Bernard Coleman, Chief Diversity and Engagement Officer for Gusto, joins the program to discuss his career journey and what he has learned from ERG’s and employee activism. Discover DEI trends and best practices, and how to ensure employee engagement when managing a distributed workforce.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- The impact of DEI policies on HR functioning (19:00)
- Bernard’s career journey and how he came to his current role (23:00)
- Bernard’s experience working on a presidential campaign (26:00)
- What it was like to work in DEI at Uber (29:00)
- How ERG groups can be a powerful voice for change (38:00)
- Why the need for inclusive leadership has grown (40:00)
- What makes Gusto a unique place to work (44:00)
- Tips for recruiting and retention (48:00)
- How to use data to improve inclusivity and belonging (52:30)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Hello, all of my listeners on The Will To Change. I am so glad you’re tuning in today. We are going through some really intense change as a country. And on the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is my passion, and I know probably yours too, if you’re listening to The Will To Change. There’s so much to learn and so much to flex around that’s occurring. And so, I wanted to make sure that everybody knew the kinds of support that we are providing. We are providing something every week on Thursdays at noon, Eastern, which we called the DEI Community Call. And it is a free hour long call.
People have called it the DEI spa because it is known to restore us, to connect us with each other, to remind us about the critical importance of our work, to remind us of the strength of our community, and that we aren’t alone at this moment. And the beautiful diversity within our community of people doing this work. Whether it’s folks who are doing it as their paid job in organizations, folks who are volunteering their time, folks who write about and podcast about the topic, and people who want to do this work, which is more and more all the time. So, we hold these calls on every Thursday at noon, and I wanted to make sure that you have the text.
You can send a text to get on the RSVP list. And once you’re on that RSVP list, you will always know about the upcoming calls, who the guests are, what the topics are. And also you will have the opportunity to listen to the replay, which is really important. Because sometimes we just can’t make that call at noon, Eastern on Thursdays. You could also read the chat, which is really interesting in these calls, really vibrant, full of ideas, and resources, and links, and offers to connect, and offers to meet up offline. And I know that much serendipity has been introduced into the world because of the connections that have been made on the chat alone for these calls.
So, I really encourage you to stay close to us because we are constantly pivoting in this changing world. We are constantly doing our head and our heart and our hand’s work to figure out how do we create change amidst so much uncertainty and chaos and countervailing forces and polarization? So, if you would to get on this list you can text DEICommunity to 33777. So, if you put 33777 into your text to field, and then write all one word DEICommunity it will prompt you to provide some information, which we will guard, of course, and keep safe. But it will get you into the mix and onto the list. And you can download a calendar reminder, and you can join us and feel all the things that I described.
I just have to say we’ve been doing these since March of 2020 every single week, and they have kept me going on a personal level. The checking in with the community reminds me of the magnitude of the work, but also the brilliance and the intelligence and the creativity of this community of advocates. And I know for me, it’s been a touchstone. So, please consider joining us. And now on to today’s Will To Change.
BERNARD COLEMAN: To me, that’s really exciting when people get involved. Even when I think back to my days in politics, the more people are involved makes me excited when people are engaged and want to do something for progress, and it’s permanency, that’s exciting to me. So, I think ERG is going to be leaned on even more as people try to look for new solutions. And I think they’re going to be… Again, like they were the wind beneath my wings at Uber. They’re going to be I think the solution havers where we can look to for finding the path forward.
DOUG FORESTA: Everyone has a diversity story, even those you don’t expect. Welcome to The Will To Change with Jennifer Brown. Get ready to hear from leading CEOs, best selling authors and entrepreneurs as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion. And now here’s your host, Jennifer Brown.
Hello, and welcome back to The Will To Change. This is Doug Foresta. Of course, I’m here with Jennifer Brown. In today’s episode we have quite an accomplished individual joining us on this episode, Bernard Coleman. He is the Head of Employee Engagement at Gusto. Before that he was the Global Head of Inclusive Engagement for Uber. And he also was the Chief Diversity and Human Resource Officer for the Hillary for America’s Diversity and Human Resources Initiative. The first ever chief diversity and human resources officer in United States history for any presidential campaign of either political party. Other than that he really-
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow, wow, wow.
DOUG FORESTA: Pretty impressive, Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yes. I love Bernard. And PS for all of you that are true blue DEI community call attendees. Bernard is going to be joining us on one of our Thursday noon Eastern calls coming up. So, stay tuned for that where he will answer questions, which I’m sure there will be a ton of because he’s one of these people that has been in the work for a really long time, has had a really you said illustrious career and really industry spanning too, which is really unusual. I have to say I don’t know of a lot of diversity practitioners, I guess, I would call Bernard in addition to all of his other talents that have also led this work in campaigns. So really, really cool.
And boy talk about good under pressure, right? At one point he shares in the Hillary Clinton for America campaign. They were hiring 100 people per week, and adhering to diversity metrics, and really good metrics. The representation on the campaign was he shares some specific numbers that align with the audience and the population at large. And all those ways that we benchmark our workforce demographics, and doing all that in a campaign environment. I can’t imagine how difficult it is. In addition to building probably all the HR infrastructure that Bernard also knows how to do. He used to work actually at the Society for Human Resource Management, too, which is called SHRM.
So that background of campaigns and HR equips Bernard I think to be so effective. As I thought about how well round his experiences, and I really feel for him when I realized that the time he hopped over to the private sector, hopping into Uber at that particular moment, Doug, I was thinking back he reminded me about delete Uber that was all happening when he joined. And then also Susan Fowler’s memo dropped about the culture at Uber being one that was extremely toxic. And that kicked… I remember that just sent shock waves through everything. And then there was tremendous turnover in the leadership of the company. And strangely enough, but not surprising to me. And to anybody who’s listening to this, the ERGs at Uber provided this grounding force and this stability throughout all of this chaos that was happening at the top.
It’s yet another value proposition. I think we talk a lot about ERGs on this show. But the to have the network’s be reminders of what works about the culture, reminders of what’s important, reminders of retention mechanisms. We call this episode The Port in the Storm. And ERGs could be, can be that stabilizing force that folks on the ground continuing to do the work. And I hadn’t really thought about them in that way. But in this case, I think Bernard says it was sort of a lifesaver for him and for the culture as it was going through so much change.
So, when I think about all of the companies we work with are going through such tremendous change, and that’s not going to slow down. If anything, it’s accelerating with the uncertainty of the world. But I do think we need to keep in mind that the culture keepers, if you will, of an organization can live in perhaps unexpected places in an organization. I mean, to me, it’s not unexpected. I understand this to be true. But I don’t know if senior leaders, for example, truly understand all the value propositions that these networks bring. And this is one of those. So I just want to put a pin in that. Something to think about, something to feel extremely proud of if you’re a part of these networks, and you’re an advocate and using your voice. Know that the service that you’re providing through your passion and commitment is stabilizing, and I think grounds cultures in chaos. That could have been another title for the episode, Doug.
DOUG FORESTA: I was going to say, yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Cultures in chaos.
DOUG FORESTA: Grounding cultures in chaos.
JENNIFER BROWN: Maybe we’ll change it. And then happily enough now Bernard is at Gusto. And we are actually… We work with Gusto as a small firm so Gusto supports some of our HR outsourcing needs. And we have a really good relationship with Gusto. And now Bernard finds himself in a much smaller company. So from an employee size perspective, but having this entirely different brand, not in the hot seat at all with extremely high ethics because of the confidentiality of the information they handle, you can imagine. And so, that culture needs to be… Not that any culture doesn’t need to be extremely vigilant. But Gusto feels to me and the way he describes it as very stable, knows who it is, knows who it wants to be, very well aligned. And he’s positioned in this way that we talked about a lot where sometimes this isn’t true, but he is positioned to do his work and do what he thinks is needed and has the total support of senior leadership and particularly CEO, etc.
So, it’s an enviable position to be in, and one that a lot of us can only hope to work for people like that. But at some point in our careers, we will have that experience, I hope. It is not the norm. However, most people I talked to that have gone through three, four or five cycles in these D&I roles, eventually find a boss that is like, “I trust you. I have your back. You tell me what we’re going to do. You tell me what you need from me, and we will follow.” And Bernard deserves that because he’s a pro. My wish for our field is that we didn’t have to get through all the noise, I guess, and pushback and resistance on the way to doing what we know needs to be done.
I hope that we all get to experience a leader like that, and somebody who’s the wind at our backs, and that we are able to create and do things and do them quickly. Do them thoroughly. And also push the conversation as hard as we can, and as far as we can too because I think much of the pushback is around, well, we’re not ready for that. Or we can’t do that yet, or that’s a conversation that’s going to make people feel threatened. I don’t think Bernard is encountering that, which means somebody him with this vast experience, and also his personal experience as a black man. And he goes into his background too way back to his childhood, and he grew up. And going to an HBCU, and really having the aha moment of being in an all black environment, having grown up in a largely white community. And so, that transition and realizing the power of microaggressions, and the impact of them on him, and just his early experiences.
And then I’m sure in campaigns it wasn’t always wine and roses. So, anyway, to be able to bring all of that firepower to a role and having the supportive leadership. And having, in a way, a small enough company to come out of the headlines must feel very balancing for him. And so, I know that he’s doing really, really good work and there’s so much ahead for somebody like Bernard. I’m so excited to see what he’s going to do next. And really, at the point he is of teaching back into the field and telling his story, whether that’s in book form or whatever. So, I’m holding space for more from Bernard because the good in the world that he has created and that he will create, I know needs to be celebrated and looked to, and form the way we think about this field and ourselves as professionals in the field. So, I hope you all enjoy this as much as I do. And please follow his career trajectory and celebrate him where you can and enjoy the episode. Bernard, welcome to The Will To Change.
BERNARD COLEMAN: Thanks, Jennifer. Glad to be here.
JENNIFER BROWN: Bernard, would you mind taking us way back in the very beginning of the episode and just telling us a little bit about your growing up, and discovery of, I guess, DEI work before we even have the name for that in your own identity your family? Anything you’d to talk about where you have those aha moments growing up that led you to care about this work so much.
BERNARD COLEMAN: I grew up very middle class. And I’m not going to say I had blinders on to the world but a very positive experience. I’ll have to admit that race wasn’t really a factor. I think where I grew up was more so socioeconomics. So, if you had a nuclear family, two parents, house car, two cars, that was the standard where I lived. I grew up in Northern Virginia, suburb of DC. So, going to college, I went to historically black college university named Hampton University in the Tidewater area of Virginia. And that is where I had my awakening going from a very more fluent, predominantly white high school to all black experience, and it opened my eyes to… The awakening would be in a sense of this love being around black folks. It was kind of like a Mecca. [inaudible 00:15:20] refers to that at Howard University, that was his Mecca. But it was an eye opening experience, but also a different treatment for what I experienced in Northern Virginia.
