Dr. Khaleel Seecharan is co-founder and managing partner at DEI Ready, an organizational consulting firm offering an evidence-based and data-driven approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion. His twenty-year career in higher education has involved leading and advising effective executive operations and integrated strategic planning and delivery. Among his notable achievements: helping launch a new medical school, helping launch a joint Harvard-Brigham public health research center, and overseeing the planning and development of an institutional strategic plan.
Khaleel earned a doctorate in higher education management with distinction from the University of Pennsylvania. He holds a master's of public administration from Harvard University in addition to two degrees from Florida International University.
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Scott Allen 0:00
Okay, everybody, welcome to the Phronesis podcast wherever you are in the world. Today, I have Dr. Khaleel Seecharan and he is the co-founder and managing partner at DEI Ready an organizational consulting firm offering an evidence-based and data-driven approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion. His 20-year career in higher education is involved, leading, and advising Effective Executive operations and integrated strategic planning and delivery. Among His notable achievements, helping launch a new medical school, helping launch a joint Harvard Brigham Public Health Research Center, and overseeing the planning and development of an institutional strategic plan. Khaleel earned a doctorate in higher education management with distinction from the University of Pennsylvania, he holds a Master's of Public Administration from Harvard University, in addition to two degrees from Florida International University, sir, what other gaps can we fill in what else the listeners need to know about you?
Khaleel Seecharan 1:06
I love naps, I will be taking one after this podcast is over. I love eating despite my perhaps then frame, I enjoy eating and eating lots of food and tasting new and different types of food. And then perhaps a little bit more about me. I'm a first-generation immigrant, I came to the United States as a child and sort of grew up in the United States. And I talk a lot about hyphen identities, which is actually something I learned when I was in grad school, which is that I like to say all the time, I am neither or I am the hyphen in between. And it's a really interesting concept because I go back to Trinidad, I'm from the Caribbean, Trinidad Tobago, and I try my best to fit in and wear the clothes and pretend like I'm still, you know, local, I look at obviously, and if I wear the clothes, but I'll go up to a grocery store, and I'll get to the cashier, and she's like, Oh, where are the United States are you from and I'm like, Really, I was just trying really hard not to look, you know, a certain path, path. And that also, you know, I'm of Indian descent. So I don't look like a typical American. So living in America is a really interesting space. So you know, you don't feel connected in either space. So what you do is you make your own space, which is your hyphen, and then you meet you have people meet you at your hyphen and stop trying to meet them in these categories put you in. So I find that to be a really interesting facet of myself in my life that I've embraced more recently than I wouldn't have done before.
Scott Allen 2:28
I love that concept, that hyphen, would you say a little bit more about that concept? I'd never heard of it before? Sure.
Khaleel Seecharan 2:34
I mean, I don't think anyone ever really prepares you when your family emigrates you know, my parents bless them certainly had the best in their hearts and their thoughts for my brothers and I will remove but there was no like, oh, you know, we're transitioning to a new country and rules will be different, and society will be different. So different. For me as a child, the concept was always about home. So I left Trinidad when I was eight, from eight onwards, homeless, always Trinidad when I got to 16. And I was like, "Well, wait for a second, I've now spent more time in the United States than I have spent in Trinidad. So what is my definition of home?" And those are, I don't know, not easy topics for a teenager, much less a child to have to grapple with. But that started a long series of questions. Where do I fit in? Where do I fit in, I was sitting in a graduate seminar at Harvard. And a classmate of mine said, you know, I am neither or I'm the hyphen in between, I have to tell you, I stopped paying attention in class, the rest of the seminar, and I was just like, mind blown, it's been 10 years, probably since I've heard this. And I continue to find new ways to, to just unpack and peel away those layers of the many identities that I think all of us have, you know, mine is my own unique circumstance. But I think everyone has some space where they're like, "Wow, I'm always trying to be one or the other, but I can never be 100%." So where's my space in the middle and then trying to meet everyone else where they are, is forcing you to almost renegotiate your identity as well. No, meet me where I am. This is the Khaleel space. Let's look, let's roll.
Scott Allen 4:11
Yeah, I love that. I love that. I mean, so you're coming to this work with a very, very unique perspective worldview on some of the DEI work that you're doing and you're engaged in right now, obviously, with your background, in higher ed, strategic planning, adaptive leadership, and I'm sure some of that coursework that of course permeates the Kennedy School as you think about the work and DEI that you're doing. What are some fundamentals or some kind of baselines, some foundations that you...I mean, I love what you just said, Are there others that you kind of enter this space with as you do this work?
