Deloitte’s Chief Inclusion Officer Terri Cooper Shares How to Lead Diversity

Commitment is the most important trait to have when improving efforts to include diverse staffers.
diversity and inclusion leadership

While working in the health care sector and rising through corporate ranks, Terri Cooper experienced a lack of diversity, leading her to join the diversity and inclusion space earlier this year. “That really came from my whole career most of the time being the only woman in the room,” said the chief inclusion officer at Deloitte. She’s always had a passion for diversity, but it’s now her core work to help improve the opportunities for diverse workers. Talent Economy spoke with Cooper about the best methods for retaining diverse talent, leadership traits to hone and more. Edited excerpts follow.

Talent Economy: How have you seen diversity initiatives change during your time as a diversity leader?

Terri Cooper: It’s constantly evolving. I believe that things have changed pretty dramatically. One of the biggest changes that has occurred is from the perspective of how we all look at each other. For many, many years, we really defined people by their gender, by the color of their skin or by their sexual orientation. I think what has changed is our emphasis now in recognizing that every one of us is multidimensional and that we have unique needs and expectations that merge and change at different points in our professional and personal lives.

One of the really interesting things we found recently in talking to our talent, our practitioners is that they want to work for an organization that not only acknowledges but also supports and celebrates inclusion across the board. And as a result of that, they want to find an environment where people feel they can be their authentic selves and that you’re creating an inclusive culture. We’ve gone from thinking about do we have a diverse workforce, where now the demands are that you need to develop this inclusive culture, which is critical and essential to who we are, but it’s also important for all of our staff that they feel they can bring their authentic selves to work every day and as a result of that truly realize their potential.

TE: What have you seen be the most successful diversity initiative or program? What is it that made it successful?

Cooper: I talk to clients and I talk to our internal practitioners all the time about this. What we’ve found is that the most successful inclusive organizations are those that have truly embedded inclusion into every fabric of their organization. It’s really important that you have that leadership from the top, that it’s a key component of an organization’s strategy. As a result of that, we spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to have an inclusive culture. Really, it’s defined and developed around six leadership traits that we’ve been looking to embed in our teams every day. We truly believe that those behaviors are foundational to advancing our culture here at Deloitte.

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We are looking for everyone to be treated with fairness and respect and to foster an environment where our team members can be themselves. One of the most important traits right now is courage; it’s actually creating an environment where you can engage in tough conversations when necessary and identify opportunities to be more inclusive and to take ownership and engage others. We’re also spending a lot of time focusing on the cognizance of bias, ensuring that we’re aware of our unconscious biases so decisions can be made in a far more transparent and consistent manner. Really dear to my heart is curiosity, is making sure that we do involve everybody in the conversation and we listen attentively and we value the viewpoints of others. Cultural intelligence is the fifth one that we are spending a lot of time to try to embed, which is around seeking opportunities to truly experience and learn about different cultures and be aware of different cultural contexts so that everybody, again, feels included. And then last but not least is ensuring that our teams are collaborating and that they are being diverse in their thinking.

So for us, those six traits, certainly from our point of view, are embedding those in everything we do. And that ultimately is driving us to new level of success in creating this inclusive culture.

TE: What did you see as the least successful diversity initiative? What made it unsuccessful?

Cooper: It’s interesting because I talked about the six leadership traits for inclusion, and I would say the most important one is commitment. It’s really from the perspective of having the commitment of the most senior executives in your organization, the same as having the commitment of our CEO and senior partners here at Deloitte. What we found is that if you don’t have that commitment and if this is not something that leaders are absolutely embracing, that they’re holding their organization accountable for, then you can start from a grassroots perspective to try and drive some of these initiatives, but it will be difficult to do so. So it’s really crucial that you have leaders who prioritize time, energy and resources against inclusion. If they don’t do that, then their organization is certainly going to be significantly less successful.

The other part that I think is important and where I’ve seen diversity and inclusion initiatives being less successful is if people are not aware of their cultural intelligence. I’m lucky that I’ve lived in multiple global markets. And so as a result of that, I have a passion for understanding individuals’ different cultural heritages and their overall cultural intelligence. That’s critical that we spend that time to actually understand and engage in those conversations so that everybody feels as though they’re being included. My personal view is that in today’s increasingly global and connected world, it’s another component that’s crucial if you’re going to truly create that inclusive culture that we know is really important from any business perspective.

TE: Do you have any data points you can share about Deloitte’s improvements to diversity and inclusion?

Cooper: We’re really proud of some of the significant opportunities that we’ve had in moving forward. We have a proud history in shaping an inclusive landscape. Right now, over 50 percent of our board of directors are women and/or minorities. Over the past three years, 50 percent of our new partners and managing directors have been women and/or minorities. Two-thirds of new hires in our population are women and/or minorities. And perhaps the most important of all right now is that our overall CEO at a green dot level is Cathy Engelbert, and the CEO of our consulting practice Janet Foutty is a woman as well. From our practitioner perspective, two of the top three rated questions that we receive on our talent survey have been focused on our ability to generate an inclusive culture.

TE: Do you have any final advice for companies and industries that struggle to become more diverse?

Cooper: It comes back to what we were talking about with those leadership traits. From my perspective, it would be to consider how you can drive inclusive leadership. Not just with the company’s board board, but really ensure that within the organization’s innovation, strategy and processes, that inclusion is a key component.

An example there is that you need to ensure that when leaders think about assembling their leadership teams, that they really assemble a diverse team so that they can drive the appropriate thinking and showcase how this encourages innovation and creativity. It’s important that individuals have that ability to experience inclusion in their everyday life and view it as a business imperative. Organizations that are able to show actionable steps in a way that people can be more inclusive and bring their authentic selves to work are obviously going to have an advantage over others. People want to be able to contribute and be part of inclusion, so they want more guidance on what to say and how to be more inclusive.

What we found is that we don’t really have difficulties in creating that inclusive environment, but we do need to provide some support and help for people to think about what the language of inclusion is and how do they actually ensure that they are being respectful and including everybody in their day-to-day activities. That ultimately results in showcasing how everyone has a role to play in fostering an inclusive environment. Certainly my advice to companies is to go back and think about how do they drive those inclusive traits from their senior leaders down through the entire organization around everybody being committed, have the courage to have the tough conversations, be aware of their bias, be curious, be culturally intelligent and ensure that they drive a collaborative environment at all times.

Lauren Dixon is senior editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email