Judith Michelle Williams, Head of People Sustainability and SVP, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, SAP, joins the program to discuss her career journey, and how she draws from her background in theater for the work that she does today. Discover Judith’s advice for DE&I practitioners looking to advance their careers and why passion alone is not enough to be successful.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- How Judith first became aware of DE&I issues while attending Harvard (3:30)
- The skills that Judith uses from her background in theater (6:00)
- The “winding path” that many DE&I leaders travel (17:00)
- The focus on mental and physical health among underrepresented talent (20:00)
- The danger in bringing your “full self” to work (29:00)
- Why awareness of unconscious bias doesn’t change behavior (34:00)
- The limits of training programs (37:00)
- Judith’s advice for those seeking executive level DE&I positions (45:00)
- Why passion alone is not enough to be successful (47:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Welcome to The Will To Change. This is Jennifer Brown. My guest today is Judith Michelle Williams is the Head of People Sustainability and SVP, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, SAP.
Judith has been at the forefront of the culture change movement in technology and entertainment – with a deep focus on analytics and strategies to identify and disrupt bias in social systems and corporate culture. She has held global diversity roles at Dropbox, where she focused especially on the pipeline for women and underrepresented minorities, and at Google, where she focused on unconscious bias, recruitment and retention for the company’s technical employees.
In addition to leading diversity at SAP, her current role also has a focus on global health and well-being, which we know is a burgeoning but poorly-understood arena in companies, especially as it pertains to communities at work who are already experiencing bias, stereotyping and stigma. Judith points out that when it comes to looking at mental health, it’s critical to remember that different communities deal with challenges in different ways, that there may be relatively more shame and a lack of disclosure, and there needs to be particular attention to this as strategies are developed, to really move the needle for all of us.
While later in the episode, we dive into Judith’s deep well of knowledge about how to encourage more leaders to embrace the reasons why inclusion matters to them and their teams, Judith and I get to first bond over our mutual backgrounds in theater – she as a director and theater historian, and I, as a performer. She has a PhD in performance studies from Stanford, and shares she was always interested in theater as a place where culture comes together to articulate its notion of itself and where it is trying to work out really difficult issues. She did a lot of work on ideas about race, gender, and identity formation in theater history, in fact doing her dissertation on 19th century stage images of black women.
We begin the episode discussing the orchestration of organizational change, which was so gratifying for me. As you know from all the stories we’ve featured on the Will to Change, effective leaders of diversity work hail from so many different backgrounds, and I was delighted to discover that Judith’s is grounded in stagecraft and all that we both learned with that background about crafting an exciting vision, marshalling a team around that vision, getting them inspired, and coordinating their work together to create something greater than the whole.
Judith, welcome to The Will to Change.
JUDITH WILLIAMS: Thanks, Jennifer. I’m really glad to be here.
JENNIFER BROWN: Me too. I have read and followed your career eagerly in preparing for this episode. You are a Chief Diversity Officer, and occasionally we have folks in your role come on the show. Your role is one that I know intimately. But I think there’s so many listeners on The Will to Change that are very curious about the career path to where you find yourself, the advice that you might have, the headwinds at the top of the mountain, so to speak, that you’re on that you deal with on a day-to-day basis in a large global company, which is really an interesting vantage point.
But before we get to all that, I would love to invite you to share what you might consider to be your diversity story. We always say everyone has a diversity story or stories, plural. When did you feel that awakening and that stirring towards this topic and this work and your passion ignite around the change that you’re making today?
JUDITH WILLIAMS: I had never really thought about diversity and inclusion until I went to college, maybe that’s a little bit earlier than most people. I went to Harvard College. And when I got there, I started writing for a weekly newspaper or magazine called The Harvard Independent. It still exists, it’s about to have its 50th anniversary this fall.
And the first story that I was asked to cover for The Independent was about minority and women faculty hiring. And at that point, I realized that we at Harvard were struggling with minority and women faculty hiring. And as a 19-year-old Harvard student, it never occurred to me that that was something the university would struggle with.
