Making the Invisible, Visible: The Power of Intentional Storytelling in Shifting Cultures

Jennifer Brown | |

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Brian McComak, Senior Director and Head of Inclusion and Diversity at Tapestry, joins the program to discuss how to make visible the invisible elements of our diversity, and why he decided to join the DEI Practitioner’s Program. Brian shares key takeaways from the program and shares lessons for other DEI practitioners.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Why Brian decided to join the DEI Practitioner’s Program (3:00)
  • How and when to share the elements of our invisible diversity (9:00)
  • How to create a culture where people feel safe to share their story (15:00)
  • How to anchor the work in our common humanity (27:00)
  • How the DEI Practitioner’s Program has changed Brian’s work (30:00)
  • How to balance passion and strategy (32:00)
  • Organizational factors that can lead to burnout (35:00)
  • How Tapestry uses conversations and stories to further DEI work (38:00)
  • A key question that can lead to change (41:00)

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

JENNIFER BROWN: Welcome to the Will to Change.

Today we have a second episode featuring a participant in our DEI Practitioner Program, Brian McComak, who reflects candidly on his experiences in the program, as well as offering some front-lines advice for all of us, from those who are charged with managing DEI initiatives in our organizations to passionate advocates throughout organizations who may not have an official DEI title or remit, but who lead courageously from wherever they are, whomever they are.

Brian leads diversity and inclusion at Tapestry, home to Coach, Kate Spade, and Stuart Weitzman. Tapestry is a global house of brands that embraces the exploration of individuality, and as you’ll hear in this episode, has a strong, visible commitment to DEI from the top of that house, which has enabled Brian to accomplish more, faster. In this episode, he opens up about his own evolution in this critical role, the things he’s learned, a few mistakes and corrections made, and a host of other nuggets of wisdom.

Brian is not only a close friend, but was in many ways the original inspiration for our program. As we chatted over coffee when he was new to this role, I first crystalized why I wanted to build a learning program for new practitioners like Brian, and what the components would be. He then enrolled in the program, so we’ve been able to come full circle in validating the core pieces of the practitioner skillset. I am excited for Brian and what the future will bring, as he levels up his contributions and seeks more challenges for growth. The doors for the next round of the Jennifer Brown Consulting DEI Practitioners Program are open now, but they won’t be for much longer. If you’re a DEI lead, program manager, coordinator, or practitioner, we start our next program on June 4th, and we’d love you to join us. If you’re curious about whether the DEI Practitioners Program is for you, or simply want to learn more about one amazing advocate’s story, listen in now.

Brian, welcome to The Will to Change.

BRIAN M: Thanks, Jennifer. It’s great to be here.

JENNIFER BROWN: I am excited to have you join me today to talk about your experience both in the world of DEI as a practitioner at Tapestry, but also as a student in our Practitioner Program, and also a good friend of mine personally and someone that I’ve been watching your career and I would like to think helping fill in some blanks for you as you’ve pursued it and done so well. Congratulations on everything you’ve accomplished. I know that you’re going to be sharing with our audience today a lot about that and the great organization and support that you happen to find yourself in right now, which is awesome.

BRIAN M: Absolutely. I’m really grateful to be at Tapestry. Yes, you have been a great help in the journey, as well as the team at JBC. I’ve learned so much from Robert, Chelsea, and Simone along the way. It’s been really wonderful. And the D&I community across the board, of course, are always so generous with their time.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so true. I love this community. It’s such a generous community, even amongst competitors. It’s so interesting the way that we all help each other with literally a request. It’s never a question to support each other, share best practices. We are all going after this bigger thing that we know benefits all of us if we can get that riding tide to lift all the boats. There’s still a lot of work to be done there, however. It’s invigorating to realize you’re not alone. Especially in this field that’s not very well-marked territory, I always say it’s not the kind of robust academic discipline that you can decide, “I’m going to get a master’s in this,” and there are 20 programs that teach the curriculum that I need to be a practitioner.

You know very well that that was part of the origination of the Practitioner Program was my want to provide something that was the structure, the guidance, and the tools that I personally never had.

BRIAN M: Yes, absolutely. I’ve shared with many friends and colleagues how honored I was that I had a chance to have breakfast with you and be one of the thought partners in developing the program. As we talked about at that breakfast, for this work, there are so many of us like me who are new to diversity and inclusion leadership roles. The field itself is also relatively new in the scope of corporate America.

