Be More Podcast: Inclusive Leadership with Jennifer Brown
In this episode we’re joined by Jennifer Brown, founder and CEO at Jennifer Brown Consulting.
In this episode we’re joined by Jennifer Brown, founder and CEO at Jennifer Brown Consulting.
Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week we’re joined by Jennifer Brown, founder & CEO at Jennifer Brown Consulting.
Creating an inclusive company means creating spaces where everyone can bring their full self to work. And while it’s easier to assume your employees are happy, and to further assume that they feel seen and heard, the harder pill to swallow is often that they’re not, and they don’t. The answer? Compassionate action.
Taking stock of that situation is a difficult first step, but what comes after is a genuinely rewarding process—for people at every level of your company. That’s the mentality of Jennifer Brown, our guest on this week’s podcast. Her caring, honest, and direct approach to tackling diversity, equity, and inclusion has made her one of the leading voices in that arena.
Jennifer Brown is also the host of the weekly podcast: The Will To Change. Whether through her podcast, her writing in the Harvard Business Review or The New York Times, or in her most recent book titled, "How to Be an Inclusive Leader," Jennifer is both incredibly transparent and engaging.
"Many of us have invisible aspects of diversity that we really haven’t grappled with, or thought about as diversity dimensions."Jennifer Brown
If you want to know more about being an inclusive leader, then check out the key takeaways, or read the transcript below.
"I love the opportunity to expand our aperture and be more inclusive of all diversities. Particularly invisible ones, and particularly ones that broaden our thinking beyond race and gender."Jennifer Brown
Patrick Cournoyer: Jennifer Brown is joining me today. I cannot wait to have this conversation. In one word, she is amazing. Her caring, honest and direct approach to the reality of diversity, equity and inclusion in the world today, it’s inspiring. What I’m most inspired about with Jennifer is her vulnerability to share her individual story in such an authentic way. Whether it’s through her weekly podcast which is titled The Will to Change, sharing her thoughts via Harvard Business Review or The New York Times, or in her most recent book titled How to Be an Inclusive Leader. Jennifer is transparent and she’s incredibly engaging, which you are all about to experience. Jennifer, thank you for joining the conversation today.
Jennifer: Thank you, Patrick. I’m so excited to have this conversation. I love the optimism of your last area we’re going to explore. It’s good, it’s important. It keeps us going. There’s so much actually to look forward to and to shape together.
Patrick: Perfect. I agree, I think the times right now are the perfect opportunity for us to see what we can accomplish, to break down barriers, and to build the future that we want, in a lot of ways. Before we jump to the future, let’s talk a bit about the past and about your journey. You’ve had a very interesting journey. You worked in corporate America, you now run an extremely successful consulting business. Tell me about your journey and how you found the passion and internal inspiration to do the work that you’re doing right now.
Jennifer: Thank you for asking that. Most of us in our field have an inside joke that none of us set out to be this – diversity, equity and inclusion. Until recently, there weren’t a lot of — and there still aren’t a lot of — academic degrees. The body of work is evolving and developing and maturing. I anticipate it will be a more robust field, quote unquote. Many of us got here through really winding an unlikely path. Mine is no exception.
I was in nonprofits in my early days. I always knew I wanted to make a difference and work from a place of purpose and have an impact. I was a nonprofit advocate, community organizer. In fact, I met my partner, Michelle; we were community organizers at two social justice organizations in our 20s. Those were wonderful days. I was also a singer. I had cover bands and I was singing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chorus and I’m a classically trained musician since the age of five.
So I decided: I’ve got to go to New York and see if I can make it. I came to New York, I got my master’s degree in Manhattan School of Music in operatic vocal performance. I was ready to go, to be that triple-threat Broadway performer, fully on the path. Unfortunately, my voice just refused to cooperate. I ended up injuring myself several times and having to get vocal surgery and go through periods of total silence while the voice healed, and then sort of nurturing it and coaxing it back.
After a couple times of this, it’s not really tenable to use your instrument to make a living with eight shows a week, weeks and months at a time. It’s a hard life, anyway. I had to reinvent. I was so happy to discover ex-performers who’d reinvented into different fields. One of those fields was within the world of HR, which I hadn’t considered, and also specifically in the world of training and development, which would get me on platform, as we say in this world, but in front of adults and adult learners, and as a facilitator.
I just didn’t know this existed, but boy, I just took to it. For so many obvious reasons, I loved the field. I found and still find leadership fascinating. I find systems and organizational change fascinating and the role of the individual in that. Just the modern workplace became really interesting to me and something I could sink my teeth into that also felt adequately purpose-driven and humanistic, that I could also care about it. That it’s not just a technical discipline, but it was something I could really shape.
