Listen, lead, repeat: One CEO's journey to a more inclusive workplace

November 20, 2023 by Nikolaj Gilbert

PATH CEO Nikolaj Gilbert reflects on the challenges and success that come with advancing DEI at a global organization.

Nikolaj Gilbert , PATH CEO

Nikolaj Gilbert, PATH President and CEO. Photo: PATH.

As a global nonprofit dedicated to improving public health around the world, PATH is no stranger to complex challenges and nuanced solutions. We know that sustainable, systems-level change is not simple. Similarly, advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) requires a long-term commitment to an ongoing process. We cannot simply use current ways of doing business to check boxes or meet quotas—it is current ways of doing business that must change.

DEI is, fundamentally, a change management process that must touch every aspect of an organization. As President and CEO of PATH, I know I have a big task at hand.

I joined PATH in January 2020, just two months before the COVID-19 pandemic began. The global health community scrambled to coordinate a response while individuals grappled with the new normal of remote work, lockdowns, and uncertainty. Then, the Black Lives Matter movement began in the United States and quickly spread beyond our borders. Suddenly, an important, emotional, and divisive racial justice movement forced all of us to reexamine ourselves, our institutions, and the systems that we exist within.

I knew PATH could do more to advance DEI, but I found myself asking, where do I begin?

Begin by listening, move forward with action

In 2021, we launched the PATH 2025 Strategy, which aimed to address many of the major gaps that had become painfully clear in our sector. I was proud of our ambitious agenda and our commitment to public health transformation. But to meet these goals, we needed a new way of doing things—a new culture shaped by diverse leadership, equity at the center of our public health programs, and agile systems that enable our organization to adapt quickly as needed.

For our corporate strategy to succeed, it must be enabled by DEI. But when we started this journey, we had more questions than answers. As a CEO, that can be frightening, but with humility and vulnerability, I started to listen and learn. We conducted a DEI survey to hear directly from staff where we were succeeding, where we were failing, and what should be prioritized next.

The results of our survey were clear. Nearly all staff said DEI was important to them and that it needed to be embedded directly in our work processes. They said our leadership was not diverse enough and that DEI had not been adequately funded or prioritized. My Executive Team and I took this feedback as a clear and heartening mandate to embark on an institutional transformation and to commit the resources that transformation would require.

Informed by staff inputs from the survey—and joined by PATH leaders from around the world—we mapped out a structured approach to DEI that spans all aspects of our organization: our people, our practices, and our programming. Using this framework, we built out a strategy that we continue iterating on today—we recently released our updated 2023–2025 strategy. With the understanding that DEI is not something done for staff, but rather it is for everyone, many PATH leaders embarked on their own learning journeys as well.

When you begin your own DEI journey, I encourage you to begin by listening. What is important to your staff? Where are you succeeding and failing? And then I encourage you to move forward by taking action.

Invest, communicate, and measure

Whatever plan you make—and whatever investments you make to support it—will need to be intentional, substantial, and sustainable. To realize a staff-informed, organization-wide approach, we needed an indefinite timeline, sustained funding, and great leadership. It would also require positive feedback loops with our many teams and close collaboration across geographic and cultural borders.

Our first and most important investment was hiring someone who had the passion, strategic mindset, and cross-cultural fluency to lead this work. For us, that leader is Levis Nderitu, now PATH’s Global Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Levis and his team have aligned and prioritized our many employee-led DEI workstreams around the world. And they’ve provided invaluable support and visibility to our People Resource Groups.

Our DEI team also worked to ensure our transparency—providing updates on progress and setting an example for “learning out loud” together. Along the way, staff have opportunities to provide feedback through our internal employee engagement platforms. Data collection and measurement has informed our processes, confirmed our progress, and furthered our organizational culture of accountability.

For example, our data showed that people of color and women were significantly underrepresented at the manager and executive levels. To address this, we launched the ELEVATE Sponsorship Program—a talent development and leadership acceleration initiative for Asian, Black, and Hispanic/Latino emerging leaders at PATH. We have now had three cohorts of talented leaders go through the ELEVATE program, 60 percent of whom have been women of color.

Our efforts have yielded real progress. We’re proud to say that, as of today, 62 percent of PATH’s leaders are women. PATH’s Executive Team is 50 percent people of color, and it has reached gender parity. And our regional chiefs are experts who are from and living in the regions—part of an intentional effort to shift decision-making power and influence to local leaders.

A global and local approach

Because PATH works in more than 70 countries, we have a global DEI strategy—there are aspects of the work that should transcend geographies. For instance, we recently provided cultural competency training to 100 of PATH’s leaders from across all regions, helping ensure PATH’s leaders have the skills they need to manage across cultures and lead with equity and inclusion.

However, we also know that DEI cannot be addressed entirely at the global level. For a DEI strategy to be effective, it must be localized and contextualized to regions’ unique needs. We created DEI Regional Councils to help us find our way to appropriate divides between global and local decisions and priorities.

For example, our data show we have not yet attained gender parity in the Africa region, so we are focusing on increasing the representation of women in our staff and leadership. In the United States, our data reveal that we need more representation for Black Americans and Hispanic Latinos. We are implementing intentional initiatives to address these gaps. For instance, we have career fairs in universities that are diverse to ensure that we attract a diverse pool of candidates, and we are intentionally removing biases in our recruitment practices, including training recruiters on inclusive recruitment.

To address equity in our public health approach to programming, we created the Equity in Programming Benchmarks—a tool that enables staff to make and track progress toward our equity goals. Using the benchmarks, we are better able to assess our programming and work to ensure that all of our projects center respectful partnerships and community priorities.

These are just a few examples of how our DEI journey is leading to practical, tangible changes and better ways of doing business for PATH and our people.

Looking ahead

No DEI achievement is ever an endpoint. They are milestones along an indefinite but essential journey and eventually, the DEI goals and the overall organizational goals will become one and the same. As a leader, you do not need to know (and, in fact, you cannot know) where exactly the journey will lead. And that is okay. You and your team will figure it out together. It’s your job to invite input, dedicate resources, and embrace the process of realizing a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. While this ambitious, important work is not simple, it is always worth it.