Michael Bach: Building a Powerful & Influential Legacy as an IDEA Author & Thought Leader

The 10 Most Influential DE&I Leaders Revamping The Future, 2023

Michael Bach, Author, Speaker, IDEA Thought Leader & Founder of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI), CCDI Consulting, and Pride at Work Canada. He is an award-winning and best-selling author and consultant who brings a wealth of real-world experience and expertise to his work as a thought leader and subject matter expert in the areas of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA).

Prior to his ten years with CCDI and CCDI Consulting, he was KPMG Canada’s national leader for diversity, equity, and inclusion. He also served for two and a half years as KPMG International’s Deputy Chief Diversity Officer.

Taking a Passion for IDEA From Hobby to Profession

Although IDEA has always been Michael’s field of interest, it was not always his profession. He worked primarily in IT because, as a young person graduating in the 1990s, it was a burgeoning profession where he could make a good living. That was where he focused his attention.

“I did this work, what we now call diversity and inclusion work, as far back as my late teens. I was very involved with LGBTQ+, women’s, and immigrant organizations. Still, it was always as a volunteer, as a passion project. It wasn’t a job I wanted because if you could get paid, it wouldn’t make the kind of money I wanted to make, being the capitalist swine I am,” he quips.

Michael’s parents taught him, from a very young age, that he had a responsibility to give a voice to the people that didn’t have one or weren’t being heard. “I’m white, a cisgender-presenting man, and physically able-bodied. My parents, particularly my mother, recognized that those identities came with a lot of privilege. She raised me to believe I had a responsibility to use that privilege to the advantage of others,” he remarks.

It wasn’t until Michael worked for KPMG in the IT consulting practice that he and a group of other employees started pride@KPMG, the Employee Resource Group for the LGBTQ+ population and their allies. That got him the attention of the CEO and the Chief HR Officer, and he realized that IDEA was a burgeoning field and very much wanted in.

“I went to the head of HR and said, ‘You know, if we’re serious about diversity, we need full-time resources, and I want that job.’ I then wrote the business case for the creation of a role, and they hired me into it, and I haven’t looked back,” he recalls.

The Growing Pains of Building a Startup

When Michael started CCDI, he was willing to figure it out as they went along. As a startup, they held their first staff meeting around his dining room table. “I had nothing but a vision. I knew the market needed an organization like CCDI. Since no one else was starting it, I saw it as my responsibility to create something that would support employers and IDEA practitioners,” he shares. “We grew, developed, changed, and when I look at the organization today, it’s completely different than where we started, and that’s wonderful. I’m very proud of what they are as an organization because they’ve grown and matured,” he states.

Michael recalls being a brand-new CEO, learning on the job without mentors or a learning department he could turn to for coaching. He didn’t get stuck in the tropes of what it meant to be CEO but evolved and learned who he is as a person and a leader.

“As CEO, you think you are supposed to know everything, and the reality is, I didn’t know everything. I had a certain level of knowledge in IDEA, but I had never been the ‘CEO.’ I grew a lot as a leader in my ten years and learned to recognize my strengths and weaknesses, which is very important as a leader,” he affirms. “It was an incredible journey with lots of challenges and startup moments. When we couldn’t afford to do things, I did them myself. I painted the office and ran network cables – whatever was needed to ensure the organization could achieve its purpose. Now the organization is very much a stable, well-established, well-respected organization in this field, and I’m proud of that.”

Michael sums up one of his regrets with the phrase: “My eyes were bigger than my stomach.” His drive to do more, develop more offerings, and push the envelope, sometimes stressed his people out. He admits not considering the workload and ability to achieve things versus recognizing that they couldn’t do more. “That was a hard lesson for me to learn because I rarely said no. The biggest obstacle was that we didn’t have enough people or enough money to do everything I wanted to do,” he observes.

“If diversity is our strength, inclusion is our superpower.” – Michael Bach

Growing Exponentially in Leaps and Bounds

CCDI has what they call “Employer Partners,” de facto members of the organization whose employers pay an annual fee to gain access to its services. In its first year, the organization struggled to get 26 Employer Partners but now counts over 700 as part of the organization.

“We grew exponentially. In our second year, we more than doubled our Employer Partners. In our third year, we tripled and just kept going, showing the need for what this organization could and continues to do. I’m super proud of it,” Michael proclaims.

As a leader, he realized that there’s always more to do and always will be more to do in the IDEA field. “One of the challenges that IDEA practitioners face is that we want to do everything. We do this work because we’re passionate about it, want to affect change, and are never satisfied with how quickly it moves. But the reality is that change takes time, and you need to take that time to ensure the change will last,” he maintains.