And I remember chasing down faculty members to ask them – we had a committee that was chaired by a professor in our government department, who I later went on to take a class from, who’s a really good professor. But at that point, I just was like, “Well, why can’t we hire women and minorities?” And I didn’t understand all the challenges of pipeline and how things change and how bias is happening in the process and how decisions like that are made.
And that was my first introduction to thinking about issues around diversity and hiring. And certainly at that point, I had no idea that I would eventually be tackling these types of issues of a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.
At that point, I was pointed toward an academic career and thought that I would be one of those faculty members that – being both a minority and woman, could be hired.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow, that’s so interesting. What did you think you would study at that point?
JUDITH WILLIAMS: You know, at that point, I – when I was in college, I thought that I was going to go to either medical school or be a chemical engineer. And then my freshman year, I too organic chemistry and I very quickly learned that that probably was not the path for me.
And I would say when it about regrets in my life, it probably is that I left the sciences so early. But I was able to sell the change in direction to my family by saying that I would go to law school, which I never intended to do, but at least that got me through four years. And then I ended up getting a PhD in performance studies at Stanford University and my goal at that point was to be a theater director.
I realized I didn’t have the tolerance for risk to be an artist, so I thought I’d be a professor. But that was mainly negative selection.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh. You and I have that in common, the whole love of the stage and I love that you have a doctorate in that.
I get asked this all the time, and I just have to ask you: What do you pull from your time in theater into the work that you do now?
JUDITH WILLIAMS: So, I was largely a director. And if you think about what a director is, a director is a creative project manager. So you have a vision, right? You start with a play, you have an idea where it’s going, but you have to select the play, and then you have your vision for the play. And then you mobilize a large team of people to enact your vision.
And so what that means is you have to be able to communicate to your set designer and your lighting designer and the costume designer and the actors and your stage manager, and to get everybody working in concert together to achieve this vision. You usually have a lot of time pressure in doing it. You have pretty high stakes.
And so when I think about the work that I do now, there is that ideation – that idea of, okay, what is our vision? And then how do I put the different elements into place? How do I motivate people onto that vision? And how do I achieve it? So, I think that that definitely is hugely important.
The other thing is you also have to be able to convince people that your vision is the right vision. There’s a lot of influencing that goes on in my job both from the perspective of how do I influence leaders? How do I influence our customers and partners? How do I influence employees? How do I influence ENGs or Employee Network Group leads?
So that is very much part of the work that I did as a director. I am often asked to be on stage and speak about that vision or the work that I am doing. And having spent enough time on stage as an actor, I’m pretty fearless when it comes to being on stage. And I think that comfort in front of a large crowd is really, very, very helpful. And one of the things that I always tell people who are early on I public speaking when they’re really nervous, I say, “Look, the only person who knows that you are not saying what you’re supposed to say is you. So just fake it, like you are.”
And when you’re in a play, especially a well-known play, you have people in the audience that know exactly what your lines should have been. And it’s even harder to sell it. So once you’ve had to deal with the circumstance that people in the audience do know what you’re supposed to say, it’s very freeing to be on stage saying whatever you want to say.
JENNIFER BROWN: That is a great description of all the things that go into the theater and performance and speaking. You’re so right, our currency is so much our ability to sell people on ideas and our comfort in front of groups, because we’re constantly evangelizing for the message. And so it’s such a great background to have.
I also add ability to improvise and be resilient in the face of rejection, because I was the one on the front of the stage getting rejected over and over. So I think there’s some parallel between – sometimes the unpopularity of the ideas that people like you and I in these roles are trying to gain influence around. And you know, having to sort of come up against difficulty over and over again sometimes. And resistance or deflections or apathy around is this really a problem? And what are you telling me I need to do about it?
So, I wondered, do you have to call on those stores of resilience and getting back on the horse and getting creative in terms of how you utilize those influencing skills?
JUDITH WILLIAMS: I certainly do. And I agree that improvisation is really important to what we do, and that ability to say “yes, and,” because you will approach business leaders and they will say, “Yes, I care about inclusion and I have to make my sales target.” You need to be able to go with them and say creatively, “And I can help you do that by having a more diverse group of people on your team, and let me show you how that works. Let’s work together.”
