As the Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at Dropbox, I am tasked with helping this fabulous organization grow its relevance, by having our diversity drive our ability to connect with our customers, and its performance, by optimizing working environments to allow our teams to do their best work. These priorities have guided my work in DEI for over two decades and continue to get me out of bed in the morning, energized by each new day. But over the years, I’ve learned that being the Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer isn’t just about having great ideas or delivering impassioned speeches to groups. It’s also about listening deeply to an organization’s story, told through its people and culture, so that DEI solutions are completely localized to our unique context. The leadership behavior that is essential in this process is curiosity.
Curiosity as a Mindset
As a cornerstone behavior for DEI leadership, curiosity is the also a catalyst for many good outcomes to follow. For DEI to work as the DNA of an organization, it has to be designed with an outside:in perspective. This means that the DEI strategy and tactics are designed for the business needs and customers you’re looking to serve.
The DEI space is filled with endless information detailing “best practices,” or tactics that are proven to drive successful outcomes. These best practices are useful to know, but the magic is really in adapting these practices to the specific opportunities and constraints of an organization’s context. Curiosity helps me get from best practices in the abstract, to tactics that are harmonized to our unique operational environment. Curiosity challenges me to approach every new interaction with a “beginner’s mindset,” foregoing any assumptions and past experiences that might influence how I engage with this organization.
Curiosity as a Behavior
Navigating conversations around possible changes or adaptation of DEI efforts can be sensitive due to the value-based, core concepts that drive the discussion. Curiosity helps me disrupt any stultifying effects of this tension. Here’s how I put it to work:
1. Curiosity in the person: Anytime I meet someone new, I try and exhibit curiosity in them as a person, not just an employee. Before the meeting, I take 3 minutes to look them up on LinkedIn and I find something interesting in their background to ask about, or a similarity in our lives that I can comment on. In the first few minutes of the meeting I’ll find an artful way to bring up the curiosity that I’ve collected in advance. Almost every time, this results in their face lighting up with great enthusiasm for sharing their past and personal anecdotes. This behavioral application of curiosity helps me make authentic connections with new colleagues and move to the speed of trust more efficiently.
2. Curiosity in the role: When I meet a new colleague, I ask them to help me understand what they do in their role. After learning more about the breadth and impact of their work, I often look for an authentic way to empathize with what may be particularly challenging or rewarding in that work. This results in statements like, “Wow, I can see how your role involves technical expertise, but also a heavy element of motivating teams. That’s got to keep you on your toes every day!” Forming a connection statement like this allows curiosity to be a driver of trust and people who feel seen and understood by a leader are more likely to trust that leader in return.
3. Curiosity in how they perceive my function: Asking colleagues for candid feedback on DEI programs and services can be a higher-risk request, as people may feel anxious about sharing perspective on DEI efforts. Through exhibiting curiosity in my colleagues as people, as well as in their specific roles, I then ask them to trust me with honest feedback that will perpetuate our goal of keeping a learning mindset to help our organization grow. This feedback loop often yields valuable data and perspective that I can use to inform our ongoing transformation.
My ability to drive relevance and performance at Dropbox is so much greater with this approach to curiosity, and I am able to learn about the layers of the organization with much greater speed and clarity. In a CDO role, I have the chance to affect the entire enterprise, and establishing a clean signal is critical to informing a productive design process.
When employees in an organization commit to curiosity as a mindset and a behavior, that is when the magic starts to happen.