Khaleel Seecharan 4:52
When I started my organization di already I did it with some partners. So there's, we're fellow we all did our dissertations. We all did our doctorates. Same time and we sort of all said, wow, first of all, we like each other. That's helpful. And we think we'd work well together. And we were all really interested in each other's research. And we sort of said if we could work together, what would it look like? And so that was almost like a year of us dreaming and building and thinking and playing, and really going out. So then what we proceeded to do, and I probably did, the majority of it was just going out and being curious and creative. So I would email random people. Hi, my name is Khaleel, I am starting blah, blah, blah, and I'm interested in talking to you about blah, would you like to chat with me? You know, and some people would just blow you off. Others would be like, Wow, okay. I, you know, and you'd set up a call. And you'd have this, like, 45-minute/one-hour conversation and just talk about anything. And I think that was kind of really cool. I don't think a lot of people will build space in their lives to do that. So it started more about like, we want to go out and do something. Well, I like to call this our intervention and higher education, but also just our intervention in general, because we're not hiring specific. We crossed sectors. And so it was talking about, like, if we were to go do an intervention, here's what we're thinking of doing, what would it look like? And then how do we get to where we are. So it starts really, with a really interesting survey around organizational culture. So one of my partners, who is brilliant, did a study where he took a corporate survey that assesses the characteristics of organizational culture that's traditionally used in the corporate setting and applied it in a higher education setting. What he did is he looked at, I believe it's 26, or 27, community colleges in the state of Washington. And then he compared their organizational culture dynamics to their statewide performance with their state system and tried to see what were the things that you might have expected or things that were outside the norm. And what it showed is that different cultures and subcultures that may exist can lead to unintended positive benefits. And so you might expect a culture that you might assume, as a leader, or someone who studies leadership would be like of this is primed for failure actually has led to a certain level of success within an environment. And what this led to us really saying, Wow, this could be a really interesting way of helping organizations understand whether or not they're doing special work. And what I mean by that, if I had to capture it in a phrase, I think of it as almost like a mission meter. Because we know I probably institution, I helped write a unit institution-wide Strategic Plan was really interesting as we launched eight specific initiatives, just really interesting work. And it was really fun to sort of play in that space and help design and dream those things. But then this is not necessarily tied to my institution is just in general. But then you can ask, as a leader, have I put the right people in place for these really important initiatives that I have set aside, I don't know bandwidth, strategy, resources, or talent. And then you've put someone who might not necessarily appreciate or take that work and bring it to the next level. So when you look at this two by two, and I'd be happy to share the link to the actual framework from left to right, an organization is either inward-looking or outward-looking and then from top to bottom, you're either creative or very hierarchical as you when you play in that space. The survey, which is a really simple survey tool, creates a quantitative analysis of an institution. So blob shows up on the blob shows where you might fall into these four quadrants. What's really cool is you can then say, Oh, well, where does the President or the CEO fall? And where does the president's cabinet fall? And where did their direct reports fall and where do the constituents and end-users fall? And then you can take that blob and you can start to play with it and go, Okay, let's take everyone who identifies as a manager or not, or someone who makes above 100k or less, or someone who has a direct report or not. And all of a sudden the blob starts to change. And you start to see, there's a president and perhaps a cabinet that thinks, Oh, we're out there, and we're doing something really special. And we're leading, and we're transforming, and we're dynamic. And then you go like two layers below, and it's like, Oh, my God, this is not necessarily the best place. We've got some problems, our creativity is stifled, and we can't feel like we're not nearly moving as fast as we possibly could. And then you go back up the rug, and it's like, you know, oh, my God, we can barely keep up with the innovation that's happening at the institution. And so it begins to show that and so this tool, we all the four of us have had a setback. And we're like, this is ridiculous. Like this is something that could do really special things, if you ask it to, you know, our journey was really about sort of going from there. And then we ended up with diversity, equity inclusion, and I'll tell you how we got there. So we were thinking about board governance, strategic planning, coaching, post-COVID realities, dealing with diversity, equity inclusion, and then our next conversation in terms of how we might think about this is like, well, then how do you go about building sort of like a consulting firm and putting the principles in place of how to effectively do this? And another great colleague of mine and I will give honor to all the great colleagues of mine who gave it to Get back said, do one thing and do it really well. Because if you try and do 12 things, that's lovely. But you're a startup, you don't have the bandwidth to do 12 things. And I talk a lot about the Goldilocks zone. And you're always and it's different within each organization with the scope and what you're trying to accomplish. And so when he gave me this really good feedback, to get back to my group, and I said, Well, we should kind of pick and choose, what do we want to do. And what came out of it was unanimous, we all said, if we could do work that had meaning and impact, that sort of took this really cool organizational work, let's do it, and around diversity, equity inclusion, which then led to another series of just really special organ discussions with people who are then really oriented around diversity, equity inclusion, which I think then allowed us to sort of play in the space, you know, and the reality is that none of us have actually ever really done diversity, equity inclusion, let's just be really clear about that. But we have always been around it and touched it and been, I don't know, people who carry values and principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And so we kind of liked the fact that we're not necessarily directly from diversity and inclusion. But since we started, which is in the last year, plus, I think we have become much more grounded and aware of how diversity, equity, and inclusion begin to play. One of the things we learned when we started having these conversations is there is no real accepted baseline for diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, executive leaders want to talk about di, if you ask them. I mean, if you went and asked, I don't know, the cabinet has an executive office? What is diversity, equity inclusion, you ask them to describe what it was, you would get if there were 10 people on that cabinet? 10 different answers. And then if you ask them to say, well, what is the difference? And this I think always starts people to sort of turn their heads to decide what is the difference between diversity, and then equity, and then inclusion, because everyone just assumes it's one blob. And there are three different things and three different definitions. And so if you're a leadership organism, within an organization, trying to talk about approach DEI, and you can't answer those two basic things, how can you then lead an organization with this, and so my learnings were really interesting. So one is, there's a transition happening across all sectors where diversity equity inclusion is transforming from what I call a boutique function to a core function. And that means it's no longer a nice to have, it is a necessity, and it needs to be treated as a necessity. And most organizations don't know how to do that. Because the AI has been primarily out of different places, making its own standalone place has been a challenge.