I think that ability to really riff on things that people say and to build on it and to be creative and to have that positive energy and enthusiasm is really important. And also to think creatively.
I tell people all the time, if you haven’t heard no, then you haven’t asked for enough. And maybe that does come from having gone through auditions where you hear, “Well, thank you.” And you know that thank you is the kiss of death.
JENNIFER BROWN: Of course.
JUDITH WILLIAMS: You get up the next day, and you do it again.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s so great. You have a master’s and PhD. You also, at some point, really got deep on gender and race and other aspects of the technical skill set, if you will, of diversity and inclusion. So, where did that – what did you study to become more masterful on those topics? I know then you had a series of corporate roles, which is really interesting, in a couple tech companies and now at SAP. Tell us about that evolution into the D&I field from a technical knowledge perspective.
JUDITH WILLIAMS: I actually – in my academic research, I did a lot of work on ideas about race, gender, nation, ideas of identity, identity formation in theater history. I’m actually a theater historian by training, and so my dissertation is on 19th century stage images of black women. And what’s interesting about 19th century stage images of black women is that there are lots of stereotypes. Those roles are played primarily in blackface and also cross-dressed. So, you’re dealing with ideas of, well, what does gender mean? What does representation mean? What does it mean to have access to roles on the stage? What does it mean to be a black person performing in a space where black people don’t have a lot of access? What does it mean for a woman to start performing?
So, a lot of those fundamental issues about identity, identity formation, about who has access and who doesn’t have access really were articulated in a lot of the issues I dealt with in my dissertation from the kind of basics.
And so critical race theory and a lot of the foundational work that I still think about in a lot of my academic background was laid when I was getting my PhD.
When I was an academic and I did my early teaching, I actually branched out and I didn’t just look at ideas of race, gender, and nation. I also began to then look at, well, what is that going to mean in other geographies of the Americas? Spent a lot of time in Brazil and in Latin America thinking about, well, what does identity mean, what does access mean?
I was always interested in theater as a place where culture comes together to articulate its notion of itself and where it is trying to work out really difficult issues.
And because I was a theater historian and I was dealing with theater that was produced in a time when other forms of popular culture that we now would look at to negotiate those ideas didn’t exist. It was before radio, it was before television. It was really one of the only places where, collectively, that performative space for culture to reflect on itself existed. I think I had a lot of that foundation without having tried to do it when I started working in the corporate world.
I didn’t about 13 years ago where I realized that I was never going to be happy as an academic and that while I used the rubric that I had been told as a young person to determine a career, do what you love – if you do what you love, you’ll never feel like you work. I was doing things that I loved. I loved theater, I loved reading, I loved books, I loved knowledge, but I didn’t love my job. That rubric didn’t work for me. I had to come up with another rubric for finding a professional life that was fulfilling to me.
I thought less about, well, what do I want to do, and more about, well, what is the life that I want to live? Who are the people that I want to work with? What are the types of problems that I want to solve? And in doing that, I got a job at the Corporate Executive Board, which a few years ago was acquired by Gartner. And my role was as what we called externally “research director.” I was the interface between the research that we did our clients. I would translate the research that we did and make it relevant to clients.
So what it allowed me to do was to use my problem-solving and my research ability and my communication ability, and then I learned to be a subject-matter expert around HR.
At that time, we didn’t have a strategic study specifically on diversity and inclusion, but we’d get requests. And so I just started doing the research with the research team off the side of my desk to develop that expertise in diversity and inclusion. I had a facility with the issues because of my earlier academic background.
JENNIFER BROWN: Judith, I mentor a lot of people. And the winding path you’ve talked about, I think you’ve called a zigzag, is a really familiar case, which is that we sort of – many of us find ourselves in this work through a progression that’s rather unlikely, and end up specializing in diversity and inclusion. You’ve taken it all the way to the SVP level, and you also oversee health and wellbeing, which I think is really interesting and emerging as a topic of great interest.
I know when I speak, there are a lot of mental health challenges that are coming forward in my – from my audiences, particularly in the Q&A sessions, and also really in the confidential Q&A that comes in over the WebEx. There’s so much covering and shame and a lack of disclosure of health and wellbeing issues that are really impacting so many of us.
