NASA’s DEI Journey with OD Specialist Diane Cain and JBC’s Adrienne Lawrence

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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This episode features a conversation between JBC Vice-President Adrienne Lawrence and Diane Cain, Organizational Development Specialist at NASA. Diane discusses the important role that DEI plays in her work as an organizational development specialist and the evolution of NASA’s DEI priorities. Discover the reasons behind NASA’s interest in inclusive leadership and the culture shift that is driving the need for a change in the approach to leadership.

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


DIANE CAIN: So that self examination is definitely something our folks have learned, that all of this work begins with you. Begins with you, and it begins with you taking a very hard look at who you are, and start with that value stream. And for me, what I've learned is every now and then I don't dismiss my value, but I might have to put a value, what I call on hold. I take it off of the burner and I put it over on the side, like you're cooking rice and rice is bubbling up and you take it and you just put it on the eye next to it so that it goes back down. I might have to put it on hold because I need to listen. I need to hear, I need to be able to just mull it around a little bit in my brain and come to, Hmm, I agree, I disagree. It's okay for us just not to be on the same page, whatever. And then I'm going to pick my rice back up and I put it back on the corner.


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 to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advise top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now onto the episode.

Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change, this is Doug Foresta. today's episode features a conversation between JCB Vice President Adrienne Lawrence and Diane Cain, Organizational Development Specialist at NASA. Diane discusses the important role that DEI plays in her work and the evolution of NASA's DEI priorities. All this and more, and now onto the episode.


ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Diane, thank you so much for joining me. I'm excited to have you here. I know you're the organization development specialist at NASA and we have worked together in some of the DEI work we've done. Thanks so much for joining us.

DIANE CAIN: Well, it was nice to see you again Adrienne.


DIANE CAIN: And even though you're making it sound like I'm at all of NASA, I'm actually at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. So one of many OD specialists at NASA.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Yes. But you are such a big deal. You're at NASA and I know so many people are excited about that. I myself, when I came out to do inclusive leadership training with your colleagues and your team, I know I was thrilled.

DIANE CAIN: We were very happy to have you. Very happy to have you.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Well thank you so much. And I guess we've already touched upon one of the questions that I had in terms of how DEI plays a role in the work that you do in addition to this inclusive leadership training. I guess what other avenues, what other ways?

DIANE CAIN: It's embroidered into everything that an OD person does. Because we take a very systems approach to the work, to the discipline of organization development. So we're looking at all facets of the organization. We're looking at how it's actually set up from an org chart standpoint, down to the individual person, the processes, the procedures. So as you put all these pieces of the puzzle together to indeed say you've got an organization, you've got to look at what's going on with the DEI&A as it applies to any facets of that organization. So it's embroidered in everything because of the systems view.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Yes. And I think a lot of people don't realize how broad DEI is in terms of touching every aspect of an organization. Whether it's not only just having more inclusive hiring practices, but it could even be the font that's used on the website so that individuals who are dyslexic can read and process that information. It's so incredibly broad. And so I would imagine that in your role as an organization development specialist, that you find that it touches almost every corner of the work that you do.

DIANE CAIN: It absolutely does. And believe you me, we've got rules and regs that begin to fall into place that you have to make sure, "Well I have you read 7120.234 that says that the font needs to be..." All of that is a part of what we apply, know, and really stick to in the work that we do. So that it is an inclusive environment, so that every individual has what they need in order to be successful in the organization.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: And I know that we are all very grateful for that in terms of the work that NASA does, because it's thrilling, it's interesting, the scientific element, engaging. And so I'm sure over the course of NASA's evolution as it takes on new projects and also as our world develops, that NASA's DEI priorities have evolved over the years. I guess how have you seen the change over these years in terms of how NASA either approaches or invests in DEI?