Scott Allen 12:37
As you're speaking, my mind, went to digital, for instance, where you know, tech and digital was kind of this office over here. And now it permeates almost every aspect of organizational strategy. Because if you're not thinking digital, you are ripe for disruption. And it almost to your point feels like it's moving from an Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to something that's permeating the institution or something that should permeate the institution.
Khaleel Seecharan 13:09
Absolutely. And so that's the other thing. Leaders don't know how to have conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion, yeah, either at the cabinet level or then at the organization. And very few leaders either have the capacity or, or the comfort level, to speak about race, gender equality, and inequality, it's I think, many leaders have the principles and values of what diversity and inclusion are, but they do not have the skills or the headspace to talk about race, gender equality, or inequality. And so they struggle with having these conversations. And so people who lead diversity, equity inclusion, or offices have this gamut of being able to help their leadership feel comfortable with what's going on designing a strategy for what the the the institution needs, in terms of diversity and inclusion, and then executing that strategy. And when you go from having to be able to take office where it's normally like one leader and an admin, basically responsible for the gamut of this work to now being asked to be responsible for more of these things. This shift, a fundamental shift is what's happening. And so my organization, I suppose, has sort of come in and is playing the organizational coaching side. And it's purposeful, the words organizational coaching, yeah, because it includes executive coaching, but it also means helping you stand up your org, what's your org culture? What's your org structure? What's the right org sense for you, for your organization? And then how do you then go about executing once you have that in place?
Scott Allen 14:36
I love the approach, something I've observed in myself Khaleel is that as a white male at times, me entering into this dialogue with others can be it can be scary. It's...because I don't necessarily feel like I have the skills. I don't necessarily feel like I have the knowledge and it feels at times like a topic that can go in very different directions or go south quickly, if I'm not prepared if I'm not skillful, if I'm not 100% aware of how I could be perceived. And it's interesting, because I imagine some of the leaders that you are experiencing, while they might value DEI if they're a white male says, Do they feel like psychologically they have the skill set? And do they feel like they have the ability to navigate some of these conversations and some of this work? And so I, I love how you are positioning this because, boy, if I was President of the University right now, I would need some assistance, not only with the personal work that I need to do but also with how I create space for the work to be done. Does that make sense?
Khaleel Seecharan 15:57
Absolutely. I think it starts with, you know, there are many layers of complexity here. Yeah. But if I were advising a President,
Scott Allen 16:06
I'm going to name the episode, I'm going to name the episode that there are many layers of complexity here. Because, yes.
Khaleel Seecharan 16:14
Well, you know, it starts with a level of authenticity, which cannot be faked, right, you must be authentic to be able to have these conversations. And if you're not willing to be authentic, I don't think your audience or the people who you're trying to connect with will be receptive. The second is a level of curiosity, which is being able to own your perspective, but also listening intently to other people's perspectives, and figure out where you get there. And it starts really with storytelling. If you notice, at the very beginning of our discussion, I shared a little bit about myself that offered some complexity and flavor to both my background, how I think, and how I appreciate and view the world, which I think now has opened up the door for us to have many pathways so we can have a conversation. Storytelling is one of the ways that people connect, so you never know what you're talking about. And whether someone will be like, Well, I have had a similar challenge. And it may not be well, you know, I'm this eight-year-old Indian kid who trans, you know, emigrated to the United States. But there's some story of either immigrating being an immigrant or being stuck between two worlds or visiting a place where you, you think you fit in, but not necessarily you don't, and actually both places you don't fit in. So how do you then find your own space to fit in? There are many ways to go do that. And having conversations helps bring this level of awareness, you're brave to bring up this question and to point it out. Because I think when you live in a perspective, that dominates society, and you are then talking to people who live in that same society, but their perspective is not nearly as bright or given the chance to show, you may not even realize it because your own experience has come with this level of, for lack of better word privilege, and others may not. And so how does that entail? I mean, I can tell you many stories of where I have had to sort of go, Okay, this is just how I see the world. And perhaps someone who is a white male, might not have that similar experience. And being able to share that allows someone to understand I mean, for example, soap dispensers, soap dispensers are created by researchers who happen to be white men for if you've ever gone to the bathroom, you would never experience this, but they're usually around the color that goes under the soap dispenser. And so if you're a white man, you always get so as a brown man, it takes me four tries, before soap comes out of an automatic soap dispenser. Wow. And I have been able to prove this by showing a sponge, which is yellow on one side, and usually blue or green on the other. So the yellow boom, there's your soap on the blue and green passes, nothing. And then on the third try, you get something and you're like, okay, cool. I mean, it's a simple thing that you do every day in your life that you wouldn't pay attention to, but someone else does. And if you start to unpack the layers of complexity, right? Okay, so this was designed, the people who designed it clearly were of one type, they designed it and they had only certain test subjects. So when they did the test subjects, that's all they tested it on. And so when went out to mass society, it did not happen. But then you could go back layers, like okay, so then why did the test subjects not? Were not people of different colors? What's the challenge here is that the researchers who were doing this groundbreaking research didn't include people of color as well, and you can just bring back the layers of how this conversation can be so important, and how such a simple act can reveal inequities across society. Yeah.
