How do winning teams win? They have effective playbooks.

By focusing on the why within your organization – your mission, values, and key drivers of workplace culture – you’ll be able to put together a playbook that will facilitate an inclusive environment and a sense of belonging for your employees.

We sat down with Nicole Smart, Founder & CEO of Smart EDI Solutions, to discuss how to create a workplace culture that will support diversity and inclusion.

Talk to us briefly about the idea of a Playbook, where did it come from?

The Playbook is essentially, yes, a play on the idea of sports. I spent a significant amount of time in professional and college sports and continue as my role as a board member to continue to do the work. Entertainment and sports is built into the fabric of this country, and it’s not going anywhere.

I wanted to focus on this particular topic because culture beats strategy for breakfast. How do winning teams win? They have effective Playbooks. And what that means is that they focus on the “Why” within their organization. The “Why” can be different things for different people, but it boils down to what your mission and values are for the organization.

If leadership doesn’t fully grasp what that really means – let’s just slap some words on a website or let’s just create something but not have the intent and purpose to really have it engrained. What they fail to see, besides not having a robust and deep strategy, culture is something that’s embedded in the DNA of the organization, and if you don’t really have a hold on that, you’re perception of what that culture entails will eventually have a ripple affect, and you never want things to get so bad where you low morale, increased turnover, people aren’t invested, people come in and come out.

You want to be able to put together a playbook that will facilitate an inclusive environment. What people in society are looking for right now is wanting to feel valued, which is the invisible thread that ties diversity and inclusion together. And workplace culture plays a big part.

We talk about DEI inside the workplace a lot, and creating workplace environments that are not only diverse, but also inclusive – supporting that workforce. Let’s dive in a bit, and what is DEI’s relevance beyond the workplace, and how does that lead back into the humans who walk in the door and either are or are not their full human beings inside the workplace.

I love the terms you used – “humans walk in the door” – because I’m very big on humanizing the workplace, but I want to define what diversity and inclusion really is. The two words have become so diluted, and you don’t want to have people think that it’s being forced down their throats to do it.

What a diverse workforce is, is a system that embraces people of different characteristics when it comes to people of various demographics – gender, race, religious backgrounds, sexual orientation are some of the primary dimensions, all legally protected classes. There are secondary dimensions when it comes to marital status, education, culture, etc.

Beyond the workplace, it’s about really understanding that we live in a society that, regardless of what the census is showing us as to who is the majority and who is the minority, we really celebrate and embrace the differences that we have in each other.

Diversity is the one thing we have in common. But the other differences we have are things that we all need to be able to embrace as we move forward as people in society. It doesn’t just start in the workplace, it starts with your neighbors, who you engage with, the respect you give to the waiter.

Understanding that you don’t need to focus on everyone else’s differences, but who they are as people. This doesn’t mean you disregard the fact that the people you’re engaging with may be people from various underrepresented groups and different than your own background, but understanding who people are and bringing that element back to the workplace.

It starts externally and internally within yourself, and having the respect and understanding, and embracing those differences we all have in each other. It goes beyond coming to work and having these processes, training and workshops in place in order to really change who you are, and get you to where you need to be.

You just alluded to having it be more than just training and effectively impacting the employees all together. Sometimes it can be very difficult DEI work internally and get the positive and engaged response that everyone is hoping for.

If we tie that back into workplace culture, why is culture such an important topic as we talk about all of this diversity and inclusion stuff?

A lot of people fail to realize that your culture is the DNA of your company. It’s the personality of your organization, and the values and behaviors that contribute to the experience that a person has within the organization. It plays a big role in how your organization supports and optimizes their talent internally.

Regardless of what stage you’re at, or whether you’re dealing with good or bad workplace culture, it’s what exemplifies who you are as an organization, how you’re managing it, and what you’re doing about it. If it’s known you have a toxic workplace culture and you aren’t doing anything about it, you’re missing out on not having a competitive advantage or people not performing at the best of their abilities.

It’s a very critical component of any business, to assess workplace culture and having skin in the game. It’s something that’s overlooked, but critical and fragile.

So, if you’re diving into DEI work and you haven’t taken a step back to understand if your culture can support it as well as it can, you may want to do work on the culture side, and alternatively, one of the best places you can be in is if you do know your culture is good, you have benefited from building and being part of a culture where it does become much easier to insert positive work around DEI from there.

Yes, and what leadership thinks that the organization is may not actually be the case when it comes to workplace culture. You have to get a pulse check from your employees, besides just being know as the Head of or the Director of. This is humanizing the workplace. It plays a critical part in how you organize your workplace and your staff. It’s not just about leadership and the people at the bottom, it’s a two-way communication from the top down and vice versa.

This sounds important especially given the fact that many DEI roles internally are some form of volunteer, part-time, not usually part of an initial job description. As you start getting into larger companies, that changes, but there are many DEI leads and programs that are often initiated somewhere near the middle. When the culture is being set from the top, there can be a disconnect there. This is a highlight of that functional piece of where DEI sits within a company as well. If you’re fighting against or working with a culture that sites above you, that can be a big part of how your DEI is rolled out.

Absolutely, and if you’re hiring for a DEI role, you have to have resources behind it, because that will show intent as far as what you intend to do. I can’t be by name or announcement, it needs to be lived within the organization. The money has to be involved, and you have to be strategic, or everything will fall apart. It makes no sense to put something out without the appropriate resources behind it to do what it takes.

It’s a lot of work, advocating for for people from different groups. If you’re not putting the resources in place to really capitalize and drive what you’re trying to do, it’s a failed effort from the beginning, because you can’t move forward without them. It’s going to be uncomfortable, because change is uncomfortable for a lot of people.