I was a facilitator trainer for a while as an independent, and then I had HR jobs as a director of training in industries as diverse as insurance, all the way to fashion. That’s a whole other time of life. I decided: I don’t think being an employee is for me. I got laid off in a restructure from fashion. I said, “You know, I think I just want to be in the classroom. I want to be doing the work. I don’t want to be managing the work.”
Which is ironic because, today, as the CEO and founder of quite a large team, I am managing the work. But at the time, I thought, “I just want to be making that difference right at the point of the ‘aha’ moment.” That point of learning and seeing the lights go on for somebody is just so transformative and fills my cup every single time. It never gets old. I went the route of the independent trainer.
I delivered hundreds of sessions on so many different topics in the leadership catalog, from presentation skills to business writing to negotiation skills. You teach what you most need to learn. I was constantly truly being a facilitator, which I think means that you can’t possibly also be a domain expert in all the things that you facilitate when you’re a professional facilitator.
What it did do is get me up on the platform, improvising, staying a step ahead of the learners. You don’t need to be 10 steps ahead, you just need to be one step ahead. Really, the craft of leading a group from A to B would be something that would really hold me in good stead for the work I do today. When I set up my company then – 14 years ago or so – it was leadership and communication skills, because that was what I knew.
But I’m also LGBTQ. I’ve been out since I was 22, but I was closeted as a performer, for sure. Not to my friends, but certainly in the field, and then closeted in corporate roles until I ended up in fashion, which I thought I would love but I ended up hating for very different reasons. And then as an entrepreneur, who would one day become woman-owned certified, and LGBT owned and certified, and very proud to be those things.
But I still walk into rooms where I’m the only woman, in terms of what I can visibly see about people’s gender identity, and certainly probably the only LGBTQ person, and still feeling the fear of psychological safety and stigma and being stereotyped and limited in terms of people’s conception of what I am capable of and how much authority I have. It’s just something that is so deep in me.
The fight for workplace advocacy and parity for LGBTQ people has been a deep hobby/profession of mine. Then I was able to, over the years, realize that I could pivot Jennifer Brown Consulting to be dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion but coming from that LGBTQ space of my own intersectionality as a woman in a male-dominated business world and also an LGBTQ person. I could bring those things.
My identity is part of my skill set. That’s so true for so many of us, but then layering on the technical skill set of diversity, equity and inclusion. I pivoted the firm I’d say… probably 10 years ago. We started to really go hard towards that direction. I have never felt so needed and wanted as we do now as a field. It’s a long time coming. It’s been frustrating to argue why this is important for so long and have that fall on deaf ears — except for a couple really progressive early adopter leaders in companies and clients.
We’ve been hanging in there. There are people that predate me way back that have been writing about this and consulting on it. I stand on those shoulders. It’s just really incredible to feel validated and feel that this is central now to the conversation in a way that it always deserved to be.
Patrick: It definitely inspires. We find inspiration in ourselves from our own personal experience, right? Talking about this idea of bringing your whole self to work, and I’m sure you work with many organizations today that are really focused on that and say that we want to do this but are just struggling to start or to know where to start. How do you suggest people, from an employee perspective but also from an organization perspective, where do people start with just creating an environment to allow this?
Jennifer: There’s the individual lens and then the organizational lens.
Patrick: Let’s start with the individual. You bring up a good point. You said, “Never forget the voice that you’re granted or never lose sight of the voice that you have.” I’ve heard you say something along those lines. I loved that, by the way. That’s very inspirational. Maybe we can start with the individual side.
Jennifer: The quote you just said… I don’t even remember saying that [laughs]. Now I’m thinking about that, because the voice we’re granted as either coming from a marginalized place, the voice we’re granted is to be a change agent, show up fully, change hearts and minds with our own stories, right? With our truth. The voice we’re granted — for those of us that are over-represented in the workplace, and perhaps more comfortable because the workplace was built by and for people that look like us — the voice we’re granted is that access and comfort and permission to rattle the cage. That’s the voice.
Depending on— I think this all comes back to what identity are we looking at this question through? That is a prism. That gives it double meaning. Everything I talk about always has this double meaning I always think about, and that meaning is spread across, I would say, privileged and marginalized identities and everything in between, because, by the way, we all have a combination, most of us have a combination of those things. Many of us have invisible aspects of diversity that we really haven’t grappled with, or thought about as diversity dimensions.