I wondered if you could tell us a little bit more about that side of your role, and I know you have some thoughts around how underrepresented talent, in particular, is managing health and wellness and their own mental health – or not – and how that compounds in the workplace. What are you looking at with that role that you have? I’m eager to hear.
JUDITH WILLIAMS: Yeah. I think it is somewhat unique to have global health and wellbeing and also diversity and inclusion in the same organization. But it makes a lot of sense. We know that not being included has negative impacts on health.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
JUDITH WILLIAMS: We know that it has negative impacts not only on your mental health, but actually on your physical health. It changes the chemical mix of your body, the endorphin flow changes depending on that feeling of exclusion. There is something of a natural way that they go together.
We want to make sure that people feel included, but they also are able to have access to the tools that they need to manage their health. And we do have, currently, we’re starting to really look into this question of mental health. I think it’s really important that we’re able to talk about mental health in the same way that we’re able to talk about our physical health. For too long, there’s been some discomfort in addressing mental health issues in the workplace.
In the same way that your physical health can compromise your able to be successful at work, your mental health can. And as well, for family members who are dealing with others who have mental health challenges, there’s been covering in that regard as well. People cover not only their own mental health challenges, but they cover the mental health challenges of others.
We also know that when it comes to looking at mental health, different communities deal with them in different ways. Culturally, there are different questions about shame and how you show up when it comes to mental health. Certain communities, communities of color, have a much greater discomfort in talking about mental health issues than other communities. So it’s important that as we’re thinking about our mental health initiatives – or any health initiatives really – that we understand how different communities culturally, the way men and women, LGBTQ-plus, are all navigating these in really different ways. We can’t have a one-size-fits-all mental health program or global health and wellbeing program without recognizing the importance of including all sorts of different populations and different parts of our employee base.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. How did you begin to tackle growing your own knowledge in the – about this vast topic, right, and learn what you needed to learn? Anybody who leads diversity knows you need to know a lot about a lot of different identities and what those experiences are. How did you learn everything you needed to learn in order to lead on this conversation as either I don’t want to assume you might be a member of that community, so to speak, or as somebody who is an ally to that community. Where did you start and how did you – you’re such an academic, what did you read? How did you get the exposure that you needed?
JUDITH WILLIAMS: I think I am learning every day. I continue to learn. I in no way think that I know everything that I need to know. Fortunately, one of my greatest passions is to learn new things, and I like that continued pursuit of learning.
I would say that – as an academic, I read a lot. Probably when I think about one of the most impactful books that I’ve read in the past, let’s say, I don’t know, five or seven years, is probably Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman is the father of behavioral economics, and talks about all of the ways that our unconscious biases are acting upon the decisions that you make and how sometimes we are doing things that we are completely unconscious of.
And I think that was actually really important for me to understand because we’ve come to a place in the workplace where a lot of our conscious bias is, we understand to either educate ourselves out of or sign up to express them if we do have them.
But our unconscious biases are a lot harder. And I think that sometimes what we need to understand is that most of us want to show up and do really good work. Most of us want to show up and be inclusive. Most of us at this point understand the value of diversity and inclusion. And so reading that book to understand how, despite the fact that consciously we might want to show up that way, unconsciously we may have some patterns and behaviors that are getting in the way of that. I think that was really, really important to me.
I continue to engage with academics. One of the academics whose work I am continual interested and intrigued by is Katherine Phillips. She’s done some interesting work not only on diversity and inclusion, how diverse groups help us express who we are, right? We talk about how it’s important to have what we call our “acquired diversity” as well as our inherent diversity. Acquired diversity is the sum of the skills and experiences that we gain on our journey through life. Inherent diversity are the things that we’re born with. We need both of those.
Phillips’ work really shows how it’s having inherent diversity, so having people that come from different backgrounds on your team actually is the key to unlocking some of that acquired diversity so that you really do have the power of those different backgrounds and lets you solve complex challenges or complex problems. She’s continued to expand that work and think about belonging and what does it mean to be authentic when you are different from other folks on your team? What is the value of authenticity? I continue to be really excited by her work.