We’re all just figuring it out together and I think the program was a nice way to try to find some formality in how we can learn and accelerate how we can deliver this great work within the corporations where we find ourselves.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. You’re absolutely right about that. If I had to trace it all the way back, the work started with organic, grass roots efforts with things like affinity groups. It was that pride in community, finding our voice, really started from the bottom up or the middle of the organization. As companies realized, “Wait a minute, this is a thing,” not only is it important for engagement, but it’s actually critical for our ability to recruit, retain, and market to our customers and our clients. We’ve seen that along with a lot of other external factors in our sociopolitical world that’s all resulted in companies saying, “We need somebody to actually lead this work internally. That person needs to be fully funded, supported from the top, aligned in the right way.”

You’re a 20-year HR veteran who pivoted into this work, which I think also makes your story interesting along with a lot of other things.

Maybe we can start there. You did this pivot. What has that been like to move into DEI? What are the wonderful moments and moments of challenge that you face when making that transition? Your story is pretty common. There’s no one who starts in this work right when we come out of college, it’s relatively unheard of. You might want to do that, but realistically, it takes a while of spending time in other domains before somebody will give you the keys to the kingdom. Tell us a little bit about that transition.

BRIAN M: Sure. Absolutely. I love your comment about those wonderful moments and the challenging moments. There have been plenty of them.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

BRIAN M: In all wonderful ways. Actually, one of the messages I’ve shared more often that I’d like to admit is that this work has proven to be more challenging than I ever expected. It’s one of those “you don’t know what you don’t know” things. I’m also incredibly grateful for that because I believe those challenges have helped me grow personally and professionally. Everyone wins, I hope, in the end.

Back to the question, though, specifically around my journey. Diversity and inclusion has been part of my commitment as an HR professional from the very beginning. My first job was with Red Lobster Darden Restaurants. It was one of the companies that was early to join in the conversation and recognize the importance of doing this work.

Very early on, in my first HR job, I had the opportunity to go through early versions of unconscious bias training, which we don’t deliver anymore, but it was that foundation that really sparked this interest and thread throughout the career. When I pivoted 18 months ago, as much as I thought that I knew, I also have learned there was a lot more I didn’t know. Having the opportunity to really then start to learn in more profound and robust ways how important this work is to every employee and the various groups that are part of our company has been really exciting. Learning from our women’s group and our African-American group, and even as an openly gay man myself, our pride group that we’re working with to develop our pride events for this summer, I’ve learned so much from them even about the community within which I identify. It’s been really exciting all along the way.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so great. Your story is interesting. Part of the reason you inspired me at that breakfast where we designed this program together, because you have a lot of invisible aspects of diversity to you. It’s interesting, I think some people assume that people who look a certain way or have a certain identity may not be as effective as practitioners. It’s kept a lot of people away from the work that they not only are passionate about, but could be amazing practitioners in.

There are some assumptions even within a community of advocates, for example, that you are allowed to do this work or you will understand this work or you will be good at this work and you won’t. We have that judgment within our community, sadly.

BRIAN M: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I wanted to make space for you because I share some of your story. I walk on stage and I joke with my audiences, “You might be surprised when I walk on stage as a diversity consultant. I’m not who you picture.” I use that as an opportunity to share my story and a lot more of the invisible aspects of who I am, like being a member of the LGBT community, which you can hear a pin drop when I announce that. I always think, “Which way is this going to go?”

BRIAN M: Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: You have those moments, too, right?

BRIAN M: Absolutely. It’s funny you mentioned that. I’ve known you for a while now, of course, but I think it was a couple years before I knew you were a member of the LGBTQ community. To your point, there’s this invisible diversity that is part of so many of our lives. As opposed to those visible elements, those stories are stories we choose to share.

Then there are the moments where we feel safe to choose to share them, and what does that look like? It has been really interesting for me. Very early on, I realized that what people see when they see me is they see typically that I’m a straight, white, cisgendered guy. Three of those things are true, right? I am white, I am cisgendered, and I am male. But I’m also gay. And I also have battled mental illness. I’ve experienced what it feels like to be an “other” and an outsider in very profound ways in my life.