DIANE CAIN: I've been at NASA 16 years, so I've seen quite a few different things happen. But probably the biggest would have occurred a couple of years ago where NASA values, which have been historical. Were actually added to. And inclusion became a value, became a value of NASA at that point. So it became known for everyone that it wasn't just a nice thing to do, but it was part of who we are. It's part of who we are. So it's a value. It's a value that we build upon, that we build upon.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Yeah, and it's a very important value, especially when you really see it in practice and you see it play out. And I'm sure with the work that NASA does, it truly is investing in top tier talent and resources in order to be able to succeed and to thrive and really to meet our goals as a country when it comes to exploration of space as well as advancement of science. And so I'm wondering, as we ended up partnering together as a concerned inclusive leadership, how did that become a priority for NASA? We know inclusion definitely became, but what about inclusive leadership made NASA really want to say, "You know what, we want to seize this."?

DIANE CAIN: Well, our Center Director actually was at the beginning of looking at inclusive leadership and wanting her leaders at Marshall Space Flight Center to really once again take it from being a nice thing to do to, hey this is part of the work you are being asked to do, you are being held accountable for. So she actually started the ball rolling and said, "Hey, those that report to me..." Her direct reports, she wanted to be exposed to inclusive leadership and brought in Jennifer Brown Consulting to do that. So she started the ball, We continued to make it roll so that not only just her direct reports, but their direct reports, and their management below. And now we're even looking at making available to anyone within Marshall Space Flight Center, at least a snippet of that learning in a virtual setting that they can attend. So it's very true that it starts at the top for certain things to happen. And she started it at the top. It started at the top.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Wow, that's fantastic. I love to hear of the level of investment and it's been really cool to be a part of the journey in terms of inclusive leadership and sharing that knowledge with your colleagues and your teammates. I guess, what is it about the inclusive leadership conversations that we've been having that you think is really resonating with your team members?

DIANE CAIN: I think for many it was what I'm going to label as discovery. Because they've heard some things repackaged in a way that they probably had previously heard through many other learnings, but in a different way. And sometimes we may be in a workshop or in a learning environment, but as my grandparents used to say, it would come in this ear and go out that one very quickly. But it was very well repackaged. And for them it was discovery. I'll give you an example, one of the sections was on intent versus impact. They have heard intent versus impact in several other workshops, but this time it hit home. It hit home and they said," Oh, you know what, I've done that before." Whereas before they probably would not have acknowledged that they did something like that before. So it was the repackaging, it was making it relevant.

Definitely it's relevancy in today's world of work, In today's world of work. We're coming into a blended work environment, which is brand new for a lot of folks and especially folks at NASA. We were used to pre-COVID, pre-pandemic, everybody commute to work, commute home. And then we had to go through that pandemic and COVID, and it was everybody go home, stay home, don't come to work for two years we made it that way. Now we're beginning to transform. And some folks still are cautious, very cautious. But now policies and procedures are beginning to modify. So intent versus impact, very real in today's work environment, very real.

Because now, as folks will say, the metal is striking, the metal is actually striking. And sometimes the intent of some of those policies have a quite different impact once they are actually rolled out. So it's relevancy, it's the discovery that can happen at any given point as we go into a modified way of working. A modified way of working. And just as a side note, I love working from anywhere. Love it, love it, love it. Would not go back to commuting if I had to.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: I am right up there with you. And I always kind of find it a little bit interesting whenever I'm doing focus groups or I'm interviewing individuals from organizations and people say that they miss the office so incredibly much. But it reminds me that some people, they don't necessarily have maybe strong home lives or connections with others. And so they were getting their interpersonal interactions in the workplace. And so in realizing how significant it is for some people, it makes me remember that, it's just another reminder that there are so many differences out there and that there are people who want to get back in the office and whatnot.