Scott Allen 19:50
What I'm hearing from you, at least in this last passage is there's a level of vulnerability. There's a level of curiosity. What else do you talk To leaders about when they're feeling a little anxious or unsure of their skills, or as you're helping them become more confident in creating space for these conversations and for this work?
Khaleel Seecharan 20:12
Many leaders want a playbook. And there is no playbook, right? I tell individuals all the time, that diversity, equity, and inclusion are unique to your institution. The other piece of it is also that very few leaders have the opportunities to rehearse and learn DEI problem-solving skills, your phone rings, usually when there's a crisis, and it's because a bad incident has happened. A bad essence is about to happen. The press is out there and there's reputational risk, and it's like, Well, okay, well, we can solve that. But then let's go and a system side and figure out how to solve that. But before that, there could have been with a fully authorized diversity, equity, and inclusion office, some level of being able to mitigate these challenges, because these types of conversations were happening. And by that not taking place, you end up with a crisis situation, right? So the chance to rehearse and learn your di skills before you get to the crisis stage means that you can perhaps negate some of these challenges before they even become challenges. And I think that's a big concern of leaders. The other piece of it is that once it does happen, now, you've got public scandals, risk management, and potential lawsuits, right. So people are not thinking about DEI as they do in other places like everyone thinks about HR, and there's a compliance function. And there are all these rules and policies in place. You know, it goes back to our research when we were starting to found DEI Ready, which is that there is no baseline for what is good diversity, equity inclusion. And so we tried to come in with our own organization and sort of fill that gap, we took the existing survey and re-modified it for a DEI approach. And so we can come in now and assess the DEI landscape at your institution or organization, and help figure out whether first of all the culture exists that's primed and ready for change. And then second, we also created a rubric that actually assesses your di activities. That's another thing, I don't think anyone out there. I mean, there are some rubrics that are out there. But I do not believe there is a standard rubric that sort of says, Here's what good work looks like. And before you can even begin to start making the big fundamental changes you want. Let's just make sure your core activities are in place. And I think you'd be surprised how many people but then fill out that activities rubric and sort of go, Okay, we, we need to just get our foundation set before we can now play in the big spaces.
Scott Allen 22:27
Tell me a story if you would about some of your work with a specific organization where this has kind of been the case. So obviously, you're not saying the name of the organization or any details about them. But I'm fascinated by this. Because you present to them this rubric and you say, Hey, okay, just do a quick self-check. And all of a sudden, it becomes super clear, right? Because so it sounds like, you know, do we have leaders who are vulnerable and open? Do we have leaders who are curious, do we have leaders who are willing to open up their organization to say, hey, yes, we want to look in the mirror, tell us a story of an engagement that stands out for you.
Khaleel Seecharan 23:09
So I can offer a peppering of engagements that might be interesting one that comes to mind is I spoke with the leader, and then had a number of conversations, who held four roles. They were the institution-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion leader, they were the vice president for compliance. They were also the leader of their health system. And they were the Associate Dean for Minority Affairs within their school of medicine. You know, I sort of said to him, I said, You've been put in this uncomfortable position of trying to do four jobs at the same time, without enough resources to do one of those jobs. And anytime something fails, you're what your leaders basically done is said, if anything fails, they point to you and go, Well, you know, you're supposed to have this covered. I'm I wash my hands and I absolve myself of responsibility. This person made the really difficult decision to actually give up two of their four roles, and put the onus back on the institution and say, you know, what, you're not going to use me as a person to come in, and just sit and hold a spot, like actually invest and do the work. Yeah. And that's a hard thing to do. And this also speaks to the fact of like, what would just group everything together because it's all one blob. And you know, you'll be responsible for all these pieces, because you own all four of these pieces. Everything will just resolve itself. Actually, that's not the case. So when you sit there with a rubric, and you ask, are there clear lines of reporting? Are there clear lines of ownership? You know,
Scott Allen 24:33
is there a budget?