As I’ve gone through this journey, I’ve also recognized the privilege that I’ve had because of how I look. It’s been interesting. How I start my story now, when I get up in front of a room, I often make a joke. “My guess is a lot of you in the room are wondering, why is the white guy up front?” And it usually gets a chuckle and a lot of nodding heads. And I say to the group, “First of all, completely okay that you’re thinking that way or asking that question. I’m glad you’re asking. Let me answer it for you.”

Early on, as I was starting to share my story, I would share attributes. I’d say, “I’m gay and I’ve battled mental illness.” What I’ve pivoted to in storytelling is I now tell this story of my first professional job back at Red Lobster 20 years ago. I was out before I joined corporate America in my first HR job and I went back in the closet.

I was incredibly fortunate to have a mentor very early on in that first job who helped me know it was okay to be me and that I could be out and successful and the two weren’t mutually exclusive concepts.

The reason I do this work today and the reason it’s been part of my career commitment as an HR professional is I want everyone to have that exact same experience when they walk in the doors of our company, whether it’s as an employee or a vendor partner or a customer. I want everyone to know they’re safe here, they’re respected, and they’re welcome. I’m grateful that I had that mentor. His name is Ken, he’s unfortunately passed away since then, but he was so profound in helping me know that it was okay to be me at work.

JENNIFER BROWN: You’re so fortunate to have had somebody like that. I pray that everybody listening can think of someone in their life like that who is pushing them to be more authentic, more brave. I like to say if you’re too comfortable, you’re probably not leading, you’re probably not growing. For people like you and me, particularly in the roles we have, the constant need to disclose so that people see you, all of you, and also so that someone can see themselves in you, which is hugely important.

It’s not just literally, “I’m gay and I’m closed and I see Brian,” but we all have a closet about something. When I speak about covering and the iceberg model, which you’ve learned in the Practitioner Program, 90 percent of us keep underneath the waterline. In a workplace which demands a lot of conformity, where we don’t see anyone that looks like us often, or we don’t see somebody who shares our story secretly. We make a decision to keep our waterline really high for safety purposes and keep a lot of these truths about ourselves hidden or downplayed or minimized.

Some of us, like you said, can hide our diversity dimensions, some of us can’t because we walk into a room and people see, are they a person of color? Is she a woman? Are they a gender-nonbinary individual?

It’s interesting. Your story of walking into the room with the person that you are, the body that you have, and saying, “I’m a part of this conversation, too.” You signal to a whole other group of people that bringing your full self to work requires a level of disclosure about a whole bunch of things. It actually makes the workplace a better, more vibrant, more creative place when we aren’t spending so much energy thinking about and scheming about how we hide as many things as possible.

BRIAN M: Yes, absolutely. A couple things that you’ve sparked for me. First, I’m incredibly grateful to work for a company like Tapestry, where our CEO speaks very authentically and honestly and from this very foundational experience that he had as a child as an immigrant to the United States who didn’t speak English and what that was like for him. Similarly to the experience I had 20 years ago with a mentor, he wants everyone at this company to have that same feeling of acceptance. He’s created space for all of us just to be ourselves. I know that choosing to disclose and to share my story is okay here and I’m safe. That is something that Victor, as our CEO, has really helped us all with. Certainly, the leadership team, Sarah, our Chief HR Officer, and the board of directors, there is this profound commitment. That’s been phenomenon for me.

Unfortunately, I’ve also worked at places where that’s not true. I’m grateful that I found this place.

The other thing that you sparked for me, though, back to the program, and I didn’t mention this a minute go. When I figured out that I needed to pivot my story from sharing the checklist of reasons why I have credible in the conversation, because I am also an “other.” When I share my experiences, I often will say things like, “I’m a gay man.” Now, that doesn’t mean that I’ve stood in the shoes of a woman. I haven’t. But I hope that my experience will help me understand your experiences. That goes for so many attributes.

When I was going through the program and one of the first exercises in the program, we think about how we tell our story. I realized what I was sharing was a list of attributes; I wasn’t sharing a story. Which then sparked the memory of that first career experience and Ken as my mentor helping me know it was okay to be me. That story connects hearts and minds in a way the opens doors for me. How I choose to use my story to help others feel safe is what’s really important to this work and the role that I have the responsibility to deliver at Tapestry.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. I hear you saying that especially with your profile, the importance as the leader of the effort, where everyone’s looking to you for direction, inspiration, and answers. You’ve probably gotten incredibly good at centering the stories of others to move beyond your primary experience and making it all about the stories of your audience that reflect your audience.