But I really definitely enjoy the conversations I have with your team about inclusive leadership. And I love to hear that things like intent versus impact are resonating. It's something I definitely pride myself on. And I spend a considerable amount of time coming up with new ways to deliver content and information so it sticks, and so that people realize that they are empowered to be a part of the change and to give them examples in ways in which, and tools that they can execute that. And that's so incredibly important, especially as we enter these new and evolving workplaces. And so as we enter them-

DIANE CAIN: Most definitely.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Yes. And I know that you soon will be clocking off at a certain point in time given the prospect of retirement, which most of us look forward to ourselves. But you have had a long career working in this larger, HR, interpersonal relationship type of umbrella. And so I'm wondering what challenges have you come across in your work as an internal organization, basically a DEI practitioner?

DIANE CAIN: Oh my goodness. I tell folks that when I look back, I think I was... Well I know, I don't think, I know I was an OD practitioner before the term became real. Before it became real. Back then you were just a consultant, even if you were internal to the organization. But I had to chuckle a couple of times because I thought back to when I was in my corporate environment. And at that point you didn't get to see people. You didn't see them as you were beginning to set things up, or make things happen, or get ready for a workshop, that may have been in a different place that where your office actually was.

But I remember I had such an engagement, different state, made all the connections via telephone. So telephone consultations, many of those. And then on the day that I was to show up to indeed get things started, I walked into the office and introduce myself, "Hey, I'm Diane Kane, here to, let's get started." And the lady looked at me just with shock. I mean shock, total shock. And I looked at her and I said, "Is there a problem?" And she looked at me and she said, "You're Black."

And I said, "Last time I checked, yes I am." She said, "Well, you didn't sound Black on the phone." You didn't sound back on the phone. And so yeah, DEI journey, it goes from there to today and really thinking about privilege, really thinking about privilege and what that means in today's blended work environment as opposed to many, many years ago. So quite a road, quite a journey. I might have to write a little book on that.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: And I think we would all be much better for it, that indeed. These experiences that it sounds like you've had not only as a DEI practitioner but a professional and as a Black woman, these are things that do not leave you.

DIANE CAIN: No. But even though you do, you have to chuckle. And even that day when it occurred, I chuckled. I chuckled, it was like "Yeah, last I checked, but where's the workshop going to be held? I need to get some things set up." You just transition and you move on. Transition and you move on.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Exactly, that's all you can do at times. Oh, it's such a journey indeed, indeed. And so I know it's been a journey, 16 years at NASA and you are going to be hanging it up very soon. But as you reflect over the work you've done, what do you think has been the most rewarding part of working in DEI at NASA?

DIANE CAIN: I can't think of just one thing, but got to remember that DEI is culture. It's also about culture shift. So I've seen that shift in the culture, given the many curves in the road that are there from an organization standpoint. But I've seen us begin to really pay attention to the data, pay attention to the data. Because got to remember too, NASA is all about engineering, and engineers, and engineers mindset. And I remember when I first got there, I said, "There's no such thing as an engineers mindset." Well I've come to believe there is. They are a different breed of people and they think a different way. So you have to start to think like them. You almost have to start to think like them, and they're data driven, they're simply data driven. And once you can tell your story, once you can bring them the case, then they get the aha moment.

So it is getting to the aha moment that moves them in such a unified way that you begin to see slowly but surely the culture shift. So the culture's beginning to shift, it's beginning to shift. Lots of different factors that are playing into that shift. I can't say it's just DEI that is doing that, but it's DEI, plus pandemic, plus three generations, four generations in some cases at work together. It's the blended work environment, all this that's beginning to become a huge almost tsunami. Tsunami of DEI. You've got to start to pay attention to it. So the data is driving folks to say, "Ha, we're going to have to make some modifications to the way we do business." To the way we do business. So I'm beginning to see that happen. It took a while and it took several different pieces of the puzzle also shifting, that now you're beginning to see them come together and begin to take shape, actually takes shape into a culture and paying attention to the culture that we are calling work, that work culture.


