MAKE IT REAL
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Action
Fundamentals

The CEO’s Role in DEI Success

In this article:

Successfully advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in an association is impossible without strong support from the CEO. That kind of leadership takes ongoing commitment, tenacity, and an eye on the future of the community the organization serves.

School Nutrition Association CEO Patti Montague, CAE, was ahead of the curve in recognizing the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion when she began spotting demographic shifts while conducting research early in her career. That initial awareness has informed her proactive approach to implementing DEI at SNA.

“It’s imperative for any CEO to be up on whatever demographic trends are in the country and certainly with the people working in their profession,” Montague said. “Your members are watching.”

As the leader of the professional organization representing school nutrition, Montague knew that many of the people working in school kitchens were immigrants. However, even though she works in the field every day, she was astounded several years ago when she went into a school and observed that the women serving the students in the lunch line all spoke different languages.

“There was someone from Egypt, someone from India, and someone from China, but they communicated and were able to work to feed these kids. It was very meaningful for me to see that,” Montague said.

That eye-opening experience motivated some deeper reflection on SNA leadership and brought into sharp focus the reality that SNA’s board was not representative of the people who work in the school nutrition field. Most board members in 2018 were white women in their 50s. That did not bode well for maintaining SNA’s relevance to its members.

“You don’t want to risk having members who are diverse looking at the leadership and thinking: I don’t see anybody who looks like me. I don’t want to be part of that organization. They don’t want me,” Montague said.

Montague educated the board with updated demographic information and worked on profiling the makeup of committees and the board—including along gender lines. Last year, SNA had its first male board president in 48 years, who is also Black. “We never think of a male being first in anything,” Montague said. SNA’s 18-member board now has several men on it.

“There is no better person to make sure DEI is integrated into the fabric of the organization than the CEO.” –Maunda Land, CAE, Land Consultants

“As a board, we need to make sure we have all the voices of the membership involved and reflective of who’s working in the industry, as well as who the leaders are now and who will be the leaders in the next 10 years,” she said.

Defining Goals

When the time came to develop SNA’s 2018 strategic plan, Montague pressed the board to define goals and strategies related to DEI. For the past five years, Montague has emphasized to the leadership development committee that it must prioritize ensuring diversity when choosing candidates for the board and recruiting candidates for committees.

“There is no better person to make sure DEI is integrated into the fabric of the organization than the CEO,” said Maunda Land, CAE, president and CEO of Land Consultants. “They’re the one who is leading the charge of the culture.”

When the group began developing its 2021-2024 strategic plan, it included DEI as a cross-cutting theme throughout all four areas of its strategic goals. SNA now has board-approved funding to conduct a year-long assessment with a DEI consultant, so the organization formed a DEI working group made up of members and staff. The consultant is in the process of conducting listening sessions throughout the organization to develop a quantitative member survey on the topic.

“DEI efforts take money, and the CEO is the one that can drive that,” Land said. “They foster the organizational culture, and it’s that permeation that will make the DEI effort stick.”

SNA has consistently sought speakers on DEI for its conferences and has conducted DEI training for members. It is currently planning an upcoming webinar hosted by one of its technology education partners. “We have a whole plan for education and engaging with members as we go forward,” Montague said.

Success requires cultivating a culture of inclusion, and that attitude and motivation come from the CEO.

“CEOs are either going to be drivers of change, observers of change, or they’re going to be a blocker of the change,” Land said. “There’s nothing wrong with getting others to be a part of the charge, but why not lead the charge?”

Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now.

More from Fundamentals

View  MAKE IT REAL
You’ve got a great DEI strategy—all you need to do is put it in place and it’s smooth sailing all the way, right? Not so fast. Here’s what to do if you encounter pushback from members.
Public statements from an association supporting social justice mean little if it doesn’t have its own house in order. Successful groups maintain their attention on DEI internally—and think carefully before speaking out.
When organizations roll out initiatives aimed at addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion, the entire team needs to be on board for the programs to bring real change. To get buy-in and commitment from staff, include them in all elements of the work.