I taught a program once for veterans in a large financial institution. They identify as veterans, but they’re in this corporate role now. The feedback on diversity was, “Well, we’ve never thought about ourselves as a diverse group or a group that doesn’t have a voice or struggles with stigma and stereotypes.” Meanwhile, we dug into that and they realized the retention numbers are horrible for veterans in the corporate space.
I mean they literally last two years. There is a ton of microaggressions, and stereotypes applied to them that are harmful, and biases that occur that thwart their performance, and also thwart their sense of self and confidence in terms of navigating those spaces. Anyway, I love the opportunity to expand our aperture and be more inclusive of all diversities mentioned, particularly invisible ones, and particularly ones that broaden our thinking beyond race and gender. I think it’s really, really important.
If I were to walk on stage— I mean, you can see me now but our listeners can’t, but I can walk on stage and pass as straight and never bring it up, and yet, I really challenged myself to— what we talked about with the iceberg: lower my waterline and be comfortable being uncomfortable. The uncomfortable is coming out over and over on stages everywhere, with hundreds or thousands of people in the room pre-pandemic, or on Zoom, and facing that fear every single time.
Depending on who’s in the audience, the fear is ratcheted up. If I’m feeling— I’m looking around, and I’m making my own assumptions about who is listening to me, and how they can diminish me, and imagining that that’s going to happen. Whether that happens or not is a different question, but it is the perception. Perception is reality and when we walk through the world in our identities, and we’re used to being put into boxes and having all these presumptions made about us, it ends up living in us.
Anyway, when we do individual work— I just covered a couple of things that I would say are important: like lowering the waterline, grappling with all of who we are, particularly the invisible aspects of our diversity, joined with the visible aspects that cause those reactions in others and those biases in others. Then in my second book, How to Be an Inclusive Leader, I centered it around a maturity model or a progression model. It’s a continuum of change. It goes from unaware to aware to active to advocate.
I think one of the unlocks these days, especially after 2020, has been: where am I? Where am I starting from? If I am unaware, am I asleep to the problem or do I not have a fire for change? Or am I not understanding my role in change? It’s so important for me as a consultant, I want to meet the learner where they’re at and I think as we wake up, we were woken up and shaken by 2020. In so many ways, we were shown so much truth, so much pain, whether that pain was ours or someone else’s.
We were given a lesson in inequities from healthcare disparities with COVID to socio-economic differences with our colleagues and our co-workers and peering into each other’s living rooms and our lives and seeing how difficult it is relatively for some of us and not for others to flourish and thrive in this work from home world with homeschooling, et cetera. Anyway, I think that the empathy quotient, I hope for so many of us was really pumped up last year.
That’s something that we have to hold on to and then we need to get on this journey of learning as individuals. Because we can’t outsource diverse and inclusive organizations of belonging. We can’t outsource it to people who’ve been the most marginalized and been the least heard historically. I think we’ll look back on these times and say, “Wow, we really left a lot of the heavy lifting of this organizational transformation to people that had the least power from a traditional definition of power to shift it.” Then we left everybody else on the sidelines to go on about their “business”, and we permitted this looking at DEI as optional.
We didn’t jump in holistically. Particularly people with power and influence, didn’t really take it on as their own. When I wrote How to Be an Inclusive Leader, that was my goal to say: this is yours, and not just yours as a chore, but yours as an opportunity to transform as a leader, and actually become more empathetic and more resonant with the people that you’re leading, with the colleagues that you partner with, with the customers that you’re building products and services for. Because chances are, if you’re a white straight cisgender guy, your team is not going to look like you and the customers aren’t going to look like you anymore and that is not changing. The demographic train has left the station, and some of us will become the “minority” in terms of our colleagues, in terms of our workforce. We already are, in some cases, in terms of our customers, in terms of those who have the most buying power.
2020, I think hastened that realization that I was trying to create for so long to say, “This is an opportunity to really shift our understanding of our own leadership; really take on the discomfort, the uncomfortable, the unfamiliar; really learn how to lead and partner across difference; really think about all that we don’t know and really take our lens off, and then put other lenses on of identity and grapple with that.”
What does that true, that beautiful potential of diversity plus inclusion, and what can it create in terms of innovation and belonging, and connectedness and trust. By the way, we have to do all this virtually now and that looks like it’s here to stay. [laughs] That’s a whole other fun challenge for transformation.
Patrick: For sure. You mentioned the book, How to Be an Inclusive Leader and I would think, as an author— I have not authored anything yet, maybe at some point I’ll write a book.