I’m always intrigued by just keeping that connection with academics. There are so many books. There’s What Works for Women at Work?, which I think is one of my favorite books right now. Obviously, that’s the primer that I would expect pretty much anyone. What Works for Women at Work? is Joan Williams. What I think is great about What Works for Women at Work? is she looks at the fact that, look, there are biases that exist against women or negative biases toward women, and that women, by understanding them, can manipulate their own behavior to take advantage of those biases, right? It’s very practical. On the one level, systematically, we want to get rid of some of the biases that exist, but they do exist. What are the techniques to negotiate them?
I would say those are some of the things that I’m reading. I’m always trying to discover new things.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so great. You’re right. I was doing a call trying to educate some executive coaches about D&I. The usual question came up: I have a female coachee who is struggling with bias in terms of her own assertiveness. You know that is going to come up every single time. It always does. Women are in this double bind from being too strong or not strong enough. When that is who we are authentically, but we feel that we’re being judged differently for the same exact behavior, that really discourages authenticity and makes you go back into covering mode.
While we need people to bring their full selves to work, there is such a risk to doing it for particularly underrepresented or historically marginalized groups because of these double – and triple standards, I might add.
We were talking about mental health a moment ago. There are several communities that are struggling with being asked to disclose and bring their full selves to work in all those aspects. Whether that’s I have mental health issues, I am LGBTQ, but I’m closeted – which describes 50 percent of LGBTQ people in the workplace today. Or whether it is an invisible disability.
I know somebody in your position, you’re probably working on something called self-identification, self-ID for short, which is this good obsession we have as organizational architects to encourage people in our workforce to share who they are so that we can understand how they can better be supported.
The challenge, just to use the LGBTQ community as one, many of us can hide in plain sight. We don’t need to disclose that. We don’t trust our organization with that information. Therefore, we don’t check the box.
How are you dealing with these invisible diversities that carry so much stigma and that people are really hesitating – often for good reason – to share? When we say, “Oh, bring your full self to work,” that’s not so easy when you feel like your authenticity comes with so much risk.
JUDITH WILLIAMS: I also no longer say, “bring your full self to work.” I ask people to bring their best selves to work. One of the things that I’ve realized is that we used to say that a lot, and then I realized that sometimes people’s full selves, that would enable them to actually engage in some pretty bad behavior.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yes, that’s true.
JUDITH WILLIAMS: Now I understand that we actually want to empower you to bring your best self to work. I think that’s really important. I think it’s really fundamental that we as organizations demonstrate that we’re worthy of that trust. That means that we need to think about what are our policies when it comes to supporting people of different backgrounds? How do we support people who have mental health challenges? How do we provide benefits for people on the LGBTQIA-plus community to make sure that they have access to partner benefits, that they have access if we are thinking about our trans employees, how do we make sure that people have the resources that they would need to transition at work? How do we deal with any type of micro aggressions that happen? How are we talking about them? How are we communicating about what behavior is acceptable and not acceptable? How are we consistently providing accommodations and visual support for people that might have disabilities?
When we do the inclusion piece, when we really focus on making sure that people, regardless of their ability, regardless of their LGBTQIA-plus status, regardless of their gender or their cultural or ethnic background, that they can show up and be themselves, and we model that behavior from our leaders and we have the policies in place.
We find that our employees feel safe enough to share with us who they are. But if we haven’t done that fundamental work of building an inclusive culture, building the scaffolding or the infrastructure, if you will, for inclusion, there’s no reason for us to expect our employees to trust us.
We can’t do one without the other. Oftentimes, before we’re going to do something with a big self-ID campaign, we have to make sure that we’ve created a safe space, where people can be reasonably sure that there will be no negative outcomes that accrue to them because they showed us who they are. And that they know that if they tell us who they are, that we are looking at it in the spirit of how can we better build a supportive culture around you, rather than anything else?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. It’s sort of, “Leap, and the net will appear.” Well, I’m not sure the net’s going to appear. I think that trust in the institution is really critical and hard to build. Funny enough, even really progressive companies, I often say, employees will not feel trusting enough to disclose even if they work for what I might consider to be one of the leading employers.