That must feel unique for people who are white, cis, and male. So much of our focus is those who are underrepresented in the workplace, those who are hiding or putting more effort towards that, or those who can’t hide their diversity and face comments and micro aggressions every day of their lives.

That shift must have been powerful for you to make it all about others and shift the focus away from your story.

BRIAN M: Oh, my gosh, yes, so much. As a side note, but relevant to this, my dad sent me a text yesterday morning. He sent a picture of a quote that he saw in the newspaper around failure. It’s a Michael Jordan quote about the number of shots he’s missed and the number of games he’s lost or the game-winning points he didn’t get. He keeps getting up, and that’s why he’s successful.

That resonates with me so much in life as a whole. Even in this work, there are moments where I walked in the room, I tried, and I got it wrong. One of those early moments was I remember a meeting where I was sharing my first version of our Tapestry inclusion strategic roadmap. There were I think six of us in the room. I was the one guy in the room, the rest were women.

They listened and were professional, and then they all in their own way said, “We don’t see ourselves in what you’ve put on paper.” I’m really grateful to those women who trusted that they could be their true selves and say, “I know you’re trying, but it’s not hitting the mark.” That helps me get better. I realized that because my life experiences are as a gay man and part of the LGBTQ+ community, I used those examples, those references, and those ideas because that was what was familiar and comfortable to me. What they needed to hear was that I was hearing their stories and understanding what was important to them. It was true for the women in that room, but it’s true for any community I work with. I need to find ways to connect with them, understand, and hear what’s important to them and what that looks like and use references and examples that resonate for them as well.

You’re right, it has been a pivot for me, and maybe even beyond a pivot. It’s been a profound shift in how I show up in this work. For me to do the work that I’m responsible for, I have to think about those others.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. You have to put yourself in the painful position of acknowledging how little you know.

BRIAN M: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And living in that place and making a plan for yourself.

I’m curious, actually. We talk a lot about not wanting to cause extra emotional labor for others to teach us about their lens, experience, examples, or having to give feedback all the time. I’m sure you’ve found a balance of not leaning on people too much who are already leaned on heavily in organizations, often because they might be the only one of a certain identity, perhaps at a certain level in the organization.

Really, the onus is on us. It’s the 80/20 rule. 80 percent of the heavy lifting of learning is on us to be doing individually ourselves, but being aware that we want to use people’s time wisely and respectfully. We want to get the ball as far down the field as we possibly can before we prevail on people’s time, effort, hearts, and minds to point out what we’re missing and tell us what we don’t know.

It’s a big theme for me. I think of it as a responsibility for every ally and somebody who really aspires to be called that. We need to take that on.

I’m curious, did you shift your lens very intentionally to start to pick up on or gather content from certain media or tune into certain communities and their experiences? Can you give an example of a place where you sought that learning for yourself?

BRIAN M: Sure. My LinkedIn feed has become very powerful for me, having connected with so many diversity and inclusion professionals who all share their triumphs, challenges, and perspectives. That has been a source of learning for me. It’s one that’s easy in that I can do it anytime, anywhere. Because I believe I have a diverse community of colleagues in that forum, the stories are diverse, robust, and powerful. That’s been big for me. I’ve also tried to, then, pass that one, taking what others have shared, and hopefully sharing that with the people in my community. That’s been one forum that has been really powerful.

The other for me, and I could highlight a variety of them, and this is specific to the industry I work in, but the Council for Fashion Designers of America, they have a commitment to raising inclusion and diversity awareness within our industry and have put on some of these amazing panels. One of them I had a chance to hear a couple weeks ago, there were actually two in this day-long event that I attended. One was on diversity representation in fashion, and the other was on gender expression in fashion.

Those opportunities to hear, even though it was a short period of time, it was an hour-long panel, I learned so much about those two different communities that I’ve been able to then bring those conversations back into Tapestry.

The key message I heard was, “You can’t design for us without us.” That message is just so powerful that it translates across as we think about our products and how we use our products internally to really engage our customers and connect with our customers that it’s raised the bar on how we’re thinking about it internally.

