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This episode was originally recorded as a Culture Talk at Investors Bank and features a conversation between Jennifer and Investors Bank CEO Kevin Cummings. Discover the importance of culture and the traits of inclusive leaders. Jennifer also shares her thoughts about how to measure success.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
KEVIN CUMMINGS: One of our five C’s is caring. Really, it’s one of our core values. I think it’s very important that we see everyone in the workplace as an individual. What do you find is the most effective way to build trust on that, and across the many differences of people coming in? How do you build up those frozen middle?
JENNIFER BROWN: The frozen middle.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: The middle management person who’s just stuck with people below and above them make it a more inclusive, comforting, have more empathy and to work for it? I look at some of the work of Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania. Grit and emotional IQ. How do you build that across the organization?
DOUG FORESTA: The will to change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She’s a passionate inclusion and equity advocate, committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting with Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advised top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. Now, onto the episode.
Hello, and welcome back to the will to change. This is Doug Foresta. This episode was originally recorded as a culture talk at Investors Bank, and features a conversation between Jennifer and Investors Bank CEO Kevin Cummings. In the conversation, Jennifer talks about her formative experiences that led her to where she is today, and shares her story and her journey. Jennifer and Kevin talk about the importance of culture and the traits of inclusive leaders, and Jennifer also shares her thoughts about how to measure success. Certainly is a lively and informative conversation, we hope you enjoy the episode.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Today, we’re honored to have our guest Jennifer Brown. Let me kick off today. Is Jennifer on camera?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, I’m here.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Okay.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m here. Hey, Kevin.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Good, good to see you this morning.
JENNIFER BROWN: Good to see you, good to see you.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Yep. Jennifer, why don’t you give us a little bit of background. Who is Jennifer Brown? Give us some background.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks for the invitation, and thanks for having me everybody, I’m so looking forward to this. The brief version of my story is, and this is relevant, believe me. I was an aspiring opera singer that came to New York City with stars in my eyes as so many do. I trained very hard to become a performing singer, music, theater and opera. But I injured my voice several times, and had to get a type of vocal surgery, which is what singers have to do when this happens. This kept happening, and kept getting in the way of my ability to build a career. Unfortunately, losing your voice in this way and having to fight to get it back would become a very powerful metaphor for me, given what I do now subsequently. What I would do was leave the stage, leave that career completely, which was heartbreaking. I had those hopeless moments.
But the doors that opened to me enabled me to trade one stage for another. The new stage is the stage you see me on now, and the keynote stage I’m normally on, but I’m happy to be here virtually with all of you from New York City. I would get another degree, and study human resources and organizational change. Kevin, my second degree is in looking at how does change happen? How do humans change with the times, and what gets in the way of that change? How do we feel about it when it’s happening to us or for us? I like to think of it as. I would…
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Jennifer, I say all the time, change is good as long as it doesn’t impact me.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, that’s right. We can be out of it. We just have to see ourselves, and have humor about it. That we’re going to resist, and we’re going to not like to be uncomfortable. But leadership is about getting comfortable, being uncomfortable, especially these days. Because like you said, the world is changing fast around us, but if we don’t keep pace with that in, I would argue, stay ahead of that even. It’s not even about keeping pace, it’s literally being able to pivot quickly, and be agile, and flexible and responsive, and turn on a dime, and not have the answers, but know the questions to ask. Those are some of the emerging competencies that I see for leaders, and I see a lot of us resisting because of all the things that I know we’re going to talk about.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Yeah. Jennifer, where’d you go to school for the advanced degree?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, so I went to-
KEVIN CUMMINGS: What was the degree? Was it [crosstalk 00:05:13]?
JENNIFER BROWN: I have two, I have two. I have a Master’s in operatic vocal performance from Manhattan School of Music, and then I have a Masters in organizational change and leadership from Fordham University here in New York City.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: That’s excellent.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: A good graduate education there.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, exactly.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: I didn’t know if Fordham had that program, so that’s…
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, excellent.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Is it a popular program, or is it-
JENNIFER BROWN: No, it’s very small.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Especially now, it should be more popular.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know, I know. It’s not the biggest program, but what I loved about it is it was very practical and it equipped me to become a working consultant. Meaning that as an outside voice, it gave me an understanding of how to influence an organization from the outside, and that’s the kind of team I’ve built as you know.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Yeah. Jennifer, you moved from an entertainment, a theatrical career into, I guess the HR world, with the degree from Fordham. What were your first couple of jobs, and then how’d you get into the consulting business? Did you work in industry first and then move?
JENNIFER BROWN: I did.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Or did you grow up, say, with McKinsey or something like that?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I didn’t do the management consulting route, but I did do financial services. I worked for a time in insurance, actually on a global training and development team. I got to know that different stage. The stage of the facilitator, the stage of working with leaders in a group setting, in the old days in person, going offsite, talking about leadership, and managing people, and getting the best performance and building a culture that’s healthy. I got to do that in insurance, and then I did a right turn into fashion, believe it or not, and was in fashion and retail doing training and development for a while.