Khaleel Seecharan 24:35
A budget, you know, like, is there a clear strategy? You know, what if the compliance officer was working with something that was counter to what the institution-wide diversity equity inclusion house was doing? And what if they were the same person who negotiates that argument when that challenge is there? Another institution I've spoken with and worked with directly they have says a large private institution has not I in DEI units like they're all spread out, okay have no centralized diversity, equity inclusion function. And what's really interesting is good work is happening across those nine offices. But there's no coordination because there's no coordination, the institution overall is suffering. I often talk about what is the connective thread? Are they all working towards the shared the same shared common purpose? The reality is they're not, they're sitting here with their own molehill trying to figure out how to each protect their resources, and have their own space to shine, without perhaps thinking about the ultimate purpose, which is about creating a sense of belonging of this particular institution and how that happens. And so that in itself is is is a challenge. And there's more complexity there. This institution, I think, has a board that is not willing to engage with and is interested in diversity and inclusion, I think those words alone cause problems. And, you know, so it's, it's not an easy solution. And how do you begin to do that, you know, I've tried multiple times multiple ways to sort of navigate this discussion, the best I could do was, was from an org perspective was designed and think of a structure that took the core leadership and said, well, then you can't hide, stop pointing the finger down. So all of you need to sit in a room together, and you collectively, and so it's almost like the concept of instead of one person, it's a di, di compass. And so it's not one person, but there's a group of people who serve as the moral compass for diversity, equity inclusion, and they make sure that the institutional leadership is owning it, as opposed to saying, Oh, I point to one person, or I point to these nine units ago, well, you nine units should be taking advantage of it. No, who are our overall diversity, equity, and inclusion compass? And so it's not one person, it's a group of people. But that hierarchical group of people serves as the DNI, compass. And then there's nowhere for these groups to hide, because what's interesting, of course, and large organizations is that those nine units are spread out across multiple vice presidents. And each of them was protecting their own space. So if you put all the vice presidents in a room and say, you all have to have a conversation around this, now, you're essentially forcing those vice presidents who might not want to play to realize they do have to actually play together.
Scott Allen 27:09
Yeah, well, and I imagine there are some institutions that you've come across that to your point, they want to prioritize the EI, it's a, it's a thing they value, they don't know how to do, yeah, but then it goes up into it starts competing with all of the other competing commitments within the organization within the organization's priorities. And to your point, it gets relegated to an office over here in this hall, or in this part of the business. And it doesn't weave throughout the fabric. Right. But
Khaleel Seecharan 27:44
I think also 2020 showed, you know, multiple sides of our society, the events of 2020 led to increasing calls for racial and social justice. And it's not going away, right, this is, I talk all the time, I have a toddler. And I talk all the time, when we get to the meltdown stage, you know, and I go, this didn't just happen. This was death by 1000. cuts like this are the 1000 cut that led to you know, I'm on the floor, and my legs are flailing. And so when you talk about the calls for racial and social justice, this is death by 1000 cuts. And some cases literally, unfortunately, right, because we've seen what's happened. And there's only so many times you can parade out an unfortunate name, after unfortunate death, before the collective sort of goes, Wow, this is not just a series of one-time incidents, this is a series of connected things, those calls are not going away. And so if you are an organization that is behind, you're missing out, right, you were talking about the innovation and tech, and the being able ripe for disruption, think of the same thing in education, talented students, and by the way, you know, the 2020 census data has begun to show that the United States of the future as a majority-minority institution, if you don't have a campus that is prepared for and willing to receive a majority-minority student population in 15 years from now 10 years from now because it's already moving in that direction. Where's your campus? The best and brightest students? Where are they going? They're going to choose another campus that gives them the chance to feel a sense of belonging as opposed to yours. And same with corporate America. If you're not building in your workplace environment, and or how you deal with your constituents and your consumers. There, you're going to lose out on potential people who want to purchase your products or use your services. And so it's the trends, the transition from a boutique function, and nice to have to basically if we don't have this, and we're not doing this with a real sense of openness and authenticity, and curiosity, we're going to be left behind. Very well said. Yeah, it's certainly interesting. You know, I was thinking when we when agreed to do this podcast, about how my own journey of leadership has really helped me along this way. So I'm a huge fan of alliteration. And when we do our work we talk about three pillars, diagnosis, design, and delivery. What's really interesting about this is I have taken sort of three leadership tenets and brought it to the forefront. So what is the adaptive leadership framework, which I took I did not take wrong, though? I know he's been on your podcast as, my classmate's real. But I took one for j term, I actually went back and sat in for two weeks and had a very emotional roller coaster. Anyone who's taken Ron's j term course you don't leave that without some battle scars, you do in the fall and spring, I took Dean Williams, who was also an adaptive leadership leader, and it was just as painful. I don't think it matters who you take it with, you still come up with battle scars. And the second is positive deviants. I don't know if you're familiar with that framework. No, I'm not happy to share about that as well. And then the third is a framework called deliverology. So I'll talk a little bit about all three, and please, why I think they're special and how they integrate some of my work. So you know, adaptive leadership. This is actually a phrase I remember Ron saying, change equals loss when you are in a position of authority. And there are people who are coming after your leadership and your position of authority, giving up your leadership and your authority represents a sense of loss. And so you talk about leaders who struggle with trying to figure out how to do this or being based in one environment, when other voices speak up other factions, if you use that leadership term, come up and start to speak. And they're not focused on the work of the central but more focused on where they sit as a faction and what their power is, as a faction, it is an interesting case of being able to help these leaders understand the value of different perspectives and how it happens. And my own story about adaptive leadership was quite interesting. I walked in there thinking, Oh, I'm never going to fail again. Because this is, of course, it forces you to look at a major leadership failure. And I was like, I'm gonna get all the skills and tools, and it's never gonna happen to me again. And it allowed me to have a better relationship with failure that I've come to appreciate. So I actually think the adaptive leadership framework is really about how to fail better.