It’s been finding moments like that which has happened me learn about communities I’m not part of, and also what I can bring back to the conversation at Tapestry.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. I first heard that as, “Nothing about us without us,” from the community of disabilities when I was doing a panel. I was struck by that. It dovetails nicely with the humility that you bring as a practitioner that we’ve been talking about today. You only have a fraction of the answers, and even those answers are suspect because, like you said, even in the LGBTQ+ community, you can get out of date really fast. It is changing so quickly that even the diversity within the diversity, as we say, is hard to keep up with. It worries me for the rest of the learners in our organizations who we’re trying to bring along. The amount of language and new words and the consciousness I think that you and I are steeped in every single day, our middle manager stakeholders are totally overwhelmed. I’m constantly reminded every keynote I go into and every room, where people actually are, which is at the beginning level of their own learning about all of these things.

It’s tricky and maybe even frustrating for some practitioners to say, “I’ve got to go back to this point.” I’ve got to go back again. I’ve got to explain it or keep it very, very basic. It’s such an important reminder I think that we’ve got to go back and be more inclusive and not sprint ahead.

Say your CEO is sprinting ahead, and I love that about him, he’s really very advanced as far as CEOs go. I read all of his communications with great interest. I hope that others are doing the same and patterning themselves after his leadership. You must feel also that there’s this whole group, and probably the largest group at Tapestry, where you need to slow the train down a bit, or a lot. This group has barely even said LGBT, and now we add Q and “plus,” you know?

BRIAN M: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Many gender identities, gender nonbinary. Do you enjoy that challenge? Do you have any advice for folks who find themselves in a leadership role?

BRIAN M: Yes. So true, Jennifer. And you’re right about Victor, his commitment is phenomenal. He wants us to bring this work to life in a profound way very quickly. He understands that it’s also a journey we’re on as a company. It’s exciting and challenging and sparking new conversations.

I think a couple of things are messages that I’ve said to myself and to others to help pave the way and find the comfort in the discomfort. First of all, we’re all humans and we’re all humans trying to do our best and to find our way and learn. Sometimes humans get it right, and sometimes humans get it wrong. But I try to anchor the way that I think and the way that we as an organization think in that humanity. I believe if we can see each other as humans rather than a colleague, a manager, an employee, or those roles that we play which come with paradigms and rules. If we put those away and say, “We’re just human, we’re just trying,” that helps a log and recognizes that we’re starting from different places.

The other thing that’s been helpful and hard for me is to give myself permission to say, “I can’t do it all. It’s not possible.” Humans are diverse, complex, interesting, exciting, and unique. That’s what I love about this work. I’m always learning. Every day, I get to learn something new about humanity, but I will never know it all. I will never be able to have all the answers in the room. And I will never be able to have an initiative that speaks to every person on an individual level. I’m hoping to have initiatives that connect with everyone on a broad level about our commitment to inclusion, belonging, and treating people with respect. This is a place where you can be your authentic self. But when you dive down to specific community initiatives, there is only so much time in the space of an employee experience or the commitment we’re making to our employees. It’s finding that balance of what’s going to help us move that conversation forward to make a difference across the company for our employees.

JENNIFER BROWN: You remind me of one of the truisms of our work. We’re often these tiny teams serving massively complex global organizations. I always think that the role practitioners are in with passion-fueled, tremendous energy, tremendous commitment, and doing more with less. In a way, you have to be ruthlessly efficient with where you apply your effort. What is going to give the highest yield? What is the most important thing to the business versus a personal passion? Hopefully, it can be both. We have to make these really tough choices because we are constrained, but it’s a good discipline for any profession to get into the habit of asking, “Who are my stakeholders? How can I balance this and be fair? How can I attend to celebrating the low-hanging fruit and leveraging that, but also doing the important things?” All of those questions are things I know come up in the program. I wonder if there are tools in the program that helped you to see things in a different way through the mapping of your stakeholders, for example, and rethinking priorities and reallocating energy, time, resources, relationships you needed to build. How did it reorder the way that you approached the work?

BRIAN M: It’s a great question. I was just talking with another one of our colleagues and friends about what has been the most powerful part of the program for me.

One of them we talked about earlier, which was this spark of reflection that has helped me tell my story in different ways so I can make an impact for others.

The most profound part of the experience in the program for me has been the ways to put this work into a framework and a way of thinking about the various aspects of what we need to impact in this work and the stakeholders and communities. For example, when I think about aspects, our five lenses are employees, communities, marketing, customers, and suppliers. Do we have the efforts in place for all five of those lenses? Who are the stakeholders I need to influence to get there? What are the areas of opportunity and need that we have as an organization and what are the initiatives that we can put forward to make a difference in those areas?