I think for me, one of the things where I experienced… I’m not going to say I experienced racism for the first time, but was in my face. I went to the mall with some friends. It was five or six of us, went to the mall. I was going to buy some hair clippers to cut my hair because I always cut my own hair. And we were walking in the group of six people and the mall security said we needed to break it up. And that the mall prohibited more than four people standing together, and we could be escorted off if we didn’t break our group up. So, we had to divide four of us walking, and then the two of us walking. I thought that was odd when I would look at other patrons who were not black weren’t being treated that way.
I remember calling my dad as a lawyer. I’m like, “Dad, what’s up with that? How come they could do that to us?” He said, “Well, it’s private property, and they can set the rules that they want to set.” But that never happened in Northern Virginia where we were from. No one ever did that to us. He said, “Well, you’re in the south.” And so, that was really eye opening because my lived experiences didn’t support that. I always thought I was treated fairly. So, that wasn’t in my face. But going to Hampton, I started to see more of the differences as a black person you can experience.
So then you start to wonder, is that in my own head, or is this real or imagined? And then fast forward to when I got more deeply into this work, and I knew I wanted to do this work is when I became familiar with the word microaggressions. It was finally a word for how I felt because I always… With microaggressions, you’re wondering did that just happen? Am I in my own head? Or am I being paranoid? And so, once I found there was a term for it then you go back and revisit all those experiences, and then wonder, and then conclude that it’s not me, that actually happened. And that feels pretty crappy.
But Hamptons is when I started to see the differences. There’s another one I remember I went to a store and they said, “Hello, how are you doing? We have a great layaway plan.” I thought that’s an interesting opening. Usually I’ll hit you with the layaway if someone’s looking at a code or whatever they’re looking at, and they keep picking up, putting it down, it looks they’re on the fence, then maybe do that as a, maybe I can close this sale if I let them know about layaway if that might be an issue. I thought that was an odd greeting. I remember being so offended. I’m like, “You know what, I don’t want here. I don’t want this coat. I’m leaving.” I remember telling my friend, “Are you offended because I am?” And I was like, “You’re not going to get any of my business.” But I started to see more and more of those instances where I didn’t see that in high school and before.
That’s why this work is that much more intriguing understanding why people do what they do, and how can we help heal that. And so, yeah, I started my D&I journey probably about 2010. I was at the Democratic National Committee. We were looking to do an executive search for the first Chief Diversity Officer there. And I was trying to do… Setting up our supplier diversity program. And then, as I was getting to understand the candidates and doing my research in terms of saying what are the qualifiers the work just seemed more and more interesting. And then I got to work with him. His name was Greg Hinton. And just in working with him, I learned so much.
And then I decided this is what I want to do because I had been the HR director at the DNC for some years before that. I think a lot of times working in HR is a natural progression into DE&I just because you could see the downriver effect if there’s ineffective DEI policies and programs and processes in place, you could see a lower incident rate on the HR functioning of things. So, you could almost see the interrelation, how everything’s interrelated, which I thought was… Which has helped me greatly in terms of saying, “If we do this, then in terms of the theory of change that should occur.” Or that might occur. Or we might mitigate this, or we might prevent that.” So for me, it was helpful trade craft to learn before getting into DEI because I could see how things are connected. And I might have to say to make the business case, but to see why that just makes sense.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I mean, not many of us in this field can count campaign experience in a diversity and people role at that in campaign. So, it’s so fascinating that you were Deputy Chief Diversity Officer and Director of HR at the DNC in, you said 2010, right?
BERNARD COLEMAN: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: So, take us back to those times. Were the conversations cutting edge for their time in that realm? I guess, what might we… I actually feel like I don’t… I can’t conceive of what you were tackling and how difficult it was or what you were met with, I guess, as a voice for that work. And I’m sure you were learning at the same time, your own practitioner skill set.
BERNARD COLEMAN: Yeah. So going back then at the time there the DNC chair was a governor, then Governor Tim Kaine, he’s now senator from Virginia, but he wanted more transparency. He wanted greater diversity at the DNC, and you’d think that would be the party’s natural proclivity to do, but it was new. And it was something that had never been done before. And they just wanted to make sure because a lot of times you can get to position through relationships just like how a lot of people get jobs, but it could be to the point where it might not feel fair. Like I want to apply to get a role at the DNC, but I can’t because I don’t know anyone. So, you really wanted to bring more exposure to what was going on and making sure our ranks are more diversified, making sure that people felt and knew that it was fair and open to everyone.
And so, really, I thought it was great wedding me as HR director, and then working with the Chief Diversity Officer because sometimes they don’t work so well together. And it could almost seem adversarial in some instances that I’ve seen, but we were sharing data, understanding our staff representation, understanding what we needed to do as an organization to broaden the tent, if you will. And so, it was well received. No one really rejected it, and the way it works at the DNC is you have DNC members, and they’re elected from around the country. But it’s a body of folks, and they all have different committee assignments. It was something they were calling for. It was something that Senator McCain definitely agreed with.
There wasn’t much obstacles, but you didn’t want to accelerate progress because this was new for most people. This was still, I guess, on the heels of affirmative action, EEL type of compliance versus DEI which is more-
JENNIFER BROWN: Strategic.