It’s subtle, but it’s in the air. It’s little things that everybody picks up on, and that’s what we take to make our decisions about what we disclose, what we trust other people with, what we trust the company with.
The hard work and the interesting work, I’m sure you find it interesting too, is trying to put the pieces in place in a culture where people get that message from the top, from the middle, all around, that we are committed to you being able to bring your best self to work. We really want to know when you’re not and what gets in the way of your ability to do that, and that there will be no negative consequences or retaliation.
That’s really the work. I know you have some strong opinions about unconscious bias training as a first step to shifting cultures, at least from an understanding of the science of why we are the way we are, why some people feel that comments are made or not made relating to our identities and how hurtful it is. It’s certainly not the only step.
What role does bias training play in creating those kinds of cultures where we can bring our best selves to work? Where is it limited in terms of what it can accomplish in shifting giant cultures, like the one that you’re in?
JUDITH WILLIAMS: I spent a lot of time leading the unconscious bias program at Google, I’ve thought a lot about the investment in unconscious bias. We certainly had a wholescale investment in unconscious bias awareness at Google, and I think a lot of other organizations have done that.
But what we understood at Google and all the research about unconscious bias tells us is that just being aware of unconscious bias and how it works doesn’t change behavior. If you are going to think about unconscious bias training, it has to be a piece of a comprehensive culture change initiative so that you bring to awareness the biases, but then there has to be, “Well, what’s next?” What are the cultural practices that you need to interrupt and how are you going to do that? What is going to be the accountability for change for leaders and others in the organization? How are you visibly showing that commitment to cultural change?
Without that, what you actually do is you give your employees a language to understand their own experience, and you will embitter them. Rather than achieving the outcome that you want, you set up an expectation that you’re going to do that culture change and you don’t. If unconscious bias training is not handled in the right way, you set it up as though it’s easy. You’ve done the training, you’ve checked that box, so employees feel very comfortable just going around doing what they used to do. Or they say, “Well, it’s unconscious bias, we can’t fix it, so we’re just going to keep doing it.”
It can’t be the only thing. I would be very cautious about doing unconscious bias training because of the potential negative effects, and because it’s a very high resource investment. Without that second piece, it’s not going to be effective at changing culture. In fact, it could have some negative effects on your culture.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. I think there was a Harvard Business Review article at some point that said, “Why diversity training doesn’t work,” which we all read in horror because we do a bunch of training, but I agree with you that it has to be one piece of a larger strategy. There has to be the conversation, okay, let’s go from the science and prevalence of bias to the actions and behaviors as a leader that now you need to enact and practice in order to notice your own biases at the moment that they occur, and then what are the ways you mitigate it? We never really delete it. We can’t program it out of ourselves, but we can manage it and ensure that it doesn’t steer our critical decisions. That’s really the piece that I find a lot of the training programs don’t really take us all the way through to that conversation. It ends up creating more resistance. I agree, we have to be really careful about that.
What are the things that you think make the most difference in terms of trying to create more inclusive workplaces? Training is one piece. If you had to pick one intervention that you think, pound for pound, is the most powerful way that you can spend a moment or a dollar with the workforce, what’s the best tool in your toolkit?
JUDITH WILLIAMS: I have evolved from believing that training is effective at all. I remember reading that HBR article being, “Oh, my God!”
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, no! (Laughter.)
JUDITH WILLIAMS: I’ve thought a lot about it. What happens in a training program is we take people out of their day to day and we allow them to relax, we give them this experience, and then we rely on them to be good people.
If we look at something like the diet industry and the fact that all of us know that we should work out, exercise, and eat well. But then that chocolate cake comes, or that glass or bottle of red wine, and we’re like, “Yeah, well just for today.” A lot of that discipline goes out the window. I think the same thing happens when we think about the decisions that we have to make day to day at work. We all have that experience as people who are managing teams, and a really important assignment comes across our desk and we have to distribute it to someone on our team.
We immediately go to our go-to person, who more than likely share certain characteristics that are similar to ourselves, because that’s how a bias works. And we immediately say, “All right, this is really important, this is high impact, I’m going to that go-to person.”