Scott Allen 32:23
Yeah. And you're running, you're running experiments, and experiments fail. But are we failing quickly? And are we learning? And are we moving forward? Right? Yes.
Khaleel Seecharan 32:33
And so the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion is about failing all the time because you are trying to figure out, what is my community? What is my system? What is my environment? what is my unique instance? Because you can't pick up something else, and just drop it in? And that leads to positive deviance. And also the ability to talk about failure and to speak about loss and speak about hard conversations and to, disrupt equilibrium, but do it in such a way that it's not so disruptive, that everything falls apart. But there's a healthy dynamic, that allows this openness and transparency for these types of conversations that many of the community want to have to happen. But they're not in the positions of power, right. They're not the scientists who are studying how to do soap dispensers. But they're trying to figure out why it's happening to them when they put their hands out to get silver. And so that's adaptive leadership, I think it played a really interesting role. And so when I think about executive coaching, doing leadership retreats, and facilitating the types of conversations, it's a great resource to make your cabinet or your president a little bit uncomfortable, or you're bored. But that uncomfortable leads them to a space that sort of says, Wow, we have not been paying attention, this really cool thing. And if we took advantage of this, it would add, you know, I often think to talk about things and tapestry. What if you only had one series of threads, you just have one, you know, colorblock tapestry, but you add all these other colors in, and then you get the chance to make these patterns and see where they lead you and what can come out of it as beautiful art. And that's what I think about when it comes to this. Yeah, the concept of positive deviance is the story I love to tell. I did not realize I'd been doing this all my life. And then was like, amazed when I got the chance to see it. And I'll tell you a funny story. I actually attended an adaptive leadership conference. And one of the authors, Richard Pascal was there. And for me, it was like meeting a rockstar because I said to him, and I was like, Oh my God, you're Richard Pascal. And, look, it's my framework. I do everything I do. And he was like, okay, weirdo. But by the end of the day, we were friends. And we were chit-chatting. And I was like, This is so cool that I could, you know, get the chance to meet him and also just share how much his work has impacted what I do. So the story of positive deviance is really interesting. It starts back in the 1990s, when there was a large grant in Vietnam, trying to understand and research BMI in small children. So what I found in Vietnam was there were pockets of children that had healthy BMI, and body mass index, and there were pockets of children that have low B My, they're all in the same region, but no one could understand why. And so, you know, they got these brilliant Ivy League public health researchers and gave them, you know, multimillion-dollar grants and said something into Vietnam and go figure out what this is. And they went, and they went, and they went, and they really struggled to figure out what the problem was. So what they did is they decided to send observers to the families that had children with normal BMI. And then the families of children who did not have normal BMI, and just observe for a period of time. And they tracked everything they. And that's when they figured out here's what the problem was. And what it showed was in Vietnam, which is a lot of low-lying lands that have lots of water. So they have lots of vegetables, lots of rice, that's the majority of what goes into meals. The difference was shrimp. Okay, shrimp lives all across these, some households included shrimp in their meals, and some households did not they were purely vegetarian. You think, oh, the problem is salts. Great. We're done. This is where the positive deviance comes in. No, it was not because the public health researchers were not an of the community. So they will sit and say, I decree to the shrimp. So this is what you must do. And they were like, say what you know, and they were like, No, this is not how we're gonna roll. And they were like, thanks. But you, you know, you can take that trip and go someplace else. How they ended up finding success was actually, that they had to take families, from the villages that did have shrimp and bring them to the villages that did not use shrimp, and they did demos. And so they allowed the families to see someone else who looked like them, to show them like, here's how I'm preparing the meal. And now you can try it and your kids can try it. And they solve the problem that way, positive deviance, one of the things I like about it, which is why I think it's so special, they begin to ask the question of what is not working. So what's obviously not working is that there's a segment of the population that is not maintaining a normal BMI. And then they start to figure out, okay, well, what are the deficits? What are the risks, and then they then start to identify, well, what is working? And so in this instance, what they did is they went and looked at the population that did have the normal BMI and sort of said, well, what are you doing?