Then through a restructure, I got laid off and I said to myself, “What role do I really want to play? I think I want to be in the classroom with adults talking about leadership. What does it mean to us? What do we want? How do institutions need to change, and update and mature? What’s our role in those systems?” That still fascinates me to this day, and I would start my own company nearly two decades ago. I’ve been in the space for a really long time.
Then the diversity, equity and inclusion piece was added… It was a personal passion of mine, and I was very active in many advocacy spaces. But I didn’t know that these two worlds would dovetail as they have, and now the conversation about organizational performance is linked very closely, as we know, with having our diverse dimensions be valued, and welcomed and heard. We can’t perform at our highest if we don’t feel a deep sense of belonging, and feeling seen and heard. I think now we understand what being seen has to do with our performance, and organizational effectiveness, and team effectiveness, and customer intelligence and all those things. We understand that there’s a link, and we’re nothing without our people. But I want to know what’s getting in the way of our people’s ability to thrive, and that’s what I’ve been studying for many of these years.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Yeah, yeah. As you move into that, what have been some of the challenges that you’ve seen as you move into… Can you give an example of an engagement? Moving from an insurance company to a fashion company, that’s major culture differences. What have been, in your own personal development, some of the challenges? Then what have been the challenges of maybe specific engagements that maybe could be leadership lessons for us to share today?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Well I’ll tell you, you all are a financial institution. I have to say that banks and insurance companies continue to be, but always were some of my best clients. Because, there was a discipline there, and a commitment to process, and there was also a long history in some of the big banks of working on diversity, equity and inclusion for many decades. For a variety of reasons, some of which were not ideal. Some of which were a lot of pressure, perhaps legal situations, et cetera. But regardless, some of the deepest investments that I’ve ever seen by institutions happen in those industries.
I have spent a lot of time in that industry, dealing with the particular challenges of the changing, with the customer changing. Hiring and developing diverse talent, and moving that talent up the pipeline. It’s still very challenging, and we haven’t made as much progress as I really would’ve hoped over these many years. I sometimes feel, Kevin, like it’s a groundhog day. I’m having the same conversation I was years ago. We’re still having to go back to go forward, or having to go back and explain why this is important. I still get questions asked like, “Well Jennifer, what’s the difference between diversity and inclusion?”
I realize in those moments, I have to make this very simple understand, especially for certain generations that had some notions about this as a compliance conversation. I think we’ve had to shift that to wait, this is a business opportunity conversation. This isn’t a chore, this isn’t something that should be a box that’s checked. It should be something that’s optional or nice to have, but it’s moving into the need to have conversation now, which I’m extremely happy to see. But I don’t think our work is done, because I do still think that there’s a lot of… Either it’s resistance or apathy about the topic, which I think is really risky to business and to leaders. To really not dive into this conversation about what kind of culture could we build that would be one where we would unleash every bit of contribution that we have available to us?
If I tell you as a leader something is getting in the way of that, I would expect leaders to say, “Tell me more about that. I want know so that I can tackle that, so that I can make that better, so that I can remove that obstacle to performance that female leader is experiencing,” for example. I have to sometimes go back, but then I also get to go forward and dream about what’s next. If we can really adjust this workplace going into the future to be one that works for all of us, it would be incredible for everyone. Not just as an exercise, but for the bottom line.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Yeah. I guess Jennifer, I’m hearing you speak comes to my mind, because the goal of checking the box and making it an exercise as opposed to making it part of your strategy. Because New Jersey, New York metropolitan area is the most diverse area of population in the world. Jersey City, I think in the school systems, there’s probably close to 75 languages being spoken amongst the students when they’re home. Having said that, how do you get people to focus on hey, this is good business? We’ve always said here at Investors, culture trumps strategy.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Enthusiasm and inspiration and passion trumps processes. Really, making this part of the heart of the company, not the mind. Because we could say we have four women EVPs, we have two African American directors now. But that was part of an… The thing that I’m most proud of, I was just on an interview with the magazine, our women’s leadership council that Elaine created four, five, six years ago that we were… This has been an ongoing process here, and we’ve been encouraging mentorship, and development and things like that for some of our women executives. Now we have to expand that with our diversity council. Where are the things like moving from that check the box where it really becomes a passion, and how do you get… It starts at the top, but that’s probably where we are right now, moving where it becomes a passion for the company.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. It needs to start at the top, so you’re right where you should be. The challenge I think is the top almost is easy sometimes. Some people would argue with that and say it’s hard, but I think it’s harder to drive that commitment that you’re talking about through the organizational muscle, if you will, the tissue. We in the consulting world call the middle of organizations, middle management the frozen middle. Because change efforts can really struggle to get oxygen in that area of the organizational hierarchy, because of a lot of reasons. The urgency of the day-to-day, et cetera, and the what’s in it for me? The way that you talk about this as a leader, and the way senior leadership speaks about this and not just talks it but walks it I think sends a very powerful message of role modeling, but also accountability through the organization to say, “This is not the things you’ve heard it might be. Like a fad, like a compliance exercise. This is not just like you just said, counting the heads, right? It’s making the heads count. This is the difference, by the way, between diversity and inclusion. Diversity’s the who and we can point to the number of this, the number of that, so how we’re shifting the representation and the makeup of our composition, at especially senior leadership levels, but inclusion is the how. Inclusion is the behavior, and that is the way that we extract the most value and the most engagement and the most loyalty from our workforce is what we do as leaders to create an environment of psychological safety where I feel safe bringing my best ideas, and that I feel I’m willing to bring my best.