Creating an Inclusive Culture as an Employer

Michael notes that nurturing an inclusive and equitable culture as an employer meant their guiding principle from day one was that they would be the employer they always wanted to work for. That meant ensuring they lived their values, respecting and listening to one another.

“The organization’s leadership and I had all worked for employers that weren’t inclusive. We wanted to be different. All the things we told our clients they should be doing to create inclusive environments, we were doing ourselves. It wasn’t always perfect, but we tried hard to create an inclusive environment where people felt like they belonged. The culture was a critically important piece of it, and the result was that we had a very diverse organization,” he observes.

When Michael left the organization, half the employees were immigrants, and most were women or gender diverse. They had people of different sexualities, religions, races, ethnicities, and many other diverse identities.

“It’s not about representation. I hesitate to talk about the representation because it sounds like a tick-box exercise, but it’s something we could measure. I was always very proud that we had every imaginable group represented in the organization and leadership,” he remarks.

Building a Powerful Legacy with CCDI

Michael recalls that when he started working in IDEA nearly 20 years ago, he was bluntly naïve. He believed he could change people’s behavior and see more diverse people in leadership by creating an argument based on facts and data. “I thought if I presented a case for change based on data and research, people would just get it, and the change would happen. I quickly realized that, despite overwhelming evidence, people happily stick their heads in the sand. A lack of research and data isn’t the problem. The problem is people’s resistance to change and willingness to maintain the status quo,” he admits.

Michael points out that the IDEA industry is thankfully moving away from performative actions like potluck lunches and the sponsorship of different events. It’s evolving past those things and recognizing that’s not real change. “The broad headline is that the profession is maturing. We need to focus on representation, but more importantly also on different aspects of development. We need to recognize that it will take a lot more than a potluck lunch to help ensure that we’re retaining the best and the brightest talent,” he insists.

However, he admits that it’s gotten a lot better and will continue to improve as people recognize the need for concrete actions that have an impact. Putting everyone through unconscious bias training once and thinking that that will magically make everything work is unrealistic.

Michael begrudgingly admits he’s had an impact, “I’m very Canadian and not terribly boastful, but I recognize that I’ve made a contribution. There are lots of other people who have contributed, too—Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mary-Frances Winters, Deborah Dagit, Rohini Anand, and so many others. I am honored and humbled to work in a field with many great people. Starting CCDI is a big part of my legacy. I saw a gap in the market, recognized that we needed something, and started an organization that filled that gap. CCDI has subsequently become the preeminent organization on diversity and inclusion in Canada. They are admired worldwide, which I take great pride in, and that’s the biggest feather in my cap,” he acknowledges.

Laying Down a Roadmap to Do Diversity & Inclusion Right

Michael minored in journalism in college and has always loved the written word. As a young person, he wrote stories and plays and always had a gift for writing, but he never thought he would write a book. “That was never on my radar but having worked in the IDEA profession for several years, I was repeatedly asked the same questions. It felt like a missed opportunity because the answers don’t change,” he explains.

In his desire to share his knowledge, Michael saw an opportunity to write a book to help people wrap their arms around the IDEA conversation. His key target market was small to medium-sized employers who don’t have a diversity and inclusion practitioner, organizations struggling to get by and keep the lights on and don’t know what they don’t know or what they need to do.

“My objective was to say, if you read this book, you should be able to do this work in diversity and inclusion by yourself. You wouldn’t need to hire a consultant and can figure it out on your own. I’m now in my early 50s and worry that I’m not seeing enough change in my lifetime. So, I laid out a roadmap, largely because I wanted to have a bigger impact and see some change,” he says.

For Michael, writing came naturally, so he brought all the pieces together in his first book. “I’m giving away all the secrets. Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be a mystery. I believe that if employers were more inclusive, equitable, and accessible, we would see the positive change that would not only impact people who are considered ‘minorities’ but also positively impact society as a whole,” Michael shares.

He didn’t waste any time writing his next book, which focuses on sexuality and gender and the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. “Alphabet Soup was much more personal for me. As a gay, gender non-conforming man, I want to see the world be more inclusive for members of my community. I’ve watched as the conversation around sexuality and gender globally is still fraught with problems and a struggle for some people, and it shouldn’t be. We should be in a much better place,” he insists.

Michael felt it was the right time to write about LGBTQ+ inclusion because people treat LGBTQ+ people as scapegoats, so he had a different intention for Alphabet Soup than the first book. “I want to help take some of the fear out of the conversation around sexuality and gender in general. My objective is to change people’s perspectives, considering what’s been going on of late in the U.S. This year alone, over 500 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation have been introduced in the United States. We take one step forward and ten steps back,” he points out.