Scott Allen 37:26
Khaleel Seecharan 37:27
others are not. And so it's looking at homegrown solutions, or what I like to say elevating ideas, institution-wide, and amplifying them. And then it's bringing it back from a social side, which is that the adoption of the work must be of the community. So it can't be someone that comes in from the outside that comes in and says, I'm gonna do this, which is the irony of me being a consulting firm that comes in from the outside to help people.
Scott Allen 37:51
But what I respect about how you couch it and situate it is you say there's no playbook. We have some principles, we're going to, we have some tools, we have some diagnostics. But generally speaking, you're going to go back to adaptive leadership, we're going to hand the work back and say, Okay, what are you going to create, right? How is this going to work here, so that it is homegrown, so that it is real, and that it does have a greater likelihood of taking root? So full adaptive leadership, positive deviance, and then what was the third,
Khaleel Seecharan 38:26
Deliverology. This is a really interesting piece I learned of this, I would say about seven or eight years ago, when Tony Blair took over as prime minister in the UK, he created a new ministry called the ministry of delivery, its sole function was to measure and assess the other ministries, because all the other ministries, you know, have their own body of work, but they work independently. And as we've seen in the last couple of years, prime ministers come and go in the UK, they can come and go, you know, over a period of weeks or months or decades. But you know, what happens when the apparatus needs to continue and have some sense of stability? What he tried to then do was say, well, if I'm going to do this, let's do this. Right. And that's what one of my colleagues said, this has been going on in the United States Government for quite some time, but obviously, because it's British, and they have a beautiful accent. It's what made it the real special moment that turned into this book. And it's so Michael Barber, okay, who was the head of this initiative under Tony Blair. And what they then did is they asked each of the ministries to come up with annual and multi-year goals for what they did. To me, it's a lever, it's a tech, it's a technical lever that you pull a fuse adapted British language, but there's adaptive thought into what goes into the data and the measurement you're trying to collect. And then there's adaptive work in the post feature, which is that the way it works is, you then have a regular convening of everyone who owns this I'm just measurement of this data and you do it together. And it's in many cases where no one can hide, right? Because everyone who would be there, these are the other ministries are all there and you can't be like, Oh, well, we couldn't finish our work because this ministry didn't solve it. Well, ministry so and so you're over here. Can we speak to why this took place? And what it does is it goes back actually to the survey of the determinants of organizational culture, and whether you put the right people in place, yeah, right. Because now you can basically say, Huh, here's Judy, again, this is the fourth time we've had a meeting. And Judy's unit is not either working collaboratively or being proactive or working collegially. And so how do you then navigate, you're then are informed and empowered to make a decision. So when you do this in the context of our work, think of, for example, the institution that has nine separate di units, what you then do is you actually create institutional wide diversity, equity, and inclusion dashboard. It might not include all of the work happening in those nine units, right? It's the institutional series of purposes, but they're all collectively moving towards the direction of what those core institutional targets and metrics are, wildly, then also have their own unit-specific things that they're trying to talk about.
Scott Allen 41:19
Well, it's like you have that again, that Northstar that compass, right, because we all know that we're moving in one coherent direction. That's building up to the hole, right? Yeah.
Khaleel Seecharan 41:33
And so when you do this, and everyone is meeting on a quarterly or monthly basis, it's a symbol of it's yellow, green, or red. And if it's green, was the ambition bold enough? Can we raise it? Is it yellow? What are the barriers to this turning green? And how can we solve it with everyone in the room? And chances are, if we're all thinking about this from a similar thematic area, in this case, diversity, equity inclusion, we're all dealing with similar challenges, right? So you're accelerating, and eliminating roadblocks, accelerating good ideas, and eliminating roadblocks that are happening when this is taking place. And then the third case, if it's red, is this a case of you choosing the wrong metrics, you have the wrong leader, or this is not part of what the community was really looking for? When we set out to go do this? And also to one of the points you brought up, I think earlier brings institutional perpetuity, right? This is not individual-based leadership. Yeah, so a DI leader might come in on a DI leader might leave, but this structure and system are in place. And then the big challenge then is, how do you than constantly update it and monitor it and refresh it? Right, so you might have a multi-year plan and what happens in year two and a half or year three, because as your community changes. So will what you determined to be your DEI metrics will change as well, because they should hopefully improve and you'll find new ways, to continue adding a sense of belonging to a community. It's the concept of diagnosis, design, and delivery, where the diagnosis sign side is coming in with this level of curiosity from adaptive leadership, and also positive deviance. Thinking about the organization culture study, then going to the design stage where again, you're going back to the positive deviance, when I worked on the strategic plan for my prime institution, I asked two questions I did I created a six-question, qualitative survey, but I asked two questions that brought a breadth and wealth of information. One was, what are the barriers to success? And what came out of it were the same three to four units, the same four to five names consistently, which is not a surprise, but it showed that, and then I asked