I fear workforces that are resting in place and biding their time. They’re not productive, they’re not plugged in, they don’t care, they don’t feel valued, and therefore I don’t think they are committed in the way that I would hope, as a leader, everybody would feel. Like you said, it’s a head thing. The logical argument, the rational argument is one aspect of this. But how do we engage the heart?
I love that you, as a leader, you are asking that question and you’re prioritizing that. And you’re right, that that more and more empathy, transparency, vulnerability are leadership competencies that we’ve got to get comfortable with as leaders, because that’s what’s going to resonate. As the world changes and the workforce changes, they expect different things of us, and we have to pivot and resonate with that. That means we’ve got to do some changing.
You know what other quote I love? Kevin, you probably know Marshall Goldsmith’s work. The title of the book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Another favorite. I say this-
KEVIN CUMMINGS: UCLA, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: He’s out in UCLA on the West Coast?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Yes. I just love that title, because we never can rest on our laurels. We have to change. If any of us are… I’m gen X, so I think many of us are struggling to keep peace with this moment and the pace of change and figure out, like, “Well, how am I going to lead differently in the eyes of those I hope are following my leadership?” Because in the end of the day, that’s the only leadership that’s successful, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s what you’re able to generate in those around us. It not what got us here will get us there, because then we stop growing and challenging. How do we get comfortable being uncomfortable? I think inclusion and inclusive leadership is one of those things that people, especially my generation, are very uncertain about. What does this look like? What does it sound like? How do I include it in my leadership? I feel awkward. I don’t have the answers. I hear a lot, “I don’t want to make a mistake,” and so I see a lot of hesitation to practice and do the necessary practice to build the skills because of that fear and expectation of ourselves that we can’t do something unless we know that we can be perfect at it. I think that’s a huge stumbling block for us. It’s a personal challenge, right? I’m sure a lot of people are resonating with that.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Well, I tell you, Jen, you hit something right on the head. I was talking with Dennis yesterday about this, because in our situation now, I’ve looked back over the last 10, 15 years and things that I would have done differently or things the company could have done better, and many of the things, like even on this call today, I wonder, where are the participants on this call today coming from? Because there are certain areas of the bank that have adopted some of Dennis’s activities more so than other areas. I’ve watched it and I said, “All right.” I let it go, but maybe I should have got into that frozen middle that you described and drove it some more. You know what I mean? To get more participation.
JENNIFER BROWN: I do.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: More energy of where the company want. But, hey, they’re doing their job, they’re getting it done, and you let it go. Maybe that could’ve changed some of the results and maybe improved some of the performance of the company. But I think, certainly, the how and inclusion is so important as we move, because the why I think is a given, and I think no one’s arguing with the why. It’s the how and what’s the best way to get this. I guess, what would you define or what are the behaviors or traits of an inclusive leader? We use inclusive here because, if you’re inclusive, you’ll become more diverse by its very nature. So let’s talk about inclusion and what that means in the workplace.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Well, I think, in my book, How to be an Inclusive Leader, which we can talk about a little, there’s a four stage model, and it’s an evolutionary or a maturity model for leaders. It goes from the four phases are unaware, aware, active, and advocate. I developed this model… It speaks to my own evolution, actually. I developed it to try to simplify what can feel like a mysterious process. What do you mean by inclusion? What does that look like? What does that sound like? How do I get there? If I could talk about the evolution, the pieces of our evolution, we go from unaware to aware, which means we’re waking up to the problem and we’re coming out of a place of not knowing.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Let me stop you there, Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Not the problem. The opportunity.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, that’s right.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: All right? I don’t want to… We’re all problem solvers, but this is the opportunity.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. You are right.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: All right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for checking me on that. That’s good, Kevin.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: All right? Because-
JENNIFER BROWN: Yep, yep, yep.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: I deal with it like I deal with the Federal Home Loan Bank. It’s a quantiside government.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yep.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: It sucks too much air out of the room. We got to talk about how it’s good for business.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s great for business.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: It’s a good opportunity.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Thank you so much. Coming out of unaware, is not perceiving that, I might say a gap. I think a gap is a good word, right? A gap in experiences of belonging. A gap in how I walk through the world and how the world sees me and treats me versus how it treats others. When you’re in unaware, which is my phase one, you don’t know that exists. You walk through your life and you think, “Well, everybody’s having the same experience I am. I’m sure everybody feels the same.” I often find that’s the big aha moment, to see the data or read the research from McKinsey or wherever you get your information, to say, “Whoa, women feel like that here?” Or, “Wow, I never would’ve imagined we have a representation gap.”