Having stepped away from CCDI and CCDI Consulting late last year, Michael continues to push the conversation on IDEA further. “I’m working on a couple more books and will continue to give speeches as long as people have me. It’s a joyful thing for me to see the look on someone’s face when they ‘get it.’ And so my focus is on speaking and writing books and consulting on interesting projects that affect change,” he maintains.

Establishing Boundaries to Prevent Burnout

Michael enjoys the fact that his days are never consistent. He gets up and walks his “two ridiculously hairy Siberian Huskies” and might work with some consulting clients and have some deliverables for them. He might be preparing a speech, having conversations, do a bit of mentoring.

“I’m a big believer in paying it forward, helping people who want to do this work. It changes from one day to the next, and I enjoy the lack of consistency because I never get bored. I’m able to keep thinking about things differently and keep my thought process evolving,” he explains.

Michael admits he’s a workaholic and comes from a family of workaholics. When he left CCDI, he was burnt out and mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. He was not in a great place because he cared so much about the work that he wasn’t taking care of himself.

However, in the past year or so, he started establishing boundaries to ensure that he was taking care of himself first. As an advocate for self-care, he realized it was necessary to draw those lines. He established rules about when he will work and when he takes breaks, doing things for himself, like going to the gym or going on vacation. When he’s on vacation, he adamantly does not check his email.

“The world is not going to fail while I’m away. I let myself have my time, and people respect that taking a break is important. I have a regimen I’ve developed regarding how I will live and create the circumstances of what I need to do my best,” he insists.

Michael dreams of an equitable world where anybody can succeed because of everything that makes them unique. He observes that we’re not where we need to be yet regarding inclusion. “It’s not bad not to have achieved that goal because it keeps me going, pursuing, and getting out of bed every morning. I think it would be incredibly boring for me if I achieved all my goals,” he notes. “But I will never give up. This work is how I will spend the rest of my life – fighting to create a more inclusive, equitable, and accessible society for everyone.”

Although he has simple needs and goals, he admits he’s also incredibly complex, constantly thinking, dreaming, and imagining the world as a better place. “I’m not going to be satisfied with the status quo, which makes things complex. I don’t imagine myself retiring. I will always do this work in some way, shape, or form because it’s incredibly valuable, and I care about it so much,” he declares, “but now I want to focus on innovative solutions that will have a real impact.”

Celebrating The Small Wins

One of Michael’s indicators of success is when someone comes up to him and shares a story about how they feel included as a consequence of the work that he’s done.

“In this field of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility, it’s often difficult to see those successes and know when your work has had the intended impact. You have to celebrate those little wins,” he shares.

Michael recalls a conversation with a young, South Asian gay man. He was accustomed to experiencing racism and homophobia and told Michael, “I stay here because of the work you do.”

“When he didn’t experience that homophobia and racism because of the work I did, it made his life better. That to me was a huge win for me,” Michael declares. “Because ultimately, what you’re trying to do with this work is make sure people feel like they matter and belong, and you must celebrate those small wins. We measure success in IDEA by determining whether we have representation in the organization’s leadership that reflects the communities we serve. Those are important measures of success. But as an IDEA practitioner, we need to celebrate those smaller moments because they are the things that will keep us going personally,” he acknowledges.

Michael admits that doing this work is very much a passion for him. He enjoys affecting change and aspires to leave the world in a better place than he found it, but not in a Pollyanna or idealistic way.

“I believe I can have an impact, and that is my purpose. What gets me out of bed in the morning is knowing that my work makes the world better for people,” he observes. “I love moments when I’m talking to someone, and you see the look on their face as they get it. That’s what this is about: the motivation, that moment of joy, excitement, and knowing that I’m helping someone understand this thing called IDEA – inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility. That motivates me because it gives me hope.”

Keep It Simple & Don’t Make It About You

In his parting message to aspiring IDEA leaders, Michael offers three insightful and profound pieces of advice:

  • Don’t overcomplicate things. We, as a society, overcomplicate things. I don’t believe that this work needs to be that complicated. It can be simple and impactful, so if we can focus on the simple, it’s more effective.
  • Don’t make it about you. We all approach life through self-interest, which is very natural. The effective way to do this work is not to ask what’s in it for me. It doesn’t matter if there’s anything in it for you. I’ll mentor somebody or go for coffee, and they’ll say, what can I do for you? My answer is that you don’t need to do anything for me. I’m good. I think it’s so valuable to have that attitude, to pay it forward and not feel like you have to get something out of it.
  • Celebrate your wins, no matter how small they are. Celebrating wins is crucial because they don’t always come as quickly as we want. You have to celebrate the small wins to keep you going. Otherwise, it’s a pretty thankless profession at times, and attaching yourself to those wins, you know that you did something good. That’s what matters! It’s those wins, those moments when somebody says this matters and thanks you for what you’re doing.