What I’ve just done is started to over-develop certain talents on my team and under-develop other talents on my team.
I would say that any manager can think really differently about the way that we assign work. My job as a manager is actually to coach and mentor people to be better. By always going to one go-to person, I am coaching and mentoring one person to be better, and I am actually exhibiting a positive bias for that person that’s going to have ramifications not only for that individual long term in a positive way, but in negative ways for people on my team.
I always tell every manager, the one thing that you can do if you’re managing a team is to step back and say, “Who have I not given an opportunity to shine? Who have I not invested in recently?” And think about every assignment or every project that comes across my desk as not something that is an opportunity for me to go to that go-to person and make sure it’s delivered perfectly on time in the way I think it should be, but to say, “Who else can I give opportunity?” That’s one mind hack I encourage every leader to say. Take that second and step back and say, “How do you distribute opportunity?” The bias actually starts before any official process, any performance review process. It starts in that moment when managers are leaning into some folks and teams and not others.
Reframing one’s behavior, that’s something any individual can do. There are lots of things that I can say I can do as the Chief Diversity Officer in terms of changing the way that we hire and create policies and practices. Often, those decisions are made in that snap second when a manager decides to go back to that same person who is, again, usually someone who’s like them every time.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And you and I hear a lot of complaints about, well, that’s going to take time or I have other business priorities. Described the way you just described it, it doesn’t sound onerous in terms of the time it takes to make a different decision in that moment and give someone a shot. Do you hear that pushback around, I don’t have time, it’s not a priority, I’m uncomfortable? Maybe that’s an unarticulated resistance point, but there is a lot of discomfort, too, in stepping out of that familiar hiring or choosing in your own image behavior that perpetuates everything that we’re tackling.
Do you say you can’t afford not to do this and it’s not something that needs to be incredibly time intensive?
JUDITH WILLIAMS: I think that if we look at it and we say, well, if you hire the people on your team, do you have faith in the people on your team broadly? Have they showed up in a way that means that you can’t trust them? Because if they have, well, that’s another performance management project. That’s another performance management problem that you might want to fix.
If the folks on your team are actually showing up where they do their work and they do good work, give them the opportunity to do better work. And I remind them that a big part of our job is to get the outcomes, but it’s also to coach and mentor people, to develop people. That’s part of our job, it’s part of our expectation.
The question is: What part of your job do you – as a manager, my job isn’t to make my job easy. My job is to actually get the best out of the people on my team. I am the first to admit I struggle with this, which is why I remind myself all the time.
Most of the time, when I talk to managers, even if they’re pressed for time, they’ll say, “Yeah, that is actually my job.” Sometimes people will surprise you when we give them the opportunity and the autonomy. It’s essentially like putting money in the bank because if I only develop one person on my team or just a couple people on my team, it means that I have all this resource that I am not developing on my team.
When in the future I get even more complicated problems, it actually expands my scope. If they have that longer-term thinking and say, “Well, what if every person on my team was a go-to person that I could trust and that they would do great work?” Isn’t that what everybody wants? Most managers agree, yeah, that’s absolutely what I want. I would love to have high productivity for everyone on my team. Well, this is how we invest in that long term. And usually when I say this, managers take a step back and they think, “Yeah, that’s probably right.” I don’t get a lot of pushback, but it’s about just reframing what we think a manager or leader’s job is.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. I could not agree more. Any bandwidth left on the table is a problem. It’s all about getting the most out of everyone and maximizing everyone on your team. We’re nothing if not just people resources, right? It’s all about that. That’s a great argument and a business case and a way to talk to managers who feel like this is yet another item on their to-do list versus something that is fundamental to their ability to generate the most performance, the highest level of performance, and engage everybody at the same time because you said it’s not just about generating the outcomes, but it’s how you get to the outcomes really matters in terms of things like employee engagement, and really shifting culture. I really like that argument.
When the moral argument for D&I doesn’t work – meaning, it’s the right thing to do, of course. I think we have to get a little more creative. I really like that. That’s a very dollars-and-cents, bottom-line argument for getting the most out of your people. Thanks, Judith, for putting a fine point on that.