You said something that was probably one of the learning lessons I had here, which is I’m passionate about this work in a very significant personal way. And while I can use that to fuel the work, I have a responsibility to the company I work for to really think about where we get the best return on our investment for the time and energy we’re spending to make a difference for the people who work here.

I’ve had to balance that passion and that decision making. The framework has helped me with laying out that strategic roadmap that is important for me to say, “This is what we’re doing and this is why we’re doing it.”

One of the things I shared with our mutual colleague the other day was that framework is applied to DEI in this program, but it’s applicable across any field. You can use the framework for building a strategy regardless of the subject matter. That’s also something I’ll take with me going forward.

JENNIFER BROWN: I agree with that. It’s one of the things that keeps me intellectually and emotionally stimulated. Every day is different, for sure. There’s so much we don’t know. Learning about human experience is endlessly fascinating.

Pondering the way that change happens and can be orchestrated effectively in a large, complex organization around a topic that a lot of people are not very comfortable with or they don’t even know – honestly, they sometimes don’t even know it’s a problem, which is surprising to you and me. I have a whole chapter in my forthcoming book – which is out in August – about that unaware phase that so many people are in where they are thinking to themselves, “Well, the diversity team has that handled, I don’t need to engage with this. I don’t have a diversity story, I don’t know what they’re talking about.”

BRIAN M: Everyone has a diversity story!

JENNIFER BROWN: Aw! That sounds familiar. (Laughter.) Like we say, it’s not the pain Olympics. I love Kenji Yoshino always says that. Let’s not get wrapped up in the oppression competition, who’s had it worse or better. We can argue that empirically there are some difficulties that some of us can’t relate to in a real way, however, for purposes of organizational change, you and I can sit here and say if we create a hierarchy of oppression and that is the take-away that people have from the way we’re framing the conversation, they will opt out.

To me, that feels like an emergency. We can’t afford to have anyone opting out of this conversation. Really, it takes more than just the most activated, most passionate, and underrepresented or lesser-appreciated in organizations to fight for change and promote understanding and progress. It’s one of the things that I get concerned about that the people with the most amount of power in organizations from a hierarchy perspective are doing the least amount of work.

That leads to burnout, whether it’s subtle or overt. We can also call it death by a thousand cuts. Being the standard bearer, the truthteller, the brave voice and the one who has to show up and answer questions or be the role model over and over – for some of us, it’s invigorating, depending on your personality. But for a lot of us, it’s exhausting. Maybe it’s not the role that we want. I’m left with a question of how we get a broader community of people to see themselves in this discussion and take it to heart and feel their own stories or others’ stories from an empathy perspective, which is a huge motivator. I think people who want to be called allies are the most inspirational at this moment in time because there is an appetite there to do more. The question that community asks is, “What more can I do? Where do I start?” I find that very actionable. To me, that’s a welcome question. For many years, we were getting “Well, why is this important?”

BRIAN M: Yes. Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: Really? Are we all the way back there? There is a growing appetite. I’m sure you see this amongst your employees at Tapestry. And you probably see it generationally. You’re probably seeing a lot of energy bubbling up from the younger talent.

BRIAN M: Oh, yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yes.

BRIAN M: Absolutely. The question on the table is: How do you engage people across the board in a profound way so that they’re adding to the conversation? I wish I had the magic answer. The reality is: There isn’t a magic answer. There are a lot of answers. That’s the way that I’ve been trying to lean into the work. First of all, I think about it from the lens of the career I’ve had as an HR business partner in driving organizational change. How do you influence change and spark for individuals the understanding of why the change is needed?

That’s part of it. And building relationships and having the opportunity to be in the room with those people who can make decisions or have the ability to influence change, having the opportunity and that door open to have those conversations.

We also have conversations, our CEO invites people in from the external world who are making a difference in their world. We call it “unscripted.” There are these powerful conversations that happen on stage between our CEO and someone who is making a difference in the world. One example is someone like Reshma Saujani, who is the founder of Girls who Code. Or Marley Dias, who is the founder of 1,000 Black Girl Books. Those conversations have been powerful. Because our CEO is part of that conversation, it sparks the interest of broader communities.

I also happen to work for a company where we hire nice people. Unfortunately, the nice people are often more engaged than maybe some of our other colleagues around the world. I’m going to try to be as nice as I can with that comment. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: I hear you. I hear you.

