things that kept coming up was, ‘How do we attract and retain employees, especially top talent?’ The research is pretty clear that companies that prioritize inclusion are more likely to retain and attract top talent from diverse backgrounds,” Carlson explained. “So, it’s good for the companies when they start prioritizing inclusion; also, employees looking for that are more likely to stay with companies. They want to feel valued, respected; they want to have opportunities for growth and advancement.”
The Strategic Doing method, associated with Purdue University, is an approach to strategy that emphasizes action, Carlson said, describing it as a “model and a process.”
“We’ve been trained in Strategic Doing, so I offered one of my facilitators, Jillian Krumbach (NMC’s dean of professional development and community partnerships), to be the facilitator,” she said. “So, we were the trainers and we were the facilitators for that.”
Workshop participants were asked to consider two organizational assets they were willing to share or give away, such as relevant expertise, tangible resources like facilities or equipment, professional connections, and financial resources.
“I think the thing that was interesting about my experience at Strategic Doing was that I happened to have an extraordinary table,” said Tri-Faith Initiative Executive Director & co-founder Wendy Goldberg. “The intention of everyone around my table was to bring the strengths of each of our organizations to the betterment of a project for Omaha. It wasn’t to come up with a new idea, it was to say, ‘How do we know what currently matters in our world?’”
For example, Goldberg said her group discussed — among other things — some Omahans’ lack of access to appropriate shelter during extreme heat, especially in crisis events like power outages following severe storms. Discussion centered on what each organization could offer toward viable solutions.
“As much as it is about everyone having access to a place to be cool and safe, it’s about people in leadership offering the best of what they have for people, particularly at their hardest time,” she explained.
Every group at the workshop came up with unique insights and strategies, said Dell Nared Jr., senior director of diversity, equity & inclusion for the Chamber. The end goal is real-world implementation.
“There will be a portion during the [October CODE] conference where all those individual groups will be able to report on what they’ve been working on,” he said. “There will be a lot that’s covered on mapping an action standpoint of what’s been delivered, or what they’ve accomplished. But then also, ‘How do we think bigger about what we can accomplish?’”
Dialogue is certainly important, Nared said, but movement starting at the top of an organization is key.
“We are not just talking about all the things that we could do, but, of course, putting some true action behind it. I appreciate the partnership that we have across all of our members that are willing to show up and have these conversations, because I’m a true believer that every voice strengthens our outcome, and we’re doing that from a CEO perspective,” he said. “I’ve come to understand that the executive leaders [are] the true decision-makers — while they may gather input and advice from their overall employees, and individuals who report to them will ultimately have the direct decision to listen or not — and actually, truly drive change. It’s about making sure those individuals have a space to be honest and candid but also learn from one another. I think having that group of closely-knitted C-suite individuals and CEOs — where they can have candid conversations around how they’re making the workplace more equitable but also some of the challenges that they’re facing — being able to talk through that as it happens is important.”
“People in seats of influence like the C-suite have the business connections to make the investment, to make sure that we have strong leaders and a commitment to being people- centered,” Goldberg said.
“We have the resources to get things done,” Carlson said, adding that working with top executives can mean bypassing a chain of approvals. “It seems like it gets done faster when you involve the CEOs … And that’s why Strategic Doing works so well when you have the decision-makers in the room.”
Nared emphasized that DEI practitioners within organizations are major players, too, when it comes to carrying out those decisions.
“Yes, it starts at the top level, but then also the individuals who are charged with making sure you have outcomes and the organization is still moving in the right direction,” he said. “So, my mission for the Greater Omaha Chamber overseeing CODE … is to work with the Omaha Chamber membership base, to help them drive diversity, equity and inclusion and also accessibility in the workplace to create a more vibrant and sustainable environment for individuals to work.”