Diversity and Inclusion in Leadership: A Q&A With Velma Hart

By: Summer Faust

Velma Hart, chair of the ASAE Board, shares her insights on how to incorporate diversity and inclusion into leadership.

ASAE board chairman, Velma Hart, CAE, national finance director and chief financial officer, AMVETS National Headquarters, shares her take on diversity and inclusion in leadership and her thoughts on being the first African-American chair of the ASAE board.

Associations Now: Why is diversity and inclusiveness important to leadership, particularly in governance?

Hart: When I think about diversity and inclusiveness, not just for leadership, I really think about it from the standpoint of business imperative.

Diversity and inclusiveness speaks to changing environments. In its heart, in its essence, that's what it's about. If we cannot adapt and leverage the opportunity that the differences that are happening around us all the time as leaders bring to discussions, bring to planning, bring to execution of programs, and bring to everything we do, then we are absolutely missing the boat, and that includes the notion of diversity of thought. If you're in a complicated discussion and everybody in the room agrees, that means it's absent of diversity, because somebody, if you get more than two or three people together, is going to disagree about a topic even if it's only mild disagreement. And the richness of the debate is what brings, I think, a better product forward.

What are some of the challenges of working toward diversity and inclusiveness in leadership?

The challenges are time, appreciation of the subject matter, and the perception of value in making the change. Time, because we gather around an issue, we get really excited, and then we go back to the real world. It happens not just at the ASAE board level; it happens at every organization. ... The board comes together, they're excited, they give you all these mandates, and then they go back to their real lives and it's up to those at the staff level to ensure that we don't lose momentum, to keep it moving, to keep it engaged, to keep it relevant.

Bringing Diversity and Inclusion Into the Boardroom

Because of diversity in ages, careers, mindsets, and more within membership of ASAE & The Center, the organization has spent years on diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives. The current boards are a step forward, but the process continues and is not without obstacles.

Richard Yep, CAE, executive director and CEO at the American Counseling Association and chair of ASAE & The Center's Diversity Committee, says that a major challenge of creating a D&I culture is that people don't understand what it's all about. "They may think you're talking about quotas or that it means you have to promote people who might not really be appropriately qualified for a job," Yep says. Educating people on what diversity means can help dissuade skeptics about D&I initiatives. "It can be gender, it can be sexual orientation, it can be disability, it can be age. It encompasses much more," says Yep. "Our members do not just come out of one particular mold. They come from all walks of life."

John H. Graham IV, CAE, president and CEO of ASAE & The Center, says that having more board diversity has led to the board taking risks and thinking in a different direction. "I think ASAE & The Center now is making decisions that are different than they would have been if we weren't more diverse," says Graham. "Everything from how we spend money to what programs we focus on to how we basically do everything that we do."

New ASAE & The Center Board members will be formally introduced in August during the 2010 Annual Meeting & Expo in Los Angeles. In the meantime, Yep says D&I must become ingrained in organizational culture. "We have to continue that discussion around diversity and inclusion issues in association management; otherwise, we will fall behind," he says.

I also think [a challenge is] appreciation of what it means. Diversity and inclusiveness [does not] mean affirmative action, [and] even still, [in] 2010; we're still talking about diversity as some type of connected obligation, a rite of passage. That to me is troubling. No two disciplines could be farther apart. Affirmative action was very deliberate and an order to force people into the space. Diversity and inclusiveness means that we embrace it and we make the space welcoming for people to come in. We don't force them in; we make a space where they can feel comfortable to come in.

And then lastly, the perception of value. There was a quadrant analysis done at the top of this year, I think ... we looked at it as a board, and [it] was just amazing. Diversity was near the bottom of the rung of importance, of relevance, of everything. No one gets that the shifting demographics that they're dealing with every day are directly connected to the notion of diversity and inclusiveness. And if your business environment is changing, every day being affected by something, how can you not pay attention? How can there be no perceived value?

You're the first African-American chairwoman of the ASAE Board. What do you think this says about where we've come and where we need to go?

Actually I have a correction on that. This is my rebel moment—I promise you I'll only have one. First of all, I'm not the first African-American chairwoman. I am the first nonwhite chair ASAE has had, and I think that's a very important milestone for this organization. I think that the manner in which I was sought to be a part of that leadership chain was very encouraging for what the organization believes is the right course of engagement for diversity and inclusiveness. They wanted to embrace it at a very visible level and to make sure that they challenged those of us who truly believe diversity and inclusiveness is important to lead the way.

I'm very encouraged and, at the end of the day, I hope it says good things about where we are. But I'm not completely sure and wonder if the news is all good. I don't know. I think only time will tell.

What should ASAE & The Center do to build on its progress with diversity and inclusion in board leadership?

I think the barrier to success in that question is trust. Our community, beyond the walls of ASAE … haven't deliberately gone into the spaces where people of color are to find them.

What I see, and what has been my experience, not just looking at ASAE, but just looking in our community, is that we get excited about the opportunity to outreach and we do it once or twice, and if we don't get the result that we're looking for, we don't have the passion to stay connected to it and continue to push the needle. So I think that if there was something that organizations could do to truly advance this, it would be the whole notion around sustainability.

I think there is an interest in making a difference, but there's a big difference between interest and passion. Interest is feigning. You're interested and maybe you get excited about it for a moment. If something's passion, it drives you. It comes from the core and it's something that you stick with over and over and over again. I think some of that goes back to the perceived value point that I made earlier. If it's really valuable, we stay with it.

What's been your experience being a diverse chair?

Someone recently referred to me as a pioneer for the profession, and I'm not sure about that. What I am sure about is my passion for this profession, my belief that what we do changes the lives of millions, and that I'm honored to have had my hand and stamp on our history. However, what continues to challenge me is the gap between what we say and what we do when it comes to the topic of diversity. The discussion, and ultimately the outcome, is greatly enriched when we have the courage to bring diverse thoughts, perspectives, experiences, chemistries, and ideas in the room to guide our planning.

I think there are a number of other people out there just like me, and actually quite smarter than me, who can contribute to our leadership in the profession. And that if I am a pioneer, that this is only the beginning, that I've opened the door through which others will certainly follow. What I like to think that makes me different is not my race or my gender or my religious beliefs, but the way I think. I talk a lot about diversity of thinking, because I think that's the essence of where change comes from.

Summer Faust is project editor for ASAE & The Center. Email: [email protected]