We’re out of time, but I wanted to end just with a piece of advice that you might give someone that is following in your footsteps, wants to grow their career in this field. How would you advise them or how do you advise mentees? I’m sure you have a lot of them and you have a lot of requests for them. I know that there are lots of people getting into this work for the first time and a lot of companies starting to formulate their first positions in this field.
What is the advice for those young hopefuls who are trying to build toward being you someday?
JUDITH WILLIAMS: As you said, Jennifer, there are so many different paths to get where I am. I think that there is no one path. If I would say, “What are the essential ingredients to being successful?” I think that it’s really thinking about understanding data and analytics and how to use data and analytics to tell a story.
Oftentimes, being able to translate things into things the business cares about are going to make the difference. Really understanding what your business does, what the analytics are to support it. Also, how do you influence skills? A lot of times, you’re asked to influence without authority, so getting better at that is going to be really essential. Being really open to the way that the landscape has shifted. I do think that the way that we thought about inclusion has changed over the time that I’ve been working, and that we see an increasing openness to new ideas and to different ways of thinking and to understanding that sometimes the strategies that work for you in the past didn’t work for you. Having that kind of growth mindset I think is really important as well.
I would also say it’s important to understand that just because you’re passionate about it doesn’t mean that you have all it takes to be effective. Really, being thoughtful about the business acumen piece, and that in the same way that other parts of the business, that there is an expertise and a knowledge that you have to grow and develop, that is also part of being successful in inclusion. Sometimes people are really, really passionate, and that passion can blind them to some of the things that might make them more effective.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s such a wonderful list. I hope people rewind and listen to that a couple times. You really identified it. I would agree with you on all those fronts – particularly that last one. I know that often we get into this work because of a personal passion due to our own identities. Then you find yourself in a role where you need to oversee many different identities and their experiences in the workplace. In this super multicultural global company like yours, and all of a sudden you need to pull up to the 30,000-foot view and never losing your own story and your own experience of identity, but representing and knowing enough to represent well and with humility so many different experiences. That’s your job when you’re in a role like yours and like mine, to make sure you notice which stories aren’t being told, which data isn’t being shared, which identities aren’t being represented in a given conversation or policy, and being able to speak to those.
I always think it’s like you’re representing. You’re making sure that every room and every conversation has as complete a possible complement of data and stories and examples so that even when we all can’t be in that room, people in your role and people in my role have this really sacred opportunity to make sure that people who are making decisions are being mindful of all these different beautiful identities. I know you agree. It’s sacred work and it’s a total honor to do it and a privilege to do it. It is simultaneously maybe one of the most difficult roles, but it’s also such a deeply satisfying role.
Thank you, Judith, for sharing a little bit of a window into your world. How can people follow you on social media? Where would you like to direct them so they can follow along and support you in your journey?
JUDITH WILLIAMS: Sure. Well, I am @JudithMWilliams on Twitter, they can follow me there. I am also on LinkedIn. I post an occasional blog on LinkedIn as well. I would say those are probably the most important channels to find me. I really appreciate this opportunity to chat with you. It’s been quite a pleasure. The time went by as thought it was just a few seconds.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know!
JUDITH WILLIAMS: I feel like we could talk for hours about this.
JENNIFER BROWN: Maybe we will. I hope we get to meet in person someday. You’re doing such good work. I know so many value the fact that you’re in the role you’re in, and you bring all the different disciplines that we talked about today to that role. I’m sure it makes you an incredible practitioner. Thanks, Judith, for sharing your wisdom and your heart with us on The Will to Change.
JUDITH WILLIAMS: Thank you very much
- Power, Patriarchy and Privilege: Better Man Movement's Ray Arata on Galvanizing Male Leaders
- Holding Ourselves Lightly: Fear as a Companion to Growth with Author, Acrobat, and Entrepreneur Robin Zander
- Growing the Next Generation: Boys and Girls Club COO Lorraine Orr Joins the Will to Change
- Imagine Belonging Summit “Teaser”: Conversations with Rhodes Perry on Handling DEI Backlash
- What Gets Measured, Gets Done: Progressing Global Gender Equality with Sandra Quince, Michelle Charles and Silke Heinrichs