Coming out of unaware, thank you for the graphic here, we move into aware, which is okay. Now I know there’s a gap to be closed and I want to learn more. I want to be curious, I want to investigate it, I want to read up, I want to study. I think, in aware, we all of a sudden realize or recognize maybe our own biases. We start to awaken to our role and our place in the world and what’s easier or harder for us because of our identity through no fault of our own.
Kevin, I want to point out, I identify as a member of the LGBTQ plus community, so my awareness is twofold. I’m also a white cisgender woman, so my LGBTQ awareness is I’m in a community where that may adversely impact me and has adversely impacted many, many people in terms of safety and opportunity and protections and things like that. But on the other hand, I’m also protected in the skin color I walk through the world in.
As I travel this journey, I like to see myself and all of us, really, through multiple lenses. We have different dimensions that make us who we are. That awareness phase two is that awakening to our place in the world, the ramifications of our identity, both good and not so good, and also then, what can I do about it? What can I start to talk about maybe and share and study and share my learnings?
From aware, then, we move into active, because what good is knowledge and studying and learning new language if we don’t take it on the road, and so phase three active is about, okay, how can I now use this in my leadership conversations, in my mentoring? How can I take the knowledge with me and lead differently with it? This is where I think we get stuck in perfectionism. We get stuck in, I don’t know what to say so I’m not going to say anything.
You just gave a great example, Kevin. I could have prioritized maybe targeted conversations with certain parts of the bank, but maybe I thought, “I’ll get to that.” That maybe it’s not important. In active, we start to really say, “Well, why didn’t I do that? What could I do? Where could I raise my voice or ask a question or start to… I don’t know the answers, but I could start to really use my voice in certain scenarios.” Say you’re in a talent review meeting and you look at the slate of candidates and you don’t see any gender or ethnic diversity. That is an opportunity in active to say, “This doesn’t seem like a representative list. How did that happen and could we try this again? Let’s put a pause. Let’s do better.”
That’s in active when we start to really think about… I’m not sure what the right question is to ask, but I’m endeavoring to insert myself or interrupt something. I’m also noticing biased language. I’m noticing and investigating, why do people not feel a sense of belonging here, and what is that about? As we develop the muscle inactive, we get better. We develop competency just like practice of anything, like discipline of going to the gym or saving for retirement or making food choices that are healthy for us. Inclusive leadership to me is a hygiene. It’s a habit. It’s something we can develop, but it’s difficult at first. Don’t we all hate the early days of building a new habit? We don’t like it because it’s uncomfortable, because it requires effort, because it feels unfamiliar. But it’s so important to stick with it because, with practice, we develop the, what got you here won’t get you there. This is where we start to develop these new pathways of leading, more comfort with asking the questions or inquiring and how to use the power we have and the influence we have to change things, to make things happen, to stop things, to interrogate organizational policies and practices. This is where we start to really find our voice and go more public about our learning journey.
Then, phase four is advocate. I think of this, Kevin, as an aspirational stage. It’s really the relentless leader. It’s relentless commitment. It’s you’re making noise, you’re asking all the hard questions, you’re looking into processes and policies, you are very committed to getting feedback about your own inclusive leadership and understanding where you’re falling short. Advocate is an aspirational phase, but I think it’s very worth it to understand, where am I going? What am I developing into? Because it gives us hope. It’s encouraging to think about the potential here of undertaking this journey, is so enormous, not just for others and our impact on others, but our own transformation and growth.
By the way, everybody, you can go forward and back on this model, so it’s not a linear journey. I find myself having a ton of knowledge about certain identities that I share maybe. I know a lot about LGBTQ, for example, because I’ve been out since I was in my 20s. But I also return to earlier phases around some other identities that I don’t have an understanding of, and I pull myself out of phase one into phase two and I commit to consuming different media, reading different stories by different storytellers than my identity. I commit to that, but I’m in an earlier phase. We all can be in multiple places on this.
Thanks for letting me present this, and I hope it’s helpful. This is the central model in my second book, How to be an Inclusive Leader.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Well, Jennifer, as you were speaking through in these four phases, I think of the four phases of leadership. First is you’re in the army, you’re a staff Sergeant, you’ve got a position and people have to listen to you or they go to the brig. The second one is personality. They like you. They like your personality and they want do things with you because you’re a pleasant person to work with. The third one is performance. They see that you’re a high level performer and they think they can learn from you. The fourth one is mentorship. You’re producing future leaders. Then the fifth one is pinnacle, where you talk about leadership.