Jennifer: You must.
Patrick: Maybe at some point. I’m very inspired by authors and I would think part of the personal reward of being an author is hearing some success stories or the impact that your book or what you have authored has had on an individual or an organization. Could you share a story of a moment of success that you have heard from the book?
Jennifer: Yes, my publisher and editor gave me wonderful advice when we were writing it. He said, “This is a pass-along book.” You know your advocates well. You know the choir, right? We have a lot of conversations in the choir, but to reach that next rung out in the bullseye — which is this big, giant group of people that may not know about me, may not know about the topic — how can we write something that somebody in my inner circle who gets it and has been working on this can actually give to somebody to say, “Here, I have something for you to read that will help.”
That has happened. It has actually happened. It’s been manifested [laughs] exactly like he predicted. I’m so grateful that he framed it in that way, because then that focused my writing, to say, “How can I reach that next rung out?” Because I don’t need to reach the choir. We’re the ones doing the work and carrying the water and putting ourselves on the line every single day. I want to give those people the tools to enlist others, to involve others, to equip others that feel completely at sea.
My understanding — and it’s an intuitive understanding, but it also comes from years of consulting — I can just feel how confused people are. I just feel it because those are my people, to a certain degree. I mean, I just happened into this work, because I had to, because I came out and I had to grapple with being an outsider all of a sudden. As a girl and a young woman of privilege, of many, many privileges, I was all of a sudden thrust when I came out into this other conversation and this other identity and community that I would come to embrace and love and cherish and fight for, but I was largely a person that had grown up in a bubble. It’s been my own journey also.
I want to go back and get people. I want to go back and say, “Hey, this can be your journey too, and, by the way, it can deeply enrich your life. Deeply.” Personal life, family, community, workplace, leadership, all of it. Once you switch that aperture, I talk about, this whole world opens up to you of richness and learning and difference and cultural identity and just experiences. To me, it’s like the challenge of a lifetime to try to grapple with the limitations of how we look at the world. When we take those blinders off, what is available to us?
The “aha” moments, I think, are the ability to put a very easy-to-read, short, concrete book in somebody’s hands who feels extremely overwhelmed by 2020. So much to learn, so much guilt and in some cases shame. So much regret around what I was not taught, what I didn’t understand, what I never questioned, what I was silent on. And then there’s just this massive awakening and it is such a gift.
I’m so dedicated to not squandering a single piece of what happened last year. That is so paramount to me to say, we were given gifts of so much honesty, so much trust, so much bravery, so much courage in terms of people sharing their lived experience. We must always remember that. We must lead with that. We must rebuild organizational strategies and processes around what we learned and what we heard. We’ve got to take that on board and those of us who can run the furthest with something, those of us who can with one signature at one approval change an entire experience or policy that impacts so many in our workplaces today and tomorrow, it is incumbent on us to do that. We have to be hungry for those opportunities to use our voice.
I think more than any other book, I’ve really— I think most of the books in the reading that everybody was told to read last year, right, Patrick? It was like a big old thunk. “Here’s everything you didn’t learn for the last 400 years of history,” and by the way, history is written by the victors. You were not challenged to understand this. You were kept comfortable, you were not— you just weren’t… I don’t know, I regret it in my own schooling. I just can’t believe how much I was not taught. I’m so angry about it. I’m just really angry the way I grew up, the lack of exposure.
I had wonderful and beautiful exposure to things that my parents knew, which is not about this at all. I grew up in a lily-white world and extremely privileged world socioeconomically, in extreme safety, even as an LGBTQ person, the safety that my skin color afforded me, the safety that my socioeconomic background afforded me, protected me. As soon as I put those dots together and I realized the diversity within the diversity. The diversity of voices in LGBTQ identity that are not heard, that are subject to violence and suicide and homelessness and transphobia, and what occurs with my gender non-binary friends and loved ones.
You talk about the burden of that to say, “Where have I just not been inclusive, even as somebody with multiple marginalized identities?” Same goes for being female and woman and oriented around female voices. Have we truly been inclusive of all female voices in all the definitions of that? Again, even within my identity and I want people listening to this to realize we have work to do within our communities in addition to across our communities of identity. There’s so much deep intersectional work that needs to happen where we need to pay attention to and orient our strategies around those identities because then all of the rest of us benefit. Traditionally, we’ve really only oriented our strategies to benefit the most privileged amongst each of these identities.
Anyway, I don’t know if you want to go into that, but it’s really important from a people perspective, and those of you who are people officers and HR leaders, you might see this occurring in your diversity efforts. You might see the women’s network, you might see the Black network, you might see the LGBTQ network that’s led entirely by white cisgender gay men, for example. You might see your women’s network doesn’t have a lot of ethnic diversity in it, it doesn’t have a disability diversity, it doesn’t have LGBTQ diversity in it. These are not anyone’s fault, it’s more that we are destined to repeat unexamined systems, even as we try to build remedies to address them.
Patrick: That’s a great point and something that you’ve done quite a bit of work on this concept of diversity councils and I think that’s a really good— just a quick thing for us to— well, we could talk a whole episode about diversity councils, but a lot of our listeners today are building diversity councils for their first time. Again, I think that is such a great step forward for so many organizations, but there are lessons to be learned about doing it, not the right way, or when I say the right way, the most effective way.
You just told a little bit about what to think about or what potentially could not be correct about a diversity council. If you had maybe one or two — three if you could — what are some things to really think about when you’re saying, “Okay, I’m going to build the diversity council. What do I need to really think about when I’m building this from the ground up?”
Jennifer: Yes, thank you for asking that. I think it is everybody’s first time in many cases. When we say council, I want to define terms really quickly. Typically, a diversity council is made up of most senior functional leaders, and sometimes the CEO, him or herself sits on that council. And often it’s senior leaders, functional leaders, so that there’s representation across the business and that council — given the seniority in the group — is responsible for the air cover. The sponsorship, the championing, the muscle, if you will, that comes with seniority, and the oversight of an effort.
Sometimes that council is the group that’s our working group. At JBC, we build the diversity strategy with that council because it’s important to engage your business leaders when you build your strategy for obvious reasons. That’s not the only— because sometimes that group is not very diverse for obvious reasons. We see the least diversity at the top of the organizational structure. When you build a diversity council, you may not have a lot of lived experience diversity available to you to compose that group.
That’s not the only reason, but then there’s the affinity group structure which is different and tends to be… not the most senior individuals, but I would say mid-level and emerging talent level and populated with all the lovely and amazing diversity in those parts of the organization where the most diversity lives. There can be up to 12 to 15 different affinity groups in organizations I work with. We set those up and we set councils up. I just want to differentiate: I think the biggest difference of those is seniority and also lived experience diversity because of the demographics of organizations.
That’s one thing. My advice is to think about this as a bottoms-up and top-down and the frozen middle approach. This is my org-design brain which goes to: who has the influence and the knowledge to do what and how do we put each stakeholder group in the right place. To doing the right things that are appropriate for them to be doing and for the affinity groups, which are often called employee resource groups, often called business resource groups, BRGs, they go by a lot of different names, but they need to be strategically aligned to the business goals, solving real problems, real challenges with that beautiful diversity of identity and thought that exists in those groups.
Enhancing talent, value propositions, recruitment, retention, helping the company understand, what gets in the way for our demographic. For LGBTQ groups, half of us are closeted in the workplace. This conversation and the education that needs to go around this is so important because if we’re closeted in the workplace, we’re not bringing our full selves to work and we’re more likely to quit. We’re more likely to hop to another company where we feel valued and we can bring our full self and not anticipate the stigma and the stereotypes. We’re always evaluating our employer based on, “Can I feel comfortable and safe here to do my best work?”
That’s a big question for us in the community. The ERG elevates these concerns to decision makers who need to learn about the diversity that lives in these affinity groups. Then this diversity council of leaders needs to take this on and do this data collection and the development of the strategy, and then the ownership and the accountability for the strategy. That’s what senior people need to do. It’s inappropriate to give anyone who’s more junior or mid-career a responsibility for driving a strategy.
In the RACI model, which all of you know, R-A-C-I, responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed, we need to have an appropriate level of the assignment and role or hat that we wear vis-a-vis these efforts. It takes all of us. It takes that top-down, bottom-up. Ideally every strategy has the business alignment, which we very much encourage and bake into everything we’re involved in, which is, “What is the company going to look like 5 years from now, 10 years from now? How will we make sure our workforce mirrors the diversity of the world that we’re doing business in? Where are we losing people of certain demographics? Do we track that information?”
We need to start with data, both quantitative and qualitative, so we always start with a data collection process through focus groups, surveys, one-on-one interviews. We roll it up, we give it to the diversity council usually and we say, “Here’s the state of the state? Here’s your current state? What does good look like?” We don’t say what does success looks like because honestly, the bar is constantly moving with this work. Really, I know everybody loves to obsess about, “When are we going to be done and be able to check the box?” This work is ongoing. It’s a journey.