I loved that tie back to budgets as well. It’s a really good thing to think about access to resources, where they’re coming from, what they’re earmarked for. They can be a good indicator of how successful your program will be.

Your companies tagline is “Advancing the Future of Work, Today”. Tell us about that.

For me, having the background in industrial and labor relations, it’s important to know that we have to plan ahead, much like succession planning.

When you think about the changing face of America, let’s think about the five generations that are in the workforce, from Generation B to Traditionalist. People are working longer. How are you managing expectations? What are you doing in Learning & Development?

Because things have been moving so rapidly, you don’t want to get in a position of “we’re here, what do we do?”

There’s a saying, “it takes work to shape the future.” If you’re going to do DEI work, in any area to facilitate operational and culture initiatives, you have to think about what happens next.

It also ties into hiring. What does your diversity and recruitment strategy look like? What’s attractive in your organization to bring them in, and how are you able to retain people from different generations and backgrounds. You have to continuously be in the place where you’re molding around this, especially the generational piece, because it’s not going away.

What are you doing to solve for this and accommodate as many people as possible, and showing intent that you’re trying to accommodate them.

You used the word succession planning, which is really interesting. We talk about humans and the life cycles of employees and their time. But we’re also planning for the life cycle of the company as well. Having both of those in mind is a really good way to frame that.

The Future of Work, what do you see as some of the key requirements of sustainability for this?

The first is to be really intentful on your DEI programs. It’s not going away, and you’re doing yourself a disservice as an asset and a critical element of your business strategy. It goes beyond just hiring the next person of color, or Hispanic individual. It’s planning ahead what you need to do to become sustainable moving forward, and understand the true business benefits.

Women’s Initiatives is another area to look at. Even if you look at women of color who aren’t having progress in leadership roles, regardless of things like education or ambitious. There’s something systemic going on there, that we could talk forever about. We’re not utilizing women, despite the research. We’ve got to dispel the common myths around women in the workplace, motherhood, etc.

Training and Development is another, where are you putting processes and programs in place – mandatory or not – where you employees can grow and have the ability to add value to what they’re doing in your organization. This only helps you. There are ways to do that within HR and L&D as well, despite some of the difference in those roles.

Also make sure you’re looking at the trends as you move forward, but there are several resources you have to help you advance these initiatives moving forward.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I work in healthcare, where the organization is overwhelming female. How would you advice justifying the advancement of women in the workplace in an industry where people might push to actually hire more men in an effort towards diversity.

If you don’t have it in place already, creating a network of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that can truly represent the workforce. Being proactive about using those ERGs strategically to support women, getting leadership in to display their support, and giving women a voice. Make it visible, be vocal, and show intent.

[Kate] Without knowing some of the numbers, you could also look at some of the data around advancement also. It may be overwhelmingly women, but I’d be interested to see, at each level of career progress, are there dropoffs in the number of women? Does that ratio get closer? What do the leadership numbers look like? That could be an interesting way to look at it. I’m guessing the numbers may not be as straight forward.

You could also take an intersectional approach to it as well. An example could be to look at women of color, is there a large difference there? Really thinking about the advancement piece as opposed to just the numbers.

Then, if the numbers look like this, what’s the actual sentiment there. It may be 75% women, but how do those women feel?

[Nicole] Anonymous assessments are key. If you can do to an internal HR group and be able to run that data, that will be an irrefutable way to look at it.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I work at a small company, around 30 people, and it’s rapidly growing. It’s remote, heavily white, male and straight. I want to make DEI a priority and incorporate it as part of our overall culture, especially as we’re starting to scale, but I’m having trouble with concrete ways to approach it with our team. How can I do so?

When you look at the way technology has affected working remotely, it can disengage people from the workplace, it decreases the connections on the human element. One of the things I’d recommend would be to meet at least quarterly in person, meet with senior leaders, have activities that aren’t actual work, set up shared experiences, and making sure there are connections.

[Kate] You can also tackle it from two perspectives. The first thing is to address the remote culture, and make sure you’re running best-practices for remote working. There are a plethora of resources out there. Really thinking about that.

Then also addressing DEI culture, and how you can incorporate that into the remote culture.

Also what helps is to make really light touch programs, welcoming to everyone, non-intrusive and non-accusatory that everyone can participate in, that helps.

Additional insights from Nicole:

Here are some additional takeaways from the playbook that you would find useful.

  • Define your vision, mission and core values to align them with your organizational strategy. Obtain a clear view of them, since they are key drivers of workplace culture and will optimize the business model.
  • Embrace diversity + inclusion to develop a culture that is welcoming to people of different backgrounds – such as race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, marital and educational status. Culture is a company’s greatest critical defense. 
  • Introduce workplace storytelling with personal elements.  Storytelling can have a tremendous impact on workplace culture, and connects people to work, because generally, people’s feelings about work are just about the work itself.  Approach this concept with the brain in mind to inspire and carry a company’s values forward.
  • Build a culture that doesn’t defeat strategy.  Do you have high turnover, low morale, lack of productivity? Conduct a thorough temperature check of the culture through anonymous surveys and assessments.  Make it a two-way communication between leadership and staff to assess and triage the issues. 
  • Create a sustainable culture that encourages a sense of belonging, value and leadership development for employees such as women and minorities.  Launch leadership or women’s initiatives and encourage resources such as employee resource or affinity groups to facilitate this process.


Nicole Smart is the founder & president of Smart EDI Solutions LLC, an innovative consulting company that provides services to help organizations obtain that competitive advantage by fostering diversity, equity and inclusion programs and initiatives.  Nicole is an impact driven and forward-thinking professional with 15+ years experience in labor relations, human resources and diversity + inclusion, who has worked for brands such as Actors’ Equity Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, National Football League and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.  Nicole is also a public speaker with a Master’s Degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in Leadership and Management Studies from New York University.