DIANE CAIN: I think that makes sense.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Yeah, no that indeed makes sense. Yes it does. I find that a number of organizations are still in an old school mindset of the thought that they get to dictate what the culture is and how people show up. And as we have, with the advent of social media, with people being able to share their experiences all being given a microphone as well as just the societal shifts and Gen Z and other generations coming in that have a different mindset. That old school mentality employers, they're finding themselves at a loss. And they don't know how to interact and they don't know how to keep the best talent because they don't know how to think differently, to shift, to be ready to be adaptive and still create environments that are welcomed, valued, respected, and heard in terms of how their employee base feels.

And so in having these conversations, and one of the things I actually love that I did with your team members is being able to give them tools. Because the reality is that we may not understand certain concepts, we may not understand certain sociological changes, evolutions, we're not going to get it and there's a chance we're not going to get it all without a doubt. And so it doesn't necessarily mean that we can't use the tools we have, to use that language to still create an inclusive environment. And so when people have those tools, they have the opportunity to advance the relationship, the connectedness, to create a psychologically safe environment, one that harmonizes and makes employees feel welcomed, valued, respected, and heard. And that's something I love. And I really, really got that sense while working with your team members that they were empowered by that and committed to it.

DIANE CAIN: Very much so. Very much so. It's interesting in the work that I do, I also do some coaching with some of our newer employees. And by that I mean early career employees. And we were talking one day in a session about psychological safety. And the young man said he never heard that term before, that he didn't understand exactly what that was. And I said, "You've never heard the term psychological safety?" And that just went into a much broader conversation from his perspective, as to what is safety to begin with? And let's take it from beyond trip, slips and falls down to more of the wellbeing side of it. And finally he came full circle to understand, "Oh, now I get it. That's what that means."

But he had no idea what the term psychological safety was about. And so even our lexicon that is being used in the world of work now, we've got to be careful. Got to be careful, because sometimes folks go, "I don't know what the heck you're talking about. I don't know what you're talking about." And I found that to be, that term psychological safety, we had to work it all the way in so that he could go, "Oh I got it, I got it."

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Those aha moments are so incredibly powerful, especially when you know that somebody feels a little bit more empowered to be able to approach their daily life, their professional life and have a greater understanding of the work around them and the opportunities to connect with their colleagues. That was definitely an issue I enjoyed talking about with your team members, the psychological safety of work environments. And getting people to empathize with what it's like to not be psychologically safe. And oftentimes, one of the examples I use takes people back to childhood and it's a very vulnerable place of, and I'll say, might have had a parent who was very short with you, who if you asked a question they barked at you, or they made you feel little, or a sibling who mocked you if you said something that maybe wasn't exactly right.

And it's like those things sting and they stay with you, and they make you feel little and small. And your response was probably not to necessarily engage moving forward, to be a little bit quiet, to not necessarily go all in or share your thoughts. And helping people understand that this still happens at workplaces every day. That oftentimes people who've learned this behavior will engage in it with their colleagues. And we want to avoid that because we know that going over the consequences with them and whatnot. But getting people to truly put themselves in a place and position where they can empathize with the situation, I find that to be very helpful for it to resonate with them.

DIANE CAIN: Very much so. One of the things that I've also learned is, folks will push back when we get into DEI conversations, or workshops, or round tables and go "You're trying to change my values." And it's not about changing your values, definitely not about that. Because that is really who you are. But it does take taking a look at what are your values and knowing what they are and giving them language, giving those values language. And I find so many folks have never done that.


DIANE CAIN: They'll say "You're trying to change my values." And I'll say, "Well what are they?" And "Well, I can't put it into words." Well, at some point that self examination is something that most of us have not done. And that another handful of us simply fear, that if we ever do it, we'll come up with some stuff we don't particularly like, but it may be part of that value stream.