the second question, which is, what are the hidden stories? Good work that's happened, we don't know about it? And then how do you take a lever and take that from unit to institution or organization? And when and how can that special idea or concept be brought up? And you think about that same with the DI work, right? Who are the actors who are preventing or stopping or stymieing our sense of cultural belonging at the institution or the organization level? And how can we identify them? Because when I speak to DEI leaders, I asked, I go, you already know the five names of the people who cause you trouble. And they smirk. And they laugh, but they're like, but what if I could give you a quantitative way to show these are the people who are behaving like this? Yeah. And then what if I could also add to the flavor of the work you're doing? Because you're a one-person Wrecking Crew and say, there's good work already happening? Just elevate it, take it from, you know, this one person and how do you then get it to be institutionalized? Because then you build these ambassadors, your ambassadors already built-in? And it offers a lot of great work, right? And so you get to the design stage and you're already coming in with what you might need to highlight and what are some of the things you might need to respond to. And so that's a lot of fun, especially for me, I'm a creative person. So I just love digging in and thinking about that. And then the third, of course, is then making sure it stays for institutional perpetuity. It's not a fly-by-night operation like we didn't just do a plan and make a nice, glossy brochure and fill it with stock photos, because I abhor stock photos, and then you release it. And then you know, the next three years, you just released the same brochure...like no, let's make meaningful change. a colleague of mine says things should be meaningful, measurable, and movable. And so when you get to the delivery stage, that's what you're thinking about, you know, and I love alliteration. And so the institution should be able to, you should be able to walk away and go, you don't need me anymore. I'm happy to come back if you need me, but you know, you're on your own good luck. And we'll call us if you need us.
Scott Allen 45:48
And that's the goal, right? I mean, that's how you know, as a practitioner, that you've done good work, you know, I have as we begin to kind of wind down our time Khaleel, I just have so much respect for the work that you're doing. I love how you're approaching the work. I love the theory behind how you approach the work. And I think it's so much fun because it's one thing to sit in Dr. Heifetz's class and kind of have that experience in a j term. But to bring that out into the world and some of these other theories out into the world and see how, how they work in the wild to use them to help inform. And again, you're not providing them with a playbook but providing them with some principles and some ways of thinking so that they can build their own playbook back to the research in Vietnam, right, helping those families develop the playbook for themselves so that they can make that change lasting and long term. I love it. I always ask as we close out these conversations, what you're listening to reading, streaming, or watching something that's been on your radar recently that caught your eye, it could have to do with what we just discussed. It may not so what's caught your attention in recent months.
Khaleel Seecharan 47:08
You know, I read voraciously,
Scott Allen 47:11
I can tell.
Khaleel Seecharan 47:13
Yeah, I guess when can I really when I get up I read when I go before I go to bed I'm always reading. I'll speak about one of my favorite books. It's called The Tao of Pooh. And it makes you look at the universe from the lense of Winnie the Pooh characters. And when you read it, you're like, Oh, this is ridiculous. But I actually discovered this book in high school and wrote a paper on it, which was a complete flop. But that's a different story for another day. My professor was like you're trying to be smart, but you're really not. And so you know, take your C+ and be happy.
Scott Allen 47:47
Meanwhile, you with your degree from Harvard, and Penn ...you have the last laugh! Thank you, Dr.!
Khaleel Seecharan 47:52
Milton for that gracious nudge. But what it basically says it's the back of the cover. It's like while Poo pontificates. Piglet is too scared, er is too negative. And Tigger is, you know, having a party. And, and so you can actually look at the people you meet with on a daily basis and realize that they have aspects of rabbit. They have aspects of Piglet and Pooh. And that's actually really interesting to understand, like, just core personality traits that really help you figure out how to work with them. And so it's a great read. It's a really short read. It's really it's real Winnie the Pooh comics that they then have this whole Taoism in the background that I think just adds a level of complexity and flavor, that it's been over 30 years. And I still read it every so often. I love that book. Oh, that's
Scott Allen 48:39
Awesome, sometimes taking very complex concepts and distilling them down into Winnie the Pooh, that's a work of art. That's, I think it was jobs you said you got you to have to get your thinking clean, right, getting your thinking clean. And that sounds like it's someone who's gotten their thinking clean.
Khaleel Seecharan 48:58
I do a lot of infographics, where I take really hard concepts and I bring it down to like, you know, picture and no words I try to use a lot fewer words and put this as even word clouds. When I work with leadership teams. I asked the question, what is diversity equity inclusion at your institution? And then I put it up and it's always 15 different responses. And there's always it's a surprise Pikachu face like, you know, like, I feel like, actually is
Scott Allen 49:25
you just told me
Khaleel Seecharan 49:27
let's not unpack that and see where that takes us.
Scott Allen 49:31
Well, Khaleel I hope you will come back and we can continue the conversation. I can learn more about your adventures and the good work that you're doing in the world. It's just been such a pleasure to meet you to connect with you. Thank you so much for stopping by.
Khaleel Seecharan 49:45
My pleasure, Scott. Thank you for having me. Okay, well be well, you too. Bye.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai