Inquiry First – Part 3: Mapping Strategic Pillars of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Jennifer Brown | |


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In this minisode, Jennifer continues the discussion about JBC’s powerful prospective client questionnaire. Discover the three strategic pillars of diversity, equity and inclusion, and how asking questions can help raise awareness within an organization. Jennifer reveals the qualities that are most needed from leaders, and the questions that leaders need to be asking to be effective.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • The importance of understanding the current DE&I strategy for an organization (3:00)
  • The three strategic pillars of diversity, equity and inclusion (7:00)
  • How asking the right questions can help raise awareness with a company (11:00)
  • The critical role of DE&I Councils (13:30)
  • What to look for when analyzing employee resource groups (17:00)
  • How to assess the current organizational DE&I training plan (23:30)
  • The crucial distinction between compliance training and inclusion training (24:30)
  • What organizations need from leadership in this environment (29:00)
  • Key questions that leaders need to ask themselves (31:30)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta, and I’m really excited to be back with Jennifer Brown. We’re continuing the conversation about inquiry and specifically the perspective client questionnaire that JBC uses.

And we’re talking today a little more about our previous episodes, which by the way if you haven’t listened to them, I really encourage you to do that.

We were talking more about the sales process. Today, we’re really digging in more to DE&I – diversity, and inclusion piece of things. So, Jennifer, first of all, thank you so much for having – letting me join you here today.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug. Looking forward to it.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. Let’s talk about, first of all, this part of the questionnaire, you’re really digging into the question with clients about do you have a diversity, equity, and include strategy? Can you say a little bit about what you’re digging into more here, versus earlier in the sales process, I know there was a question where you asked people sort of, “What have you done so far?” How is this different? What are you getting at, at this part of the questionnaire?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. So, we’re zooming the lens in from high level, 30,000 feet, and we’re starting to come down and granularly pick through what is, what exists, what’s been done, who’s led it, how has it been perceived, et cetera.

So, this is really the good stuff. You start to ask questions about do you have an informal or a formal strategy in place? Who developed it? How long has it been in place? Has it changed? Why has it changed? Who changed it? What has been the history of leaders in the organization who have been driving and owning the strategy?

Sometimes, you’ll come into organizations and I think of it in terms of eras of people, eras of particular people that were in charge. So I’ll say, how long has someone be in place who’s been actually managing the DEI effort? And have there been multiple generations of people, or are you on your first generation? Meaning, do you have a diversity team for the first time?

And, increasingly, that is actually true, that people are on their first generation of DEI leadership that is in a paid position, I mean, that many more companies are coming online with this.

So, it’s very exciting. And it’s a lot of our clients, actually, because we have exactly what they need, which is let’s build the foundation, let’s get the strategy in place, let’s line it up well, let’s align it to things that matter for the business. Let’s align it to people with power and influence in the organization and all those things. It’s obviously, like, Doug, everything in life. It’s so much easier to start a bit with a blank slate with things like this.

DOUG FORESTA: Certainly.

JENNIFER BROWN: Because I think when you come in and there are legacy efforts, you inherit a lot of the pluses and minuses of those efforts, who they were perceived. If they were not perceived as optimally as they should have, that is an additional hurdle that you’re going to have to get over, which is to rebrand an effort, redefine it, realign it, and over come some negative experience, deserved or not, by the way, of course. Because, you know, these things, there’s no single truth, I think, about original change efforts when it comes to DEI. It’s all good. It just may not have been executed well, or it may not have been supported from the top or there may not have been a team that owned it that was actually paid to own it, meaning it was halfway owned by a network of people, but there was no place to actually be accountable for it.

So, you’re trying to piece together what you can around what happened up until this point, how is it perceived, who led it? What was in place? Was it official? What was it sanctioned by the organization? Whatever was leadership’s involvement in it? Meaning, I’m always very interested to understand specifically the CEO and also the executive team’s involvement in anything. If they weren’t involved, that tells me one thing. If they were involved, it tells me another thing. If they were not involved very much or the CEO is pretty silent on everything, then maybe an effort was very grassroots, which is good, because it means people were excited and they organized and they made something happen with or without the support of the senior leadership, with or without sometimes an official DEI team, a paid team.

But grassroots can only go so far in companies without the key other pieces, which is that paid D&I team and the support of senior leadership and the alignment to the business strategy. So, I’m trying to look for the holes, if you will, I’m trying to put this picture together and say, “What did you have in place? What were you missing?” And then going forward, of course, then you put your consultant hat on and you say, “So, how could we round out this picture” If they’re asking me, “So, what should we be focusing on in the next year?” I am trying to see where are there holes in this mix that I think is the optimal mix of things that need to be there, and then where should we start in terms of plugging those holes?

DOUG FORESTA: Could you say a little bit about those – I know you talk about these three focus areas, the workforce, workplace, and marketplace. Can you explain a little bit to our listeners what you’re looking for there, what that means?

JENNIFER BROWN: Certainly. As many people know, I started consulting in DEI for something called employee resource groups, which are the diversity networks in companies like the women’s network, the black network, the LGBTQ network. And we used to orient, and still do recommend that clients orient their strategy for their diversity network around these three pillars, and they’re called different things in different companies, but they are, as you said, Doug, workforce, workplace, and marketplace.

Workforce is what it says. Workforce, it’s recruitment, retention, people. Why do they come? Why do they leave? Why would they stay? So, how can the diversity networks focus on driving those and improving those?

Workplace is really the cultural environment in which we work every day meaning, you know, what does this workplace feel like? Does it feel like one of belonging? Do we have training that we’re rolling out around our cultural difference and education running and cultural celebrations at work relating to different months of the year that are meant to celebrate different cultures, for example?

So, the workplace is how it feels every day. And then the marketplace is the customer-client mix, the buyer, the external market, if you will. Thinking about how the diversity networks can drive outcomes and objectives relating to sales and marketing and product development.

So, when we talk about these three pillars, it’s a very comprehensive and I think easy to understood way of thinking, “Where do we apply our energy? Where do we need to be building relationships and setting goals, honestly, around these three pillars?” And what would success look like a year from now?

So, we go through this exercise with our diversity networks, but honestly, workforce, workplace, and marketplace is a great rubric to use for corporate strategy overall for DEI because it hits on these people, workplace, and market. It spans the whole lifecycle of business in general. So, it’s very important to speak the business’s language when you work on these things. And so I think that this encourages people, particularly the marketplace pillar, encourages people to think about themselves as ore than, “Oh, we run the cocktail hours and we do Cinco de Mayo.”

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right? We laugh and we say you can’t just be all about food, fun, and famous people. We can’t always be the speaker series. It’s important.

The marketplace thing in particular really stretches our thinking to say we could get input to these business objectives and business pain points, but I think that that’s the furthest leap for a lot of people to put themselves in that mindset and then approach and say, “Hey, you know, we’re the women’s network, and we would love to help you, financial advisor, male financial advisor, sell more effectively to female customers, for example.” You know, we would love to help give input on that and review your talking points or how we probably our company’s value proposition or whatever.

Those are some conversations that I think still, largely, don’t happen as often as I would like to see them happen.

DOUG FORESTA: Well, I think what’s really great is that by asking the question, you’re really starting to socialize the client to thinking about it in the first place. My guess is that, like you said, this is the furthest leap for people, right? It may not be on their radar necessarily. So, by asking the question, I would imagine part of that may be raising the awareness on their part about how much have we thought about this?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Well, that’s right. Oh, wait, should we be thinking about it?

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: And how should we be thinking about it? And, of course, it varies company to company, right?

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Different industries. Some companies are what we call B2B, which is business to business, meaning I’m a bank, I’m in financial services, and I’m selling to another financial services company. So, that’s institution to institution. And so it’s a little bit more murky to say, “Well, who’s our customer? Our customer is a big entity.” In fact, sometimes, our customer is a bigger entity than we are.

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: And then we have B2C, which is business to consumer, which is like our consumer products companies like PepsiCo, like Gap, or anybody in retail. There is an actual customer that’s a person. And so we shorthand that to say when we think about marketplace, you have to think about customers. And so sometimes you have institutional customers, and sometimes you have actual customers in stores. And those are two different things to think about. Then, how do we have the DEI conversation in the context of both of those? Because they’re slightly different.

DOUG FORESTA: The next question that I know you ask is about whether the company has an active DEI council or committee. Say a little bit about that, and why is that important? What are you getting out of that question?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I look for a committee or a council always. Sometimes companies start with a council because before you have training, before you have diversity networks, sometimes before you even have CEO support, you have a group of executives or leaders that have decided to band together and start to meet about this topic. So, sometimes it is the thing that forms.

And sometimes it hasn’t formed, but those other things I just listed have. So, again, you’re coming in and saying, “What’s missing in this equation?” It’s a very important part of the equation, though, regardless of whether it exists or not, you need to form one.

Diversity councils, technically, are senior people from all parts of the business, as many of the big chunks of business or big critical mass areas of the business, whether that means geographical or where the corporate offices are clustered, perhaps.

But that council is made up of eight to 12, could be 15 senior leaders who have big P&L business jobs or have a large span of responsibility, and they are critical to have in place to provide support and run interference for any kind of effort. Hopefully, they’re not “volun-told,” as we say in my world, to be there. Hopefully, they have raised their hand and then asked and have been eager to say, “Of course, count me in, because I believe this is important for my business and I want to learn more and I want to use my seniority to protect the effort and also to have conversations with other executives about why it’s important.”

And so these folks embark on a journey. Maybe they meet every quarter. Ideally, they’re meeting every month, in a perfect world, and they’re there to educate themselves and also to help drive and inform a strategy and then drive that strategy.

So, I’ve actually included DEI council members in the formation of a strategy because they’re going to be the ones that end up owning it and driving it also, but they’re not going to be your subject-matter experts. You know, they are not a stand-in for a paid DEI team who are your subject-matter experts, right? They are the ones who literally stare at this all day, and they’re paid to do that.

These are volunteer senior leaders who tend to not have a deep knowledge about it, but they probably have a lot of passion for it, which is so important. And so you can do education for them, you can enlist them in strategy building, you can – if you hit any resistance in terms of rolling out training or whether or not to launch more diversity networks, they’re the ones who can help you have conversations with resisters in the organization.

And, literally, I mean, I’ve been in the place where the DEI council and I and my team have been rolling along and we’re really excited, and then the moment comes to form diversity networks, and the CEO is the one who doesn’t want to create them because he thinks that they’re divisive. You know, so I go to the meeting to talk with the CEO and I’m there with the full backing of the council, which I’ve been working with to progress everything along, and the CEO just can’t get there.

P.S., what happened in that scenario is that diversity networks were not created, which I thought was a tragedy. I mean, in 2018, it’s hard to understand a reason why these kinds of groups wouldn’t be a good idea for recruitment, retention, employee engagement, intelligence, everything about underrepresented communities in the workplace. But he just couldn’t get past the thinking that they’re divisive, which I thought was fascinating.

So, sometimes you’re not going to be successful. It’s rare that that happens, but it was a good reminder to me that you can be working and working and working for months, but you still may not be successful with a key stakeholder around some of your ideas. And I think we all know what that feels like. It’s discouraging.

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah. Yeah. Well, again, it’s good to at least set the stage with these. Say a little bit about employee resource groups. I know that’s another thing you ask about. Can you define what that is and, again, what are you look for here?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, so if I’m looking at your employee resource groups, they could be called a lot of different things. They could be very old or brand new. There could be one or two, and there could be 12. There could also be 100. Sometimes we’re brought in and they’ve just let 1,000 flowers bloom, you know? There hasn’t been a lot of controls or processes in place, or perhaps a paid team to really run interference.

So, what can happen is groups will just proliferate. And there will be, for example, just to use a multicultural group, say. Maybe there are multicultural networks all over the company. You know, there’s chapters in different offices around the world, there’s no unified strategy for all of them, but it’s good news in the light that there’s a lot of enthusiasm, right, and there’s a lot of initiative being shown by employees.

The bad news is that once we let 1,000 flowers bloom, it’s very difficult to get our hands around it and pull it in and orient it around workforce, workplace, marketplace. Even just that is very difficult, and it hurts a lot of feelings, right? You can imagine people put a lot of energy and time and passion into their local chapter of whatever.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. They really believe in it. Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yeah. And so it’s this push and pull I think in organizations between very eager employees showing initiative, even having senior support in their office, for example, too, which can make it very difficult to shift because then they’re really well connected to somebody with power and influence and budget. And then you come in as a consultant and you map this unwieldy galaxy of networks, which by the way might be called different things, so there’s no consistency even in naming. And your job, should you choose to accept it, is to help your internal client bring order to the chaos. So, it’s a very interesting challenge. I mean, the bigger the company and depending on the efficacy of the DEI team, it can be very unwieldy and there can be a lot of politics involved. There can be a lot of powerful people protecting what’s theirs in their office, right? Well, we have this network, that network, and they do these kinds of programming and we’re bringing in big speakers.

And nobody wants to be the bad guy or gal, but the DEI team, in scenarios like that, has their work cut out for them just in terms of being able to bring all these things together, create consistency, create processes that are followed across the whole company.

So, that’s a large-company scenario that hasn’t done a good job of controlling growth. But more often than not, it’s the small company, the new company who’s like, “Hey, like, we want to launch these groups. Like, what should we do first? Where should we start?”

And, you know, we’ll engage in a conversation with them, and that’s great because then you have a blank slate and you can say, “Let’s orient the strategy, let’s build it so that there’s a consistency. Let’s be mindful about which kinds of groups to launch and what business need we are addressing with those groups.”

And that’s the really critical question, Doug, is what is the imperative to better understand the community that we are going to build a network around and sanction and fund and support with senior executive time, which doesn’t grow on trees? You know, what problem are we trying to solve?

And that feels to me like it’s a pretty easy answer. We go to what are your talent pain points? You know, who are you not able to attract and retain adequately. You know, where are you not able to improve your statistics for particular populations? And could the group that you form for black employees in a tech company, for example, or female employees in – I don’t know if it’s like maybe oil and gas, depends on the industry and what the metrics are, or employees with disabilities in any company in any industry, and also LGBTQ, by the way. There’s always – you know, I don’t even need to look at your data to know that there are certain groups that do not have a voice, are not represented, certainly are not appreciated, welcomed, proactively valued, understood, accommodated.

So, there are certain groups that are the evergreen ones. And then the others, you know, I happen to think even in female-dominated organizations, which they may be female dominated overall, but certainly not in leadership. But certain healthcare companies, even they need a women’s resource group. And I think there’s always, always a reason to have community, to strengthen each other, to support each other, to think about how do we take better care of our female employees on every level of their life cycle here with us and how do we, then, market better to female customers and clients. There’s always work to be done there, even in industries that you would assume have it all down pat. There’s just no such thing, in my experience. Like I say, we’re never going to not have work to do.

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly. It’s a journey, as you always say, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: It is.

DOUG FORESTA: It’s a journey. I know the other piece you ask is about your approach to D&I learning training. So, what are you getting at with this? What are you wanting to know?

JENNIFER BROWN: I would like to know – every organization should have a training plan and training in place around DEI. At the very, very baseline, what does it mean? Why is it important to us? How do we define it? Maybe it includes some unconscious bias data, which is helpful for people to understand it. I hope it includes inclusion and inclusive behaviors and examples of what those look like, and maybe even opportunities to practice understanding our own diversity, our own intersectionality, and that of others, and why it’s important that we bring our full selves to work.

So, I am asking questions around what training exists. Sadly, what you might hear is, “Oh, yeah, we have sexual harassment training.” You know? And they’ll answer my question with that. That tells me a lot in terms of where are they in their understanding of how we even define these terms. Sadly, we do bucket in compliance and harassment training and hostile work environment required training, we lump it in with inclusion training, which is interesting. And that’s a whole other episode.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes. We could do that episode, actually.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know, we really should. Remember, compliance training feels like compliance training for people. It feels like they’re dragging me through.

DOUG FORESTA: Here’s your OSHA training, right, exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: Totally. It’s badly designed, it has nothing to do with leadership, usually, which this whole conversation needs to be grounded in leadership and business outcomes, right? And it’s not just to avoid a lawsuit. The business outcomes I’m talking about are attracting and retaining the best talent, making our workplace a place where everyone feels welcome, valued, respected, and heard, and reaching the marketplace in a more culturally competent and respectful way so that we can make more money, you know?

So, that’s the business case, but when we allow this conversation to become synonymous with hostile work environment conversations, we go to this very negative place. And yes, is that training needed? God knows, yes, more than ever as we’re learning in the Me Too era. The workplace is rampant with bad behavior, both micro inequities, which are the really small, daily slights that are perpetrated against people because of unconscious bias, sometimes because of conscious biases or like really overt bias and very hostile, bad behavior that’s legally actionable.

But that’s important. But I guess the question for me always is: Have you decoupled the leadership conversation around inclusiveness and why it’s good for business from the compliance training? And, sadly, sometimes companies, all they have the budget for is the compliance training, right? They have utilized all their resources on that. And so then we can think about, well, next year, how can we, A, get the budget for this additional training that, by the way, is going to help seed these concepts through the organization and help support the employee resource groups and the D&I council and the executive team and the maturing of your effort. Because training is a really important ingredient to creating new language and new behaviors and holding people accountable and the best designs.

They’re safe places for people to learn how to behave, and then really why to believe that this is actually good for business and good for them as leaders, you know? If you do this well, you’ll have better results. You’ll have more diverse teams that are more productive. You’ll be able to attract and retain all the best talent, not just talent that maybe looks one way or has one educational background, et cetera.

If you pitch it right, people should be flooding the kinds of trainings that I’m talking about, and you absolutely shouldn’t need to require them because people will correctly see that this will make me a more effective leader if I go.

And I want to be that leader that all kinds of people want to work for. I want to be seen as that person that creates a welcoming environment for all kinds of people that are maybe different than I am – likely different than I am. And this is a safe place and a great team to work on.