So that self examination is definitely something our folks have learned, that all of this work begins with you, begins with you, and it begins with you taking a very hard look at who you are and start with that value stream. And for me, what I've learned is, every now and then I don't dismiss my values, but I might have to put a value, what I call on hold. I take it off of the burner and I put it over on the side like you're cooking rice and rice is bubbling up and you take it and you just put it on the eye next to it so that it goes back down. I might have to put it on hold because I need to listen, I need to hear, I need to be able to just mull it around a little bit in my brain and come to, hmm I agree, I disagree, it's okay for us just not to be on the same page, whatever.

And then I'm going to pick my rice back up and I put it back on the burner. So sometimes you have to put it on hold so that you can be truly present to just hear. And that's part of what is needed by each one of us in the work community, is to do that self examination. Do that self examination, start with the values. And sometimes we'll have to... If they're bubbling up, you might have to put them on hold, but you never get rid of them. Those are your values, once you've given them a language. But it's that self examination that I really push for in everything that I do at Marshall Space Flight Center. Let's start with you, let's start with you.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Wow, that is bold. I will tell you that's bold, in part because as you've noted, some people aren't ready for that conversation, especially when they find out that that 'value' is truly just a manifestation of something that maybe it's a term they don't like. Maybe it turns out that that principle is homophobic or that value turns out that's actually a racist belief. And so when people have to do that introspective work, some of them, it'll rattle them and not everyone is ready for that kind of awakening. So that is extremely bold to know that you are working with people on that level. And I know you are getting results because I've met your team members.

DIANE CAIN: It might take them a minute, might take them a minute. And they may even say, "Well, Diane we'll just have to leave this session, disagree." That's fine, but I'm going to check on you and I'm going to see where you are in a little bit. I'll let you sit with it for a while. And once you sit with it for a little while, things usually normalize. They will normalize out and they're ready for that next step. They're ready for the next step at that point.


DIANE CAIN: So it's great work, great work.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: I love that and I love that for you, and all the work that you've done in the lives that you've changed. And so I'm wondering, even though you are going to be tapping out to a certain extent in terms of retirement pretty soon, when you look at DEI and the journey it's on, whether it's at NASA or even on a larger framework in terms of just generally with organizations, what excites you most about where DEI is headed?

DIANE CAIN: What excites me most? That the door is wide open. I guess I've been around long enough to have been there when the door was closed almost. And now it's this, and you got so many different facets to explore. So it's just the magnitude of the exploration that is available now. You can take it anywhere you want to, anywhere you want to for the betterment of the individual, but also for the betterment of the organization that it's a vast undertaking. Can it be a fun journey? It could definitely be a fun journey.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Yes, I love what you're saying in terms of the door being open, because you're absolutely right. And I often lead things back to social media, but I will say it, having people have their own mics and being able to talk about whether this is what it's like to not have a left hand, or this is what it's like to have this experience and to share those things. We are now exposed to so much more and what people's journeys are. And that also I think opens people's minds to having these conversations and a lot more in terms of stories are being heard, and the conversations are being had that have generally not been had.

DIANE CAIN: That is so true. And you mentioned social media, I hate to say this, but during my tenure at NASA, it's all encompassing, it takes up all your time. But I'm not a big social media person, I'm not going to say I am. I don't have any time left to go out on the social media. So one of the things I'm looking forward to is seeing what's going on out there, see what folks are saying, that will definitely be part of my opening the door a little bit wider. Because social media just has not been one of those things that I simply have the time to even put into. So we'll see in the next couple or three months, what I've learned simply from social media.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: It'll be interesting, because if you call me in a few months and say, "Adrienne, why didn't you stop me? This rabbit hole, it's so dark and treacherous."

DIANE CAIN: Well, I'm not going to let it stress me out now. That's not going to happen. But just to get out there and to see what's there, sample what's out there. I'm really looking forward to it. Looking forward to it.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: That's absolutely wonderful. And I know that as you enter this new chapter in your life, you are going to make some incredible memories as well as having left a hell of a legacy at NASA. And so I'm very, very grateful that you're able to join us today. Thank you so much. Diane Kane, Organization Development Specialist at NASA in Huntsville, Alabama.


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