What can the insurance  world learn about diversity, equity and inclusion from the National Basketball League? Among other things, says professional basketball player turned psychologist and best-selling author John Amaechi: "Right-minded people should want to eliminate incivility... We should want to eliminate anything that undermines the dignity of a colleague, or neighbor." (Photo: ©freshidea/Adobe Stock) What can the insurance world learn about diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) from the National Basketball Association? Among other things, says professional basketball player turned psychologist and best-selling author John Amaechi: “Right-minded people should want to eliminate incivility… We should want to eliminate anything that undermines the dignity of a colleague or neighbor.” (Photo: ©freshidea/Adobe Stock)

Earlier in 2021, during one of several recent insurance-industry events rooted in themes around diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), moderator Dr. Lee Nunery held up the National Basketball Association as an organization where commitment to inclusivity has paid off over roughly three decades.

In the early 1990s, Nunery said, then NBA Commissioner David Stern saw an opportunity to capitalize on the international popularity of the “Dream Team,” or the gold medal-winning 1992 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team that included such sports icons as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Scottie Pippen, among others.

“[Stern] saw the popularity and the following that certain players had, and there was an intentional move to diversify,” said Nunery, who worked in NBA administration at the time but now runs the strategic advisory firm Plūs Ultré LLC. Nunery was tapped by the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation (IICF) to moderate “IICF Diversity & Inclusion: Advancing Ideas Into Action,” a virtual fireside chat sponsored by Lloyd’s that also featured John Amaechi, a psychologist and New York Times best-selling author who first made a name for himself as a player in the NBA and then as the first pro ballplayer to publicly come ‘out of the closet.’

Their conversation in late March served as a warmup to the IICF International Inclusion Forum happening June 15-17, 2021. The upcoming event’s virtual sessions will “feature industry and other thought leaders sharing their expertise on a wide range of topics designed to advance ideas into action on these important themes,” according to IICF. The event also will provide “an impactful and action-oriented program with respected insurance leaders and other innovators from around the globe addressing the advancement of an inclusive future for the industry.”

In advance of the Inclusion Forum, IICF named Dawnmarie Black of Lloyd’s and Catherine Duffy of AIG as winners of the 2021 IICF Inclusion Champion Award. This award honors the extraordinary contributions of insurance industry professionals working to advance inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility within the industry and communities at large.

Insurance DE&I: Hardly a slam dunk

The NBA has seen the financial impact of its long-term commitment to diversify, Nunery said.

“There are now 107 international players, not just American players, on the roster. That’s about 22% of the player population, and they’re recognized around the globe,” Nunery said. “Since 2010, the average NBA team value is up nearly six-fold… The NBA has grown faster than three other major U.S. sports leagues, largely because of international growth, and because of media deals. But also because of the international diversity in the league, and the sense of inclusion.”

Nunery asked Amaechi what he through the insurance world could learn from the NBA.

“A huge part of the NBA’s success was driven from inside,” said Amaechi, who added that for many years, the NBA was viewed as an organization seeped in “anti-Blackness.” Its success at diversifying “was because of outspokenness, and the leadership of people who may not have been named leaders… but rather leaders in a more existential sense.”

The link to the insurance industry may be cloudy, but it’s there, Amaechi said.

“It’s a very different proposition to expand a league that was very Black and American into something that’s more white and international than it is to expand an insurance industry that is older and whiter, and understand that its diversification will mean, over time, that it has more women who are able to deliver their excellence, and more people with disabilities, and yes, more ethnically diverse people, as well.”

Such nuances are the reason that even companies that boldly place diversity statements on their websites or create rainbow LinkedIn logos during “Pride Month” may fall short in their equity and inclusivity efforts.

“It takes real work from individuals,” Amaechi said. “The rhetoric is already present. What’s absent is the action.”

Language: A place to start

Every business is unique, so the benefits and challenges of pursuing DE&I initiatives will vary from one organization to the next, according to Brett Carter and Sinéad Condon, co-presenters of an early spring workshop during IASA Xchange™ Lite titled “Driving Organizational Change Through DEI.” They said that one good place for any company to start is by intentionally defining the language and purpose of such projects.

“It’s important to start with defining these terms (including ‘diversity,’ ‘equity,’ ‘inclusion,’ ‘unconscious bias,’ ‘allyship,’ ‘microaggression’ and other key words), or what these terms mean to you and your organization because you want to create a common language and demystify these things a little bit,” said Carter, who is managing director at The Jacobson Group, where he leads the executive search team.

Condon, who is senior vice president of people at Guidewire Software, added that the language around DE&I is “really important because it’s subjective” and can ultimately define an organization’s agenda.

The pair added that whenever diversity language is confusing, it’s important to do the work and research to uncover the correct use and intention of each pertinent word.

“If you’re planning on having a panel discussion as your first awareness activity,” she added, “you could have a panel discussion just on the language alone. Because literally, if you put five people beside each other and asked each person what [diversity] meant to them, they would probably have five different answers.”

They also shared the following stats regarding corporate diversity work:

  • Just 41% of individuals believe their company is fully committed to an inclusive workplace.
  • In 2020, only five Fortune 500 CEOs were Black, and just 37 were women.

These figures “suggest to me that there’s a lot of room for growth and improvement,” Carter said.

Just how does a company mobilize to make real change when it comes to diversity and inclusion? Carter and Condon recommended the following:

  1. Hold leadership accountable for pushing initiatives forward and monitoring inclusive behaviors.
  2. Aim for diversity at all organizational levels.
  3. Embrace diversity throughout the entire organization.

The pair added that some of the common benefits of DE&I business initiatives include:

  • The ability to attract, develop and retain top talent.
  • Enhanced problem-solving.
  • More effective decision-making.
  • Increased ability to relate to consumers.

And some of the greatest challenges to creating diverse and inclusive workplaces include:

  • Getting leadership buy-in;
  • Gaining support from all levels;
  • Building a diverse talent pipeline, and
  • Training around unconscious bias.

Delving into each company’s distinct DE&I benefits and challenges will help clarify the business case for this work.

“The business case for diversity only appears after hard work to transform its many costs into benefits,” Carter said. “And that hard work is what few companies are actually willing to do.”

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