Debra Nelson, Founder, Elevate CommunicationsDebra Nelson, Founder
After serving several Fortune 500 companies as an executive with deep expertise in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), Debra Nelson established her entrepreneurial venture, Elevate Communications, in 2017. The company provides consulting, coaching and customized training services to elevate the professional and personal performance of teams and individuals.

In a short span, Elevate was positioned among the nation’s leading boutique firms, providing professional development and communication services. With its team of expert DEI consultants, the company has quickly evolved to become a sought-after DEI consultancy firm.

In an interview with Manage HR, Debra Nelson said the company’s mission is “to help individuals and organizations achieve their highest aspirations.” She shares her insights into how Elevate helps clients achieve their objectives for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Please give our readers an overview of Elevate Communications.

Elevate Communications is a professional development and communication services company. We are fortunate to collaborate with companies at varying stages of diversity and inclusion implementation, from exploratory and infancy statuses to those with established practices and norms. The knowledge, experiences, and best practices we have gained over the years inform the counsel and strategies we offer our clients that include energy, technology, automotive, construction, financial services, and higher education verticals. We provide a range of services that include training, coaching, and consulting to help organizations operate with understanding and proficiency on this topic.

What makes us successful? We consider each engagement as a partnership. We want our clients to win, and we begin by taking time to understand what is needed to propel success. Through this approach, we assess what the greatest needs and challenges are, customize solutions, propose practices and policies, and recommend behavioral adjustments. Our core values include transparency and integrity. To this end, we strive to engender trust and deliver excellence in every endeavor and interaction.

What are some of the prevalent challenges that companies face regarding DEI adoption?

Many people are uncomfortable with the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion. This, in turn, impacts the adoption and advancement of related work in organizations. Lack of awareness about the benefits of DEI is also a critical factor. For this reason, Elevate advocates for education and awareness to help employees understand the business rationale for diversity, equity and inclusion. Additionally, implicit and explicit biases held by individuals can thwart the best intentions of corporate diversity programs and practices.

Through our work, we ask about perceptions that prevent DEI from gaining traction. Among the top four responses:

1.Role modeling at the top.

The highest-level executives must “walk the talk.” Otherwise, the impression is that there is not true commitment, and these behaviors will inform how people in organizations respond to DEI.

2.Understanding and awareness.

There are different opinions and perspectives that counter the actual definition of DEI. Creating awareness through education enables understanding and support.
3.Lack of accountability.

The failure to establish and communicate objectives, performance expectations, and measurement is the death knell for meaningful outcomes.

4.Depth of investment.

Dedicated resources for practices and programs are critical for initiatives to survive and sustain. Without this support, a company’s approach to DEI may be seen as merely performative.

Additionally, COVID-19 has upended the workplace. Millions of employees have voluntarily left the workforce for assorted reasons. Baby boomers are retiring, and unlike prior generations, millennials and Generation Z are less likely to stay in organizations where they feel poorly treated or are not meaningfully engaged. Additionally, studies suggest these individuals are not inclined to want to work for employers who do not value diversity, equity and inclusion. These factors are propelling organizations to rethink human resources practices, especially those involving employee acquisition and retention.

Our discussions reveal most employees prefer to work in organizations that uphold the ideals of DEI. They want to see and experience factors that transcend the traditional dimensions of diversity. Workers want to feel physically and emotionally safe at work. They are less tolerant of biased and disrespectful behavior from peers and supervisors. Behaviors that disrupt psychological safety such as unfair judgment, repercussion, retaliation, and microaggression create workplace trauma, and incite employees to walk away. Fortunately, many companies are focused on creating workplaces where people want to contribute, innovate, and stay.

Additionally, the changing face of the workforce is also having an impact. U.S. Census projections suggest a significant percentage of the future available labor force will be women and people from minority populations. As such, organizations are responding to the need for more inclusive cultures and practices.

What is Elevate’s methodology for providing its services?

We seek first to understand the existing culture of an organization. Our assessment may unfold through interviews, focus groups, informal conversations and surveys. For every endeavor we engage the 3-C Principles: Commitment, Complexity and Communication. First, we consider the depth of commitment from executive management for DEI. Next, we study structures, policies and practices that may be in place or need to be developed to support the success of the work. We frame this as complexity. Finally, we try to understand the language of the organization to help with communication. We believe communication must permeate every level of the organization to ensure understanding, support, and adoption of diversity, equity and inclusion.

In addition to having extensive DEI experience and knowledge, we are skilled communicators, helping clients with internal and external strategies and messaging to strengthen their DEI initiatives.

This collection of intelligence propels the design and development phase of our work. The beauty of our approach engages the client at every stage. The outcome is a cohesive package that may consist of strategies, programs, policies and training services. This is followed by implementation. Our model is flexible enough to incorporate new insights and discoveries that are often revealed during program implementation, and for which adjustments may be needed. The goal is to address concerns, offer solutions that resonate, and achieve maximum business impact. Finally, in collaboration with our clients, we measure outcomes to determine effectiveness.

Our facilitation and training services use experiential approaches to create relevancy. Whether in the classroom or the boardroom, Elevate helps participants create an emotional and intellectual connection to DEI tenets by inviting them to think about their own life experiences as they seek to understand others, especially those who may be marginalized in society and workplaces. Through this, we forge an emotional and intellectual connection to DEI, which we believe, is paramount in creating culture change.

What sets Elevate apart from the other players in the space?

In addition to having depth of DEI experience and knowledge, we are skilled communicators who can help clients with internal and external messaging to strengthen their DEI initiatives. Through strategic and practical approaches, we help organizations communicate their ideals in ways that resonate with employees, customers, stakeholders, and in the communities where they operate. In summary, we do this work because we care to elevate the performance of individuals, teams and organizations.