So, we want to create a different dynamic, and we want to decouple these conversations between how do we keep our organizations safe from hostile work environment dynamics, and then how do we create leaders who have an appetite for inclusiveness because it’s good for me, it’s good for you, it’s good for the business, et cetera? So, I think that’s important.

Part of this is also decoupling the leadership conversation from the negativity and all the things that can go wrong at work, and many, many people right now are feeling the shame, which is deserved in some cases and not in others, of the bad behavior of others.

And so I think, Doug, we’re seeing people pull away from all of this right now because they don’t want to get sucked into it, they feel accused because of who they are, accused before they’re even accused, swept up in this assumption of I don’t get it, because I look a certain way, I’m part of the problem. And it’s really pernicious right now because I wish we could have a magic wand and say, “No, it is not everybody.” If you’ve behaved badly, there need to be consequences, but there’s a whole bunch of people who are pulling away from the conversation because they’re afraid to get swept up in it, and therefore they’re throwing the baby out with the bath water and just disengaging completely from mentoring women, for example, or even hiring women. What did Tony Robbins say in the thing that went viral? He said, “My friend is not hiring any women anymore, especially women who are good-looking because he thinks it’s just going to be trouble on his team.”

DOUG FORESTA: And, of course, we need men mentoring women. We’ve done episodes on The Will to Change about the importance of that.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.

DOUG FORESTA: We don’t need men pulling away from this topic, and we don’t need – as you’re saying, we need people to be leaning into it, not running away.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right, and in a safe way. And I think to just throw your hands up and say, “I’m out,” is quite immature. Forgive me. But what we really need to be thinking about is how can I, as a mentor or male colleague, create safety for those whom I want to support?

DOUG FORESTA: I just want to point out – sorry, go ahead.

JENNIFER BROWN: Just be curious about that. Ask the question: Where would you like to meet? Instead of assuming somebody wants to meet in the event in the hotel bar, be aware of the optics that might create awkwardness for somebody that you’re working with. Ask about it. Create a better solution, but don’t pull away.

DOUG FORESTA: I just want to point out that in no other area of business would a leader – for example, there are lots of things that just because something in business is difficult, for example, sales are down, you go, “That’s it. We’re not doing sales anymore.”

JENNIFER BROWN: I know. (Laughter.) It’s true.

DOUG FORESTA: We tried it, it didn’t work.

JENNIFER BROWN: And it’s sad. To me, how I read that is that it’s optional. It’s still viewed as something that’s discretionary instead of a key part of everybody’s job, responsibility, and opportunity. If you don’t understand what women or underrepresented talent are experiencing in your organization, how can you be an effective leader? And how can you keep growing? If it’s been more comfortable for you relatively, the question to ask is: For whom has it been less comfortable and why? What can I do in my toolbox and in my assets, especially if you’re senior and you have power and you can pick up the phone? Or with one question, you can launch an inquiry or an investigation or an effort. What can I look into on behalf of people who don’t feel they can bring their full selves to work to make it better?

It’s tragic. There’s so much lost in the pulling away. It’s a failure, like you just said, Doug, it’s not that hard, actually, if you engage, if you ask good questions, if you’re willing to put your ego to the side, if you are willing to say, “I don’t know all the answers to these questions, but I’m going to ask them because I know that the answer will come if I ask the right people.” And then if I’m flexible, if I don’t have the ego in the game, let me figure out a new way of doing business and not protect the way I’ve always done business. This is a moment where we really have to revisit how we’ve led people – how we’ve led, who we’ve partnered with, where we hang out, where we recreate, where we’re comfortable that others might not be comfortable, whether a bar, golf course, sports, or whatever fill in the blank.

What’s the worst that can happen? To me, it feels like it’s a delay or stall tactic. It’s protective, but not in a good way. I’d like to see more people moving the opposite direction and being very curious about how they can flex around the talent that’s coming into our organization, which is more female, more black and brown, more LGBTQ, more gender fluid on the gender identity spectrum, and being curious about those things and not spending a whole lot of time in judgment about them, whether right or wrong. Honestly, being curious and in service of that talent. By the way, they’re going to be running the show.

DOUG FORESTA: I was going to say, if you’re a leader, this is your workforce of tomorrow.

JENNIFER BROWN: That is right.

DOUG FORESTA: If you can’t lead them, you’re lacking a key leadership skill.

JENNIFER BROWN: Indeed.

DOUG FORESTA: If you can lead them, you can be an inspiring leader of tomorrow.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And you’re going to be the one everybody wants to work for, I can promise you.

DOUG FORESTA: My gosh, the time goes so fast, Jennifer. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom on this important topic. I really think that this series about inquiry is so powerful, and thank you again for this part about DE&I.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.