The future of work is human. Not in the traditional sense of human capital and high-potential employees, but in the sense of the humanity that emerged with such force from the events of the past two years. Employees expect to be seen, heard and appreciated. They also increasingly expect to marry their values at work with their values at home.

The Great Resignation is the most obvious evidence of this new employer/employee dynamic. Yet not everyone can take part in this movement. It’s just one example of how a lack of privileges disproportionately affects people of color and other underrepresented groups in the workplace. And while this disparity isn’t new, recent events have brought organizations and their leaders to an inflection point.

Internal pressures and external expectations have led many companies to make public commitments to support greater diversity and social justice. The increased scrutiny that comes with this kind of commitment has led to exceptional pressure to uphold them in meaningful ways. Yet many organizations don’t recognize how they can invest in existing talent to show all employees that they are appreciated, that their contributions are valued and that their professional growth — particularly into leadership roles for women and people of color — is a valuable component of what it will take to thrive in the future of work.

What is Development Equity?

There are several reasons people of color and women continue to be underrepresented in leadership. Whether intentional or unconscious, they are often the ones most likely to be unsupported, undervalued and unseen. Organizations without objective, formalized selection and succession processes to address this will not be able to achieve their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals because they lack development equity: Equitable access for underrepresented groups to career-enhancing development opportunities.

When over 70% of sponsors in an organization are the same gender or race as their protégés, it perpetuates a cycle of exclusion. Many organizations base selections for prime learning and development (L&D) opportunities on nominations from leadership, rather than objective and consistent review of a candidate’s performance. This actively curtails leadership development opportunities for those who don’t have the right connections, negatively affecting their potential impact within the organization.

We know from experience with pay equity efforts that accountability is key, and that starts with metrics. For development equity, the key is to benchmark the percentage of female and underrepresented minority leaders who are gaining access to high-quality leadership development opportunities. If you don’t establish a starting point, you won’t be able to set milestones, goals and an actionable plan to move your organization forward. Once baseline data is established, auditing nomination and selection processes for bias and structuring programs in the right way are key levers to achieve more development equity.

Talent Challenges in the Future of Work

There was already considerable competition for diverse leaders before the pandemic, but the lack of an inclusive cultural climate in some organizations led to the isolation of many diverse employees. Whether by design, unintentional or self-imposed, these employees were often minimized as contributors and their upward mobility stalled.

Now there’s an even smaller pool of diverse leadership talent at exactly the time when broader, diverse leadership pools are more important than ever before. In many cases, the pools of favored leadership prospects reflect the leadership models and skill sets organizations prioritized prior to 2020. Yet market needs and expectations — and thus the capabilities needed for effective leadership in the future of work — are rapidly shifting.

These “future-ready” leaders must possess the agility needed for business transformation, the empathy needed to ensure the well-being of employees both physically and virtually, and a focus on DEI not just as a concept, but as a proactive strategy to ensure an organization’s foundation and resulting structures and culture make diversity efforts sustainable.

It’s a difficult combination to find. Which means organizations need to shift resources from a focus on talent acquisition to more focus on developing internal talent. And that brings us back to development equity and the need for an honest assessment of how well an organization is prepared to ensure that achieving equity in L&D is not just a paper commitment but a blueprint for progress and a catalyst for organizational change.

L&D Professionals Driving Sustainable Success

The drivers of that change will be the human resources and L&D professionals who are responsible for an organization’s greatest resource in the future of work: its people. As I continue to see more members of the C-suite invest in L&D opportunities to meet the demands of the future of work, I’m also seeing a greater recognition of the importance of providing those same opportunities to more people within an organization.

We’ve entered an era of transition — from remote work environments where professional and personal boundaries blurred to hybrid environments where employees and leaders must learn to navigate the new challenges related to working in a distributed office. From hierarchical leadership towers to flatter leadership strata, where the responsibility for organizational leadership is shared. From employer-defined culture and brand priorities to employee-led calls for authenticity, transparency and better representation of real-world diversity.

Shifting legacy mentalities in an organization is challenging. The hardest part for you as an L&D professional will be to take a step back and apply an objective eye to the processes — informal or formal — that are in place in your organization. Harder still may be the realization that you need an outside observer to provide insights into areas where unrecognized biases exist.

The good news is that this heightened awareness and subsequent reflection and reaction will lead us to greater, more meaningful diversity through a new “Learning Economy.” The future of work in this new economy will be defined by companies who are able to leverage technology to deliver development training — without compromising quality — in ways that are more impactful and equitable than ever before.

In other good news, this heightened awareness is also leading to an increased appreciation for some of the leadership capabilities needed to position organizations at the forefront of the future of work. There’s been a noteworthy rise in the number of  HR professionals on corporate boards of directors. Not only does this bolster the shift toward a human-centric approach to business, but it increases the opportunities for HR and L&D professionals to garner support for initiatives that may have struggled to progress in the past.

Naturally, L&D professionals are well-versed in the vagaries of progress. You know that the future of work is not a point in time; it’s always waiting around the corner from the next big shift in workplace paradigms or approaches. Recognizing that this current shift is about humanity and how best to support everyone in your organization is how you will find success. development equity is critical to that support, but it is also part of a larger conversation and examination of what is at the heart of your organization’s view of its employees.

To shift focus and fear away from The Great Resignation and toward the promise of a great revival, it’s important to develop a strategic and equitable approach to preparing a future-ready team of leaders across all levels of your organization. Not only does it demonstrate respect for your employees’ goals, it allows you to find and strengthen the parallels with your organization’s goals. That, in turn, inspires everyone to not only be productive, contributing members of your team, but to confidently embrace the challenges and opportunities of the future of work as you move through them together.