Having said that, I think, in that four phases that you talked about, the biggest obstacle is, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. I think getting the mission and the vision of the future, getting that communicated, and then, what is the aspiration? What does the future… If we were going to be successful on this journey of inclusion and diversity, what does the future look like? Having that conversation and then working back towards it.
In that light, in your view, say a company our size, 2,000 employees, what would be that picture of the future for your organization? I think the first comment, like you said, the longest journey is from the mind to the heart, and getting people to become passionate about it and thoughtful, the emotional IQ, the grit that’s involved, the stick to it, but then, where’s it going to go? Well, we’ll have a stronger company, a better company, we’ll relate better with our customers, we’ll have a better and more satisfied employment force, employee group. If you had to say, quickly, what’s the picture of the future?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I, well, the…
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Or success?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Success is, does our workforce at all levels, and I’m saying this at all levels, reflect the world that we exist to serve, right? So if the demographic changes are happening out there and the buying power is shifting, right, and tremendously shifting away from the traditional identities into new sources of wealth, right, new identities that carry that wealth, so the argument is to mirror with our workforce and not just in the junior levels. That’s not a problem. The junior levels tend to look like the world, but what something happens on the way up the pipeline… That would be a great topic for a book. Something happens on the way up the pipeline. We lose people. And, you said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It depends who you ask, whether it’s broken or not.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: A lot of people…
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Well, that’s the obstacle. People are complacent.
JENNIFER BROWN: That is the problem.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: That’s what I meant that as the obstacle, not that, I mean, that’s people sit here and say, “Well, we’re performing well, or-
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Yeah.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: … total shareholder return is great.”
JENNIFER BROWN: I know.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: I look at Citibank. Citibank was my client in the mid-90s. It was the most diverse company in the world. And you look at their total shareholder return, in the last 10 years, it’s negative. So, what’s the measurements of success?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Is it head count or is it performance? Are we still driving the operations of the company?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I mean, the question about Citibank example you just gave is, “If you get them in the door, can you keep them?” So, the can you keep them question is the inclusive environment question, right? So companies can look great on paper and have a culture that feels toxic to a lot of folks who are outsiders to the system. And so, and I would argue if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is a very dangerous mentality in terms of the VUCA world we exist in.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: That’s the obstacle.
JENNIFER BROWN: Volatile, uncertain. Right. You got to be ready.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: That’s the comfort level. That’s where people say, “Hey.” That’s where, when I look at my, I wouldn’t say, mistakes or my things I would do differently, I would’ve gone into these other areas of the bank, and even though… Again, they were performing, putting up great numbers, plus forcing those more additional changes, forcing some of the things.
JENNIFER BROWN: And looking at their promotion and advancement numbers, their leadership level, and the representation there. And then I would inquire about the other measure of success to me is, would everybody say they experience a high degree of belonging? And that’s defined differently by different people. So it’s not up to you and me to decide what that means, which is the tricky part, but also the extremely cool part, I think, about humans is that to build a truly multicultural workforce, that sense of belonging might be interpreted differently by so many different cultures in our workforce, so many different genders and identities. But together, do we have 90% in our engagement survey says, “I feel valued. I feel heard, I feel included. I don’t feel that my identity is any kind of barrier to my ability to perform, or be promoted and have the visibility and the opportunities.”
If I saw that kind of data come across, if I looked at the focus group data that we typically collect with our clients, and I saw that there was no difference between men and women, in terms of that perception, I saw that there was no difference between our white employees and our black and brown employees or LGBTQ employees. If we could cut that data, you usually see a pretty big difference when we ask the same question.
We see pretty different responses. So I think of it, Kevin, like same storm. We’re in this storm together, but we’re in different boats in this storm. So the workplace can feel super comfortable for some of us because we’re in a very well-equipped boat, and others of us struggle to thrive in a system that maybe doesn’t make sense to us, or isn’t set up to support us in all of who we are. We say easily, “Bring your full self to work.”
That’s so much easier for some of us to do than others. And we need to get really curious about that. First of all, what kind of bias do I have that I’m assuming that my experience is the gold standard? And then, what experience are other people having? And, why are we losing people? I’ve never met a company that doesn’t have retention challenges that are, I think, very specific to certain communities of identity, certain identities. And that to me is a real pattern that we need to understand. We need to dig deep into that and say, “Why are we losing women? Why are we losing our black and brown talent? What levels are we losing them at? What are those exit interviews tell us,” which are way too late to do anything about or with, but let’s investigate that stuff at the root. Let’s look courageously at the conversations, I don’t think we’ve ever had, so far anyway and say, “Well, how can we equip our organization to thrive in the future with all of this amazing talent?”