BERNARD COLEMAN: … more strategic, yeah. And so, it’s a definite shift for a lot of people what they’re familiar with. So, it’s basically deploying new techniques and ways to go about the work that just wasn’t the way it was done before.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, and backing up a moment, did you ever say to yourself, “Gosh, I wish I… or I need more formal to DEI training,” if there is even such a thing. We often talk about the fact that the field is not really treated like an academic discipline. And there’s still a dearth of formal programs. But I guess when you jumped in you were probably working from wisdom and instinct, of course, and then an HR background, but do you remember saying, “What is this DEI thing? And how do I get the skill set to know whether I’m doing this “right” or correctly, or I suppose what did you benchmark yourself against?
BERNARD COLEMAN: Yeah, it was a bit of both. I knew I needed to learn more because I used to work at the Society for Human Resource Management. And so, I felt like I was very close to HR just in working there for three years. But you’re right, the trade craft that you learn there is a lot different than being a DEI practitioner. And I remember, I told my boss, who’s the Chief Operating Officer at the DNC, a woman named Amanda Howe, now a great friend of mine that I would love to ascend into that role if Greg Hinto, who was the Chief Diversity Officer at the time chose to leave because he said he was probably going to leave after the 2012 cycle. She’s like, “Well, you need to get the bonafides if you want to do that.” And she’s like, “I’m supportive. What do you want to do?”
And so, I looked at Georgetown’s strategic diversity program, and Cornell’s, and I ultimately selected Georgetown just because I love Georgetown, growing up in Northern Virginia I just loved the Georgetown Hoyas. It was local, and then Cornell I would have to go up to Ithaca. And so, that was just too far for me. And this was before everything was online. So this is all in-person. So Georgetown was to me the obvious choice.
That was a really foundational program for me. Excellent professors, they’re taking through the systems and theories of diversity, equity, inclusion work, and they’re really helping you ground in how you can apply it in the workspace. Because it’s a lot of this theoretical unless you’ve been doing the work and having the knowledge. I was pairing the two. They really helped me develop my own philosophy and how the work should be done. So that was immensely helpful, but before that I was flailing. What does good look like? You’re scouring the web trying to find all the right articles, but is it the right stuff that you need to know to be an excellent practitioner is the question. So, I think Georgetown helped me solve that.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so good. I hear such good things about that program to this day and Cornell as well. So everybody who’s listening here that is wondering where to get your skill set, and get grounded in the work, and build your technical know-how. Those programs have now gone online, also, and are extremely good investments, so I would say. So, thank you for reminding me about that.
And then after that, we had Hillary Clinton for America Campaign where you got your chance to be the CDO and HR officer, and actually the first ever in US history for any presidential campaign for either political party. I didn’t realize that about you, Bernard, but wow. Tell us about that time. And so, you had polished up your skill set, you’d said, “Okay, this is what I’m going to do.” What shifted from that one campaign to another in terms of your own, I guess, point of view and approach. And tell us about what that time and the conversation, which had slowly but surely, I’m sure progressed, but it’s nowhere near, obviously, what we are having now.
BERNARD COLEMAN: Yeah, I mean, one, I was very excited to be able to be selected to be on Secretary Clinton’s campaign just because it’s a real honor to be one of the few who get that honor to be on a presidential campaign. And secondly, the fact that she made it so important, and central to our campaign, again, was another honor for me to be able to try to help us have a very diverse campaign. So, we were representative of the people who are trying to get the vote for us.
And so, it was kind of two hats because you’re doing a lot of infrastructure. So this is early 2015 in thinking about what our staffing needs, understanding what is representation? What does good look for our campaign? What’s the philosophy? Is it hiring from the bottom? Is it hiring from the top? We chose to find leaders who represented the broadest forms of all the constituencies that make up the Democratic Party. So, that way it was representative leadership. Because we thought the cascade would be easier to then tap into their electronic Rolodex is to find the talent and then build the campaign that you needed to be formidable.
And at the same time, you’re also doing the HR infrastructure. Your workers comp, setting up state insurance, setting up all the pieces, payroll, benefits, all the things. It’s like to launch a business, which is interesting. And then also writing the diversity plan, what’s that going to like? Thinking about the levels and trying to make sure we always had pay equity. It was a dual front, but what I loved about it was, one, again, that she made it… That she decided that it was important. So then when you know it’s important to your boss, everyone falls in line. And not that you would expect a lot of pushback, but it’s just nice to know that you have that support. So, I always felt supported in that and everyone was committed.
We almost gamified it with every week we would run our representation. I would run the representation numbers on Friday and Sunday give it to senior leadership. So that way, we could all look at it to know how are we doing? Week over week, in campaigns you ramp really, really quickly. You might every week hire 100 more people. So, you have to be top of mind all the time in terms of representation because otherwise you can get way off the mark. But the beauty of it is you have a leader who cares about it. But two, you’re doing it from the start, which I would argue is much easier versus, oh, now we’re at 1,000 people, let’s get to work. So, it was always day one.
And so, it was a lot of fun to see. And then I was seeing all these names that I’d worked with before because working in national level politics you’d see some of the same people and you’re like, “Oh, we’re really building a good team. This is a dream team of sorts.” it was really exciting to see it all come together. Because I think ultimately, we ended with across we had pay parity. The campaign was 38.5% people of color, which was right on for what we wanted for the voting age population. So, we were right where we wanted to be. And the leadership I think was 36.5% people of color. It was just so… I couldn’t ask for better outcomes. But again, it only worked because everybody was on the same page.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. And the power of leadership which we’ll talk about later because I know you’re really passionate as I am in aligning this work, and how that voice of leadership is so important, and how to lead is changing particularly after the lessons of 2020. Okay, so all right. So, then we move from campaign to the tech industry fun, fun. Tell us about what it was like then to translate how you’d been working on the campaign. Whether it’s the speed or the reporting or the fast growth.
You ended up then at Uber in a leadership role with DEI, and take us back to that time. I know it’s a company with challenges, right? We’ve all read about it, and I have felt for the D&I team there on a consumer level, somebody who’s on the other side, thinking, “Gosh, what must that be like. What’s going on?” It felt chaotic and difficult. But at the same time like a rocket ship. So, I wonder how would you take us back to that and who you were as a practitioner and what you were met with when you took that role on that either perhaps utilized what you developed in the campaign world, or felt like maybe it was a new growth opportunity for you that you needed to develop into?
BERNARD COLEMAN: Yeah, it was definitely a challenge of epic proportions. It was definitely what I… I knew some of the lore about Uber, and some of the things that I heard thrown around were boys club, and frat house, and stuff like that. So, I didn’t walk in there not knowing of what I was about to step into, but I think it dramatically shifted. I started in January 17th of 2017. And I remember the first week there, I mean, I remember my friends were like, “Wow, you made it.” Because a lot of folks moving from political to the private sector can be a jump from many. And move to tech, and then Uber was a big deal. So, in my little inner circle was celebrated and very exciting.
But then there was something called delete Uber where we saw hundreds of thousands of customers leaving the platform due to Uber’s perceived stance on immigration. And that was interesting second week, and you’re just like, “Wow, what’s happening?” But that was still very exciting because I’m like, “I feel like I can help.” And then it got further pronounced with… We’re actually moving from Virginia to California where we were living before. It was actually like we sold our house. It was a going away party, and my daughter’s birthday on the same weekend. And then the move around Presidents Day. So, all these big life moments.
And then there was, I think, a blog post by a woman named Susan Fowler, who was a former Uber employee speaking about her experience. And so, that was kind of a gut punch because I wasn’t really looking at email, or my boss said, “You’ve got to move. You got all that stuff going on. Do what you need to do.” And so, I tune in to see that this is all unfolding. So, I feel bad on a number of levels. One, I’m not there to help. Two, didn’t expect this, and then three just dealing with the stresses of all the life moves. And so, that was a lot. But then it unearthed lots of things that Uber had done. I think were in the public record, but people just weren’t aware of. And this was a combination of like, “Wow, this is a lot.” And I remember feeling, I’m prepared for this, but it’s just like, “I need a minute to get my bearings because it’s a lot more than from week one to…” It’s almost like the landscape shifted in terms of what you’re expecting to contend with.
And also, I think, from a morale standpoint it was hard. Every week, or almost every day, there was something bad in the press saying, “Uber’s this, Uber’s that,” and I think it takes a morale hit. It takes a big psychological hit because you think you’re doing something of meaning. And not that Uber doesn’t do something meaningful for people, but it’s hard to conceptualize. I guess the best way I can look at is if you’re just trying to process what happened and where am I and what am I doing? Is this aligned to my personal mission? I think I’m a purpose driven person. So there was impersonal and internal personal challenges in terms of thinking, “Is this what I want to be affiliated with?”
Thankfully, coming off the Hillary campaign, I think everyone knew where my ideologies were, and what I believe as a person. So, I think that it was able to extend me some grace. But you asked as a practitioner at that point, you’re just trying to see what works. I really leaned into employee resource groups. Really, really hard just because to tell you the truth, there were so much top level upheaval. The CIO was eventually ousted. Many leaders, things that they’d done in the past were unearthed. There was lawsuits. So, people get kicked out left and right or leaving. And so, there wasn’t stable leadership. And that’s when I thought grassroots is more important. The employee resource groups or the committed staff, they really care about the company, and they were willing to get to work, and they were like the wind beneath my wings. They really helped, I think, save Uber from itself. They were just so organized and so committed and willing to go the extra mile. It was amazing to work with them.
And still a lot of, to this day many of those folks are my friends just because I felt like we were in the trenches, and we trauma bonded in terms of what we need to do to help create stability and programs and processes to keep Uber afloat and really help us get to that very difficult stage. Because I think losing your leadership, public perception being what it was, was just a very difficult time to deal with. And absent leadership, you’re almost like some people are failing and wondering what to do, but thankfully the ERGs had they’re variable missions. We did an ERG summit, and we were able to align on what we wanted to do. And I think that to me was one of the most instrumental things I did at least that year in 2017 in conjunction with the ERG.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I just love them. And this is all unpaid by the way for those of us who are listening to this and aren’t as familiar with the world of ERGs. It’s mainly unpaid labor, but it comes from passion and commitment. And honestly, people almost solving their own problem of under representation and marginalization in organizations, and also guiding companies to really make the right choices. To invest in talent, to see and hear people, and address issues of belonging or to understand and learn about diverse customer segments that the ERG communities represent.
So, I know, I mean, Bernard, you and I are always aligned on the value, the tremendous, I think, unrecognized value of ERGs. And more and more actually, the groups are starting to become leadership of the groups are starting to be paid because it’s starting to be an acknowledgement that it is the business driver that we’ve we know it’s always been, but it’s just been very informal, and like you say grassroots. And yet, it’s been making a concrete contribution for a long time. And there’s so much more ahead of us too. I know you write in Inc. I want to direct people to the articles. You’ve written one of which is how to channel and play activism and lead with social advocacy. You elaborate on some of the things I just said, and why ERGs now in this new era are continuing to shape companies response and stance in a rapidly changing world. So, can you describe a little bit of how you’re seeing that role get even more important in the last year?
BERNARD COLEMAN: Yeah, I think I was reading Edelman, they have this trust barometer, and they’re talking about people are looking into organizations to as opposed to the government to be the solution, to be the ethical and responsible leaders to help us find the way forward. I think we both just talked about it, but ERGs, affinity groups, they are the canaries in the coal mine. I think they’re a microcosm of your customers. They’re a microcosm of society. And a lot of times the solutions are right there if you know how to tap into it, and understand and engage. That way they can be that force of change, force for good, wherever you want to call it, and really helping influence the solutions that are out there. Because I think a lot of times, folks are grappling with what should we do, and I think instinctively, a lot of times the canaries in the coal mine know which way to go, which way is up.
I think and because of that shift with activism you’re seeing people wanting to engage more, and it’s not outside your business. They want to come inside, and really be additive to the world. And so, I just think there’s a lot of ways to… I look at all the affinity groups or ERGs as constituencies, and how can we channel that energy into making a difference. And then, again, obviously, ties back to the organization. I think people care about organizations that have a mission that’s purpose driven, and that ultimately wants to do good in the world. So I think if you bring those things together, you have a perfect combination of events, to really, really positively impact society, the world.
And then if you start sharing that information with others, others can do the same thing and you can crowdsource progress, whatever you consider progress to be, but I think that’s the best way to do it. But it’s very exciting to see this… I’m not going to say this shift, but I think more people are being interested in being engaged, and stepping into civic engagement, stepping into ways it can be additive to their respective communities through their companies. I think that’s a real positive net benefit from what we’re seeing in society. People are just saying, “I need to get more involved. I want to do something about this or that.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, that’s so heartening. I think that’s a reason why the book I wrote in 2019, which really, I wrote in 2017, and 2018 because you write, and then it comes out is now finding an audience like it never has before because there’s just 2020 was a wake up call for so many of us to do more. And the question is, then now, okay, well, what is more? Because it’s for many people new, and they haven’t quite wrapped their head around it, or we haven’t wrapped our head around it. And then what do specific actions look like if I do want to step in and do more, or do differently, or be a different leader? What does that look on a day to day basis? And we get real tactical really fast. But it’s good. I mean, I welcome it.
I’m glad we’re having that conversation because that’s where the rubber hits the road. And if people can’t see what they need to do differently, they won’t make a change. So, I go to that spot where people get stuck, and I try to get them unstuck. So that we can have their contribution and their involvement and make sure that it’s a meaningful contribution. I know you have deep interest in leadership and how it’s evolving. And I know it has evolved over the course of your career. You ended up after Uber at a company called Gusto, which is a way smaller company super different, very much under the radar in terms of headlines, thankfully. And that’s where you find yourself now. And so where does leadership find itself now? And I guess tell us a little bit about Gusto too before you answer that question, and maybe some ways that you would characterize, A, what does the company do? And B, how would you characterize the culture as different from where you came before?
BERNARD COLEMAN: Yeah, Gusto, so to me it’s a little slice of heaven. I really love it here. I think what makes Gusto so special is, one, its mission. It’s helping small businesses win. Our whole core purpose is to help business take care of the back office stuff. You think about a small business owner, payroll, and 401(k), and benefits when I really want to focus on making my product or making my impact in the world. This is another bit of added complexity that makes it that much more difficult for that small business to function. What we’ve done is try to solve a problem and make the back office administrative work that much easier, so that way you can go do what you’re great at. I really love that.
I love the mission, and I think most people want to see small businesses win. And just the backstory on our founders, it’s based on, I think from a place of genuine, I think, love. They saw their parents as with small business owners, trying to do all this back office stuff, and seeing them toil and have to go through. Being a former HR director, there’s a lot of complexity to doing that and getting it right. When particularly you’re trying to do something else that you’re really good at, and you have to focus on this, too. It’s just makes running a small business that much more complex.
I think by us removing some of those obstacles and having this ease of use or someone to do the payroll and the benefits and the 401(k) just is I think a relief. And I think that’s what small businesses really appreciate. And so, I love that aspect of it. I love that our founders, that’s why they founded the company, because we’re thinking about their parents, and thinking about how the average small business owner might be also experiencing that. And so, to me that’s a compelling mission.
And then secondly, it’s in my background. I’ve used all the different products. I understand how it works. I’ve seen the ones that don’t work so well, and the ones that are excellent, and to be able to tell work in a place that’s helping small business owners very much is mission aligned. I think it’s doing the good in the world. Because I think, particularly when we think about the economic climate of last year, and where we even find ourselves now. I think the work is that much more important, and making sure we’re unblocking problems for small business owners. And then, I don’t know, how can you not love that? And then-
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, personally, yes. In fact, we’re a customer, so FYI.
BERNARD COLEMAN: I love it. I love it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Big for us.
BERNARD COLEMAN: And then from a leadership perspective, I think our leaders are really, I mean, sincerely care. this is one of the places where I’ve been where literally, really, really care about you as a person. We care about our Gustomers, as we call our customers. But really, the totality of experience and really caring and trying to be really thoughtful, introspective, and also living by their actions. I found it very easy as we implement our DE&I work, there’s not pushback. There’s not argument. There’s not make the business case. All the typical stuff that you might see other places. There’s none of that.
And the saving grace is we took all our leaders through all what we planned from our DE&I programming, and processes and policies back in 2019 before I even arrived at the company. We started our leaders on that journey. So, as we deal with more difficult issues, as a cohort, as a group, they’re stronger because they’ve already been talking about it, and we focused on racing this intersections well before… When everyone else is focusing on other constituencies, if you will, we want to start with the harder stuff, which is racing this intersection. And I think that’s helped us in terms of, one, evolving how we look at things, but also being able to accelerate and be in agreement on what we need to do next.
So, you asked about leadership. I’ve never felt a more committed leadership, but also I feel we talk about inclusion and belonging. I’ve never felt more free in the sense of I can really be me. Other places, I feel like you have to hold back or you’re afraid to say the wrong thing. Words like imposter syndrome, or you’re afraid if you go too far it could be unsettling for leadership because you said this or said that, that they didn’t agree with. I don’t ever feel that way, which is refreshing. I haven’t felt that way in a long time.
JENNIFER BROWN: And your report right to the CEO, right?
BERNARD COLEMAN: Yeah, I report to the Chief People Officer.
JENNIFER BROWN: Chief People Officer.
BERNARD COLEMAN: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: That is incredible. I know you’ve said really amazing things about your relationship with leadership. It struck me in our prep call you talked about when you go too far, you don’t go far enough, and you don’t know. And then you can pay the dearest price in terms of getting it wrong. Meanwhile, in a feedback vacuum because often we’re in the dark doing this work, and you have the exact opposite of that. You have this, you know that your leadership has your back. And then you can draw on your own experience, your judgment, your intuition about where does the company… How fast can the company go in its journey? And what are we ready for?
You just said, the difference between more advanced concepts. Like, one, I know you said you use as an intersectional restorative lens. That kind of conversation is not… That takes some preparation in order to be ready for that, and to have that really land deeply in the muscle of the organization, and feel like it’s actionable. Understandable and then actionable. I’m so glad to hear about a non dysfunctional relationship. It’s a little too rare, but I’m really happy, and you deserve it. After I think the tour of duty of extremely stressful jobs that you’ve had you have an ideal scenario, I feel like to really make change. And so, what are you… Tell us about that intersectional restorative lens? I was curious how you define it, and how are you all building your strategies with that in mind?
BERNARD COLEMAN: Yeah, when you think about that, it’s really thinking about representation, inclusion, social impact, and equity, and how they all go together. And then you juxtapose that against the employee lifecycle. So, from how we attract people. We call our recruitment team invite because we’re inviting you. We’re not trying to sell you on Gusto. We want you to want to come to Gusto. So we invite folks, and then you think about onboarding, and engagement and progression and retention. So we think about it as a totality of experience. So that way, it’s holistically, a holistic longitudinal journey as opposed to one piece and separating the pieces out. They all lock, they’re all interlocking.
And then we think about it from an intersectional perspective, we’re thinking about all the ways we can look at people’s… All the complexity, it makes me, and makes you, you, and understanding those intersections and how it shows up. And then by focusing on race, and then going outward it helps people see all the different layers and have an appreciation of said layers. And so, it’s a holistic perspective. And then we try to introduce tools like ombuds to help people understand, one, self help or self direct because we have an ombud service through a company called tEQuitable, which is amazing because it’s a third party, but it helps staff work through their own issues.
Let’s say something comes up. They could almost pressure test and see is this, what should I do here? And so, there’s almost like a self service model for folks who want to go that route. I mean, obviously, we have employee relations function that they can go to and escalate to but it just gives them more optionality and making sure that they feel adequately supported. But also it’s just thinking about, again, education and awareness. One thing we do is something called… We do this small group called bites where we can take something out of what’s going on in society, and it’s facilitated. And we talk about it, but what it’s doing is passively doing education and awareness for our staff because there’s lots of education and awareness that we just didn’t get in school or in life that usually isn’t spoken about at work.
From our framework, we want to create education, and awareness for our staff so that we can have those conversations. So we are less afraid because a lot of times, I think, what holds us back is fear of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing. But the more we can create education, the more I think we see each other, if it will. And it really all centers, again, looking at the representation piece. Looking at what’s the makeup, the inclusion piece that people find they belong? Do they get to be their full selves, the social impact piece. Are we doing right in the world in the equity piece? Making sure that we’re moving everything at parity because generally people should be moving at a similar clip.
If they’re not, and there’s outliers, we should be investigating why that’s occurring. And it’s thinking about that in the totality of experience. I think that’s what makes it more intersectional and restorative in the sense of we don’t want to carry the bias from other industries or other companies into our company, and replicate that. We want to see it without the problem and fix it. So that way, again, that person’s having the fairest experience as possible.
And then I got to say, my vantage point is my team is responsible for diversity, equity, inclusion, employer relations, and governance, and compliance. And what’s really neat about that is obviously, DEI intersectional holistic experience juxtaposed against employer relations where you can see the investigations where the hotspots are. And then you’d have policy and governance where you can almost create policies that support what you’re seeing. And you can almost get in front of things because you can almost see the downriver effects of one action over another. So, it’s the loveliest pairing in terms of helping, I think, to be more predictive and help staff feel fully supported.
JENNIFER BROWN: And you’ve got your finger on so many different dials, I feel like, and you can synthesize all these pieces. It’s appropriate. I would trust nobody as much as you to have you have the pulse. Because I know you’ll do the right thing with all that really good and rich information. tEQuitable, back to your ombuds. I’m curious when people share in tEQuitable sort of those maybe canary in a coal mine moments, those uncertain moments around maybe microaggressions or things that are getting in their way. Is that data… I know it’s confidential, but that must be another really fascinating source for understanding what’s getting in the way of belonging in the workplace. And then I guess, do you have access to that to share it with communities like the affinity groups to say, “Hey, so we know we have this challenge because we’re hearing it here and here. So, let’s go after this, or let’s put more education and attention over here.” I wonder, tell us a little bit more about what tEQuitable provides. And I know, it’s also… Isn’t it a diverse owned and founded organization, too?
BERNARD COLEMAN: Yes, it is. So, what’s great about tEQuitable is it’s still relatively new because we introduced it in October of last year. So we’re still going through the data and understanding what is it that we think we see. We’re taking that along with how we pulse our staff, with how we do performance reviews, we have to look at all the information sets, the data sets to understand what is it that we think we see. And it is a third party. It’s anonymous, but you can almost see where I guess smoke is, if you will. It’s not going to say it’s Maria in X department. It’s not like that.
It’s just to say that, “This is something going on. You might want to check. You might want to look into this.” And then, so I think that in itself is helpful. So that way, there’s confidence on the employee side that I can safely share what’s going on with me. But also, we can see where the smoke is. And if there’s smoke and might be fire we can then go see, and triage, and figure out what we can do to make it better for the employer, make it better for the totality of the experience.
I think that’s really important, when you think about ombuds, obviously, very popular in colleges. And so, there’s a familiarity there for a lot of early career folks, I think, and I think by creating more supportive spaces. There’s never safe spaces, but more supportive spaces for folks. We gain even more trust of our staff by giving them options, but two creating solutions that they can see and feel and know. So I think that’s why tEQuitable is so valuable in terms of all the other information that we have is you just see a day in the life of a Gustie, which is actually what we call our staff. So, that way they fully feel supported. And so, that when we do look at other datasets from our pulse surveys, what might that mean? Or what might we need to deploy to support that staff or to put here and put there?
So, I think it’s just an additive tool to make us more informed and more responsive. And, of course, we’re supplying diversity, the more minority, underrepresented companies, we can pull into our focus because we’re building a Supplier Diversity Program. That’s really important to us too because obviously, if we’re supporting the small business ecosystem, I think an equally correspondingly good Supplier Diversity Program is essential so that we want to make sure that we are supporting small businesses, such as tEQuitable. Lisa is the founder. She’s amazing. But that’s really important inside and out. So that’s another big effort for us this year.
JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent. I can’t wait to… I only learned about tEQuitable from you, and I’m going to definitely spread the word about that platform. But Bernard to end with, what are you most optimistic about in the realm of DEI work this coming year? What was, I guess, unleashed, or permissioned, or broken through last year that’s going to you think speed this work this coming year?
BERNARD COLEMAN: I think on the heels of the Breonna Taylors and George Floyds, there’s a greater awareness that I’ve never seen. I’ve read about it from a different era. But there’s awareness, And I feel because there’s an opportunity for if companies are being put in the math of you’re the leaders in this year. We expect you to do it. We expect you to help us find in third way. I feel like there’s a level of engagement from staff that we maybe have never seen before. And to me, that’s really exciting where people get involved. Even when I think back to my days in politics, the more people are involved makes me excited. When people are engaged and want to do something for progress, and its permanency that’s exciting to me. So I think ERG is going to be leaned on even more as people try to look for new solutions, and I think they’re going to be, again, like they were the wind beneath my wings at Uber. They’re going to be, I think, the solutions havers, if you will, or the end residents who we can look to for finding the path forward.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. A living breathing focus group, more like the pulse or the heart of the organization really is how I think about them. And it’s always good to have the involvement of people. I so agree with you. The worst you can find in an organization is a silent culture or a fearful culture where voices aren’t permissioned, where that kind of dialogue isn’t had, or being invited. I loved your word, and that the psychological safety, and I guess, supportive spaces versus safe spaces, which was another thing you said just now that caught my attention. When people sense that that is real, and that the net will be there to catch them, and they’re important, they can bring their full selves to work and all of their ideas.
That is when companies I think really thrive, and must operate that way in a chaotic and uncertain and unpredictable world. We’ve got to utilize everything we have at our disposal to see around the corner. And to leave anything on the table doesn’t make any sense, but particularly to leave the input and the involvement and the energy of the most diverse part in every way, and in every sense part of any workforce. To not get that input is such a missed opportunity. So, I wish you so much luck with Gusto. I think what an exciting, wonderful place. You gave an amazing commercial for it and so am I. I’m a happy customer. As a small business, I feel especially proud that we do work with you, and you are one of our vendors.
But Bernard, I think they are so lucky to have you. But I’m also really thrilled for you that you get to create this and put your mark on it and you’re meeting a company at such a great time to set everything up in I think the optimal way based on what you’ve learned from all your other positions. So in a way, it’s some really great things are going to happen I know because of that combination, and I thank you so much. Where can people find you? You write a lot. You’re prolific. So where can people find your work, more about you, where can we follow you, etc.?
BERNARD COLEMAN: Sure. I just want to thank you for creating this space to have this conversation. I think it’s so, so important. So thank you for that. I write for Inc. a little. I guess, my column is called culture code. And if you just go Bernard Coleman Inc. you can find it, and just whatever our musings are. I’m also on Twitter. That’s just Bernard Coleman free out there on the twitterverse. And then on LinkedIn, you can just find me, Bernard Coleman. But yeah, that’s where I guess I put out my content and just trying to share with the world. And like you just trying to get people to get more engaged and be the change.
JENNIFER BROWN: Be the Change. Well, you are living it and you’re walking it. Thank you, Bernard, so much for everything you’re doing.
Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion, and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.
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