BRIAN M: There are lots of different answers. You’re right, the young, early career professionals see the world through a different lens. They challenge those of us who have been in corporate America longer to think differently.

To land this, when I was in college, I read a book called The Customer Comes Second, which is written by Hal Rosenbluth. The core message of that book is: If you create a great place for your employees, they will do great work for you and deliver that for your customers – however you define that for your business model. That has been thematic through how I think about my work as an HR professional, my work as a manager, my work as a leader. I think that’s even true in this work for diversity and inclusion. A lot of times, the conversation for diversity and inclusion gets anchored in how we think about how we are different. I am part of this ethnic minority community, I’m part of the gay community, I’m a woman versus a man. Those examples, while important, and we have to honor those differences and experiences of each other, I think those can also push us apart rather than bring us together.

One of the other messages that I love is this framework that JBC uses of employees feeling welcome, valued, respected, and heard. Those are what I consider human truths. We all want to feel those experiences. When I’m trying to engage leaders, managers, and employees, those types of universal truths help bring us together and also underpin why it’s important. If we feel that at work, we’re going to be able to do the best work we can to brig our full selves to whatever problem we’re trying to solve on behalf of the company or organization that we’re part of.

JENNIFER BROWN: Well said. I love that! Welcomed, valued, respected, and heard. It’s one of those truisms that is universal and is welcoming and inclusive of all of us. We all know what those things feel like when they’re in place.

DEI work allows us to sit in the very center of the question: What is preventing certain communities from not feeling those things? Anything that gets in the way of our performance should be something that we investigate. It should be something that we are not only curious about, but dedicated to removing any obstacle to feeling fully aligned. We know, then, that we can tap into what I refer to as our “discretionary effort” – that extra effort that we can choose to give or not give on the job. Sadly, previous generations, speaking for my generation, we were the disaffected Gen X’ers, we were cynical, we didn’t trust institutions. Our generational lens has not been to trust our employer and bifurcate our lives into my passions over here and my daily work and my job with my employer is over here. They don’t intersect.

Luckily, we’ve been rethinking all of that. The younger generation with the few boundaries that they have between work and life, it’s not binary anymore. I want to do work that matters. I want to work for a purpose-driven organization. I want to believe in my colleagues and see all of who they are. I don’t this sanitized version of somebody’s work self, which is this impossibly perfect, acceptable part of them, and not all of them.

The call to action for our incoming, younger, early-in-career talent is for this greater authenticity. They respect vulnerability in people. They want to see that, know that, and consider it a part of all of us, regardless of how senior or how executive you are.

Anybody who says that this is entitlement in terms of being seen and heard, I like to say we all want to be seen and heard. Generationally, we may not have had that. Many of us did not. Most of us did not. We didn’t even know to ask for it. We didn’t even know it was possible. We didn’t have the power to make it a reality. We didn’t. It was a different time.

I’m sure nobody listening to this ever repeats the word “entitlement” without challenging it. Ageism is the last acceptable “-ism,” and I hear people throw around a lot of stereotypes about different generations these days, which is somehow still acceptable. We need to take a harder look at the important message that’s coming from younger talent around employee engagement, around the employee being first. I love that. I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for mentioning that book. Maybe we can include a link to it in our show notes.

Brian, we’re out of time. I want to give you one more chance to put our program in context and identify who you think it’s important for. If you could give some advice.

BRIAN M: Sure. It’s a great question. From my experience with the program, if you’re someone who has a responsibility for building a strategy or a roadmap or being a true champion for diversity and inclusion, the program helps to give you the framework to think about telling your story, how you build that roadmap and plan, and how you think about some of these core elements of this important work. It can impact a broad range of people who can find value from it. Certainly, it’s been impactful for me and I would recommend it. As you know, I’ve posted about it on Facebook. I can give it high comments.

JENNIFER BROWN: Double thumbs up.

BRIAN M: Two thumbs up.

JENNIFER BROWN: Two thumbs up! Thank you, Brian.

BRIAN M: Absolutely. Thank you for inviting me and for letting me share my story as well as to share about my experience in the program. It’s been great. And for all of your help and being part of my journey as a diversity and inclusion professional, thank you. I’m much more successful because of you and your team. Thank you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Brian. On that note, I’ll wrap up. Thank you for joining me.

BRIAN M: Thank you.

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