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Yeah. We talk about, I think, the thing it’s mentorship, compassion and one of our five C’s is caring.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: And, really it’s one of our core values. And, I think it’s very important that we see everyone in the workplace as an individual. I think, what do you find is the most effective way to build trust on that and connect across the many differences of people coming in? How do you build up those kind… How does the frozen middle-
JENNIFER BROWN: Frozen middle.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: … management person, who’s just stuck with people below and above them, make it a more inclusive, comforting, have more empathy in the workforce? I look at some of the work of Angela Duckworth, at the University of Pennsylvania, grit and emotional IQ. How do you build that across the organization?
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, I think that managers are stuck between, I have to have all the answers and steer the ship, but I also, when it comes to human diversity dimensions and experiences, I’m going to have very few of the answers. And, holding that tension, that both of those things are parts of my job. Part of my job is to guide and answer what I can, but part of my job is to ask powerful questions and admit that I don’t know. And so, I think approaching being an inclusive leader with an invitation to say… I think the way I tell leaders to begin the conversation is, “I’m learning. I’m on my inclusive leader journey. Here’s what I’m learning and observing about myself and what I realize I’ve never given thought to, or something that I didn’t understand was occurring. I want to have open dialogue about this. I want to learn.”
So this is the leader admitting, which leaders don’t like to do, admitting they don’t have the answers. And they are dependent on others and their own work to progress and to grow. And I think that approaching our relationship with our team members and our colleagues in a way to say, “This is a commitment I have. I don’t exactly know how I will get there, but I want to understand where my impact doesn’t match my intent.” So here’s my intent. What we can do is talk about our intent and our learning journey. I think we can be much more open about that. And if somebody came to me and said, “Jennifer, I’m on my journey. I really want to learn. Here’s what I’m reading. Here’s what I’m watching. Here’s what I’m committing to. I don’t have the answers. And I’m realizing I have my own biases. And I really look forward to having these conversations with you. And I hope to build enough trust that you can share with me where my impact doesn’t match my intent.”
Imagine hearing a leader, say that to you. I mean, how good does that feel? I don’t think that’s something we ever say to each other. Nobody ever said it to me. Certainly, it was, “Put up or shut up or pull yourself up by your bootstraps or don’t bring the personal into the workplace.” I mean, we have all this stuff rattling around about what’s appropriate or not, but that whole thing is changing. I mean, the younger generation does not… They have expectations of us to bring our full selves to the conversation, to not be that kind of leader that I’m not going to say anything unless I know I have the answer and it’s perfect.
That’s not going to build trust. Authenticity builds trust. So I do think this requires the get comfortable, being uncomfortable, talking about what we don’t know, doing it often, saying, “Here’s my commitments. Here’s some things I’m curious about. Here’s some things that I want to know. I want to learn. I want the feedback.” I think checking in frequently, talking more about perhaps our personal stories, like what makes us, who we are. I encourage leaders to dive into their own diversity story. Kevin, a lot of leaders say to me, “Jennifer, I don’t have anything to say. I don’t know what you’re talking about, and this doesn’t apply to me.” And I believe everybody has a diversity story. I mean, we were just talking about mental health earlier.
Mental health touches all of us in some way directly, our loved ones. Maybe we’re caregiving. Maybe we’re struggling with someone that we love who’s struggling. And mental health is just one of so many diversity dimensions beyond race and gender that I think when we open this door as leaders, people will bring all sorts of things through, and we need to know what those things are because we need to… What we don’t know can hurt us from an engagement perspective. What we don’t know or didn’t deal with led to losing millions of women from the workplace last year, millions.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Just because people don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean…
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s not happening, right?
KEVIN CUMMINGS: It’s not fair.
JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. But we swept it under the rug and we deprioritized it. And then we lost generations of female leaders. What an egregious miss on our part as institutions. I mean, it’s going to take years to build us back to that point. And we could have been investigating that. If people had trusted each other enough with their truth and their struggles, we could have addressed it. We could have provided resources. We could have gotten ahead of it, but instead the tsunami just overwhelmed us, and we weren’t prepared. And I don’t want that to happen again. I don’t want to lose generations of certain identities in our workplace. We can’t afford it. The world is continuing to change. Whether we know how to run our institution or not, change is happening to us. And if we’re behind and we have no clue what’s going on and what people are struggling with in terms of performance and engagement, it’s going to hurt us massively.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: You know, Jennifer, you bring up a good point. And, I want to tell this story. In my former life, I was working at a big 8, big 4 accounting firm. I got involved in the New York City office in the recruiting process. And we actually had two cutoffs on GPAs for the female students and the male students. And the female one was higher. And the male one was 3.6, and the female one was 3.8 because the male students just weren’t as good. And they moved from when I started with the firm in 1977. There were two women in a class of 20. So when I left the firm, 26 years later, it was probably, 55% women, 45% men. But the firm wasn’t doing a good job retaining that 55%. So actually the pool of candidates, 10, 12 years later that were up for partner, made it easier for a young man to make partner because 40, 50, 60% of that 55% was leaving the firm.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: So, I think they’ve corrected that over the years now, but it was really, when I looked at that, I said it’s an unlevel playing field, by trying to be more diverse, but not it’s one thing in the recruiting process.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: It wasn’t a plan in place, to have to work life balance and do all the things, in the late 90s, two decades ago. So I think they’ve corrected that over the time. And I think this leads to another thing. In your experiences with different companies, where does unconscious or conscious bias show up, and what are some ways you can coach individuals to address it? It’s there, but people don’t talk about it, but how can you say is bias, that in the middle of the frozen Tundra, those managers, or at the top of the house, in the executive suite?
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yeah, everywhere. And we all have it. I mean, I do this for a living, and I constantly notice my bias is showing up because we were socialized in this world. So I do think we need to, as leaders, part of our leadership hygiene is to know some common forms of bias, right? We just need to study it. And it doesn’t take a lot of time. I think you get it right away, right? And they’re, to me, very obvious and intuitive. We hire in our own likeness. We have something that may not be visible to us as, at the time, but we are drawn to. We might put a resume here and put another resume here.
And they’ve done studies, sadly, that show that John and Jose, same exact resume, go in two separate piles. So even a name, I mean, and we’re so hopeless as human creatures with our biases, that there’s a whole crop of growing tech company that we can use these tools to help us de-bias ourselves, because we can’t even… Sometimes we don’t catch ourselves doing it because it’s unconscious. We’re unaware of these filters that we have in terms of our own comfort and what we’re familiar with.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Jennifer, you bring up one thing, just talking. Someone in the theater and someone who played… I might have a bias to someone who played sports-
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: And teamwork, and something like that. You say, “Oh, theater, sport,” so Jennifer, your resume came across, and I’ve had someone of a woman lacrosse player, that might have been two different piles that I might have put you in.
JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. And schools are, funny enough you say that there’s also a movement and a conversation about taking years out of resumes. So, that hurts parents who take time, it hurts people with disabilities who have sometimes not contiguous employment. So literally, when you start to unpack this and think about all the assumptions that are baked into job descriptions and how we evaluate somebody’s experience, it is predicated on a norm that I would argue is extremely outdated. We are still hiring in the image, I wouldn’t even say the person that had the position last, I would say, we’re rolling way back. You know, that like begat like, begat like. We just perpetuated this, like, “Oh, we need 10 years experience.” “Oh, we need these degrees.” Or, “Oh, we only look at these schools.”
We have to change that. I mean, there is an enormous labor shortage. I don’t need to tell everybody about this. And there’s so many candidates that don’t have that sort of, cookie cutter, “Required” background who would be brilliant at task, and actually bring diversity of thought and experience to solving complex problems. Because remember, we’re not solving the same problems that we were asking people to solve in the past. So, hiring from the same school and requiring these degrees, and requiring these numbers of years, I really think we have to question that, really for this day and age, for what kind of skillset are we really looking for here? And it’s so much the ability to think creatively, problem solve. It is empathy and being a good leader also. It’s all the things we’ve been talking about. So there’s a ton, just in the recruitment process, I think we spend a lot of time actually training in that arena, because it’s so critical, and it’s still excluding so many talented people from the workforce.
And so, that’s just one thing. I mean, I think the other things that we need to think about our executive presence, when we look at leaders and assess their readiness, for example. “Well, but they’ve never done this before. Well, they’ve never run this before. Well, the last person we had in the role ran this before they did this.” We’re not going to be able to pattern everything going forward on what has happened in the past; there’s too many known factors. And so, we’re going to have to come up with other ways or additional ways, I would say, not to throw out the old, but to really just watch ourselves in our conversations. What are the criteria that we’re discussing? And I mentioned the thing earlier about slates, candidate slates; are we really holding our own feet to the fire about who is up for promotion? Are we challenging ourselves to say who’s ready or who appears like a leader, has leadership potential?
That’s a very loaded concept, and I can tell you, executive presence has been used, and culture fit also, those are two things that I think have really served as an unconscious bias to screening out talent that is able, ready, willing, excited, capable, but may or may not appear and make others comfortable in the way that they show up because they’re unfamiliar. We’ve never hired somebody like that. We’ve never promoted somebody like that. You know, it’s just I assure you, once you start listening to this stuff, you’ll be like, “Oh, wow, it’s everywhere. Where do we start?”
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Well, I think it’s the journey, and the journey is the destination. And I think it has to come from the management, from the executive team, and be focused on it as a goal to improve, just to make people feel comfortable in the workplace.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Feel accepted, and they want to come… And I mean, that’s one of the things we say here is you want to move from success to significance. We want our employees to be passionate about coming to work every day. And if you don’t feel comfortable coming to work every day, or accepted by your coworkers or your supervisors, you’re running [inaudible 00:49:38] in quicksand. But again, at the end of the hour, one thing, I guess, any last advice, and one of the things I think about, how can a leader, an executive, or board member, or a middle manager, how can I become more aware of my own biases?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Very hard to spot. So I think each of us needs to study and memorize the kinds of bias. So the one I was describing was affinity bias, like that bias for the familiar, but there are many, many other kinds. And then I think it’s alerting each other to the bias that’s occurring, and pointing it out, and having the courage to do that. But Kevin, I think that I like to call it a call in, not a call out. I’m not a fan of cancel culture in the organizational context. When we make a mistake, when our bias is showing, it really matters if you’re the one that’s spotting it in others, and you want to raise it, to me, the respect, and the kindness, and the grace with which you approach that conversation is really important.
So I would gently give you feedback, but I would take you aside. I would send you an email and get on your calendar, and I would say, “I just want to let you know, for example, for LGBTQ people, we don’t say, “Sexual preference,” we say, “Sexual orientation,” but it’s something that people say unwittingly, they say, “Sexual preference,” not maliciously.” So the opportunity for me to coach on language, instead of shaming somebody or canceling them, or criticizing them in front of others is to gently take someone aside that I care about, I care about them on their journey. And I say, “By the way, I just want to let you know, this is a term we use instead of the term you used.’ And you would say, “Thank you so much, Jennifer. I appreciate that, and I’m going to incorporate that. And if I slip up again, please let me know.” And that’s it, right?
So, it doesn’t need to be high drama, it doesn’t need to be unkind. And in fact, I believe that it needs to be done with grace because we have all been learners at some point there’s no one among us that hasn’t slipped up, that hasn’t unintentionally said something that we heard in our families growing up, and just have continued to say, and nobody has corrected us. Nobody has pointed it out. So I do think that something I talk about a lot is the invitation to the feedback conversation about bias. The way it’s done really matters. If you’re a kid in a, you’re trying to learn how to ride a bike and you fall off the bike, what point is there in somebody kicking you, and berating you and saying like, “How dare you fall off that bike?” You think you’re going to ride the bike well, if you’re being berated? No. So we have to support each other.
There’s so much we don’t know, and that’s the whole point of this beautiful work. I learn every single day, something new about identities that aren’t my own, and my own identities, honestly. But it’s through the generosity of others that I have the opportunity to learn that in the most healthy way. And to me, healthy doesn’t mean shamed, healthy means safety, psychological safety, grace, kindness, openness, and somebody believing in me that I can change. Somebody believing that I am going to take this on board, and I’m going to do something with it.
And by the way, I just want to say, before we run out of time, please ask people about their pronouns. This is just an example, mine are she/her, but it’s just an example of a signal we can give people around us that we are a leader who’s doing our work, we’re learning, we’re trying to educate ourselves about how people want to be called, and it can be a quick conversation, it can be a quick offer to say, “I’m Jennifer Brown, my pronouns, are she/her/hers.” And just sort of get onto the business of the day, remembering that I want to share a statistic, one out of every five people under the age of 35 does not identify as heterosexual, and does not identify as cisgender. And so, one out of five under the age of 35, for all of you middle managers, listening to this, that’s one out of five people under 35 that are on your teams that are probably hiding, they’re probably terrified, and you can be the kind of inclusive leader that invites, that builds enough trust and psychological safety that someone will confide in you.
That is very important for performance. If you do not get that and many other things we’ve talked about today, you may lose that person, you may lose other people who see that person not being referred to and being afraid and say, “This is not the right culture for me,” you know? So there is a ripple effect to everything we do, and I think we’ve got to role model us and say, “I’m not sure how to say this, but I want to say it.” And if we had cultures that were comfortable doing that, I think we’d be better off.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Good, good. Well, Jennifer, I want to thank you for your time today. I mean, it’s really a lot of thought, and it hits home for me, my son is going to get married to his partner in Mexico, this July.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, congratulations.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: He’s in Paris now. And he worked at the bank a few years back, and now he’s down in Dallas, but it’s just unconditional the love that you have for him. And I think you come through in these situations, it’s really, treat people the way you want to be treated, and help them on their journey, and be compassionate, and be thoughtful and be kind. So I appreciate everything you’ve said today, and it’s something for us to work on and aspire to. And it’s a journey. It’s a journey.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for your leadership, Kevin. I mean, just spending an hour with you, I hope everybody listening appreciates you in this moment, because it’s a rare leader that goes deep into this, that shares so openly, and I really appreciate our conversation. You don’t know how rare it is, and I’m here to tell you because I know a lot of CEOs, so thank you.
KEVIN CUMMINGS: Sure. Well, thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together, and standing up for ourselves and each other.
DOUG FORESTA: You’ve been listening to The Will to Change: Uncovering True Stories of Diversity and Inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit jenniferbrownspeaks.com Thank you for listening, and we’ll be back next time with a new episode.
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