You got to just hunker down and just live it every day, knowing that the goalpost is going to continue to change. By the way, that’s not a bad thing because the world is changing quickly. Your talent is changing quickly. We need to constantly be evolving and iterating on the strategy in order to respond to, for example, social justice issues or issues in the world that companies more and more are stepping into and commenting on and leading on or taking a stand on. This is evolving and it will continue to evolve.
I think that’s not a bad thing. I think we’ve got to have more agile organizations. We’ve got to have leaders that have their finger on the pulse all the time, that are ready to respond and aren’t panicked and go dark or silent or say the wrong thing. We’ve got to become extremely attuned to our workforce; the needs, the wants, the challenges, the barriers that they’re experiencing and really attuned to how our world outside is shifting and how to really resonate with all that and get comfortable being uncomfortable. To me, that means not knowing the answer because I might say there really is not an answer.
This is admitting to imperfection — you brought up, Patrick. Not making perfect the enemy of the good. Not being obsessed with, “If I can’t do this perfectly, I’m not going to do it at all.” Or, “If I can’t do it perfectly, I’m not going to talk about it until it’s perfect.” Leaders need to show up imperfectly and companies need to say, “We know we have work to do. Here’s the work as we’ve defined it and educated ourselves about it. Here’s what our goals are. Here’s what you’re going to see us doing — imperfectly. Here’s what we want feedback on as we go. We need input, we need the knowledge that lives in our organization so that we can get it better, not right.”
Just that openness and willingness to be confronted with what’s being experienced by people, it’s a huge step. I think companies swept so much under the rug, historically. They didn’t really want to know what we were there to show. I think there was a willful blindness, a denial, a, “I’m a good person. I’m a good leader. This can’t be true. I believe in diversity, therefore, my intent dictates that this is a great place to work for everybody.” No. [laughs]
No, no, no. Just because you feel it’s comfortable and great and our ego gets involved and we say, “Oh, of course, that’s not true in my organization. Of course, women don’t feel like that here. They can’t possibly feel that way. Look at all the women we have,” or whatever. Then, you dig into the pay gap, you dig into the data that you collect. It’s a shock and I think it really pops the balloon. I think that’s such an important part of organizational truth. We have to have a truthful conversation that’s grounded in data and then we need to go from there, no matter how it reflects on us and what we believe ourselves to be.
Patrick: There’s a structure I think that is put around— to your point, you were talking about affinity groups and diversity councils in ERG. I think that foundation is very much— organizations should have that, but how that looks in a business, what those groups are, what they’re made up of, that all is dependent on the people in a business, right? Everything’s a bit different. It’s okay to figure it out, I guess is what I’m saying.
Jennifer: I think that’s true. Yes, I would sort of agree with you. I would say: build it and they will come. There are structures you just need to have in place. In a way there is— like affinity groups are— when I meet a CEO and they’re like, “Well, we don’t want affinity groups because they’re divisive and we’re scared of that.” Respectfully, I will say, “Not sure how you’re going to operate in this day and age without—”
You may be too small to have them, I get that, but maybe then you have smaller and more multicultural, multi-identity networks, or maybe you have a diversity council instead that is a precursor to affinity groups, but there needs to be feedback mechanisms like this. There need to be safe spaces to support your employees who are feeling unsafe on a day-to-day basis, both outside the workplace and then coming into work with microaggressions and bias.
There needs to be a safe space, I think, for people to just reconcile their experience with each other in an honest place, and then to figure out — not to complain, but to figure out, “What is our approach going to be to making our workplace better? To enhance it for people that identify like we do.” It’s a huge release valve for employees.
I think just to have that as an option and to have them be formally recognized and mandated and sanctioned and supported and championed, it sends an enormous signal. There’s just so many good things about them. With that CEO that says, “I just don’t— I think they’re divisive.” He’s seeing it in this one very narrow way and missing the bigger opportunity. We try to be respectful of where they are — of course, the client is always right… however, not always. [laughs]
Patrick: Pushing people into their uncomfortable zones is quite important as you talked about earlier.
Jennifer: It is important. For a sports company that shall not be named, I remember I did all their focus groups and then they were creating ERGs for the first time and they said, “We just don’t think we’re ready for the LGBTQ group.” Oh, it was not even Q at that time. It was just LGBT. I said, “Respectfully, if you were to create these groups right now and leave that group out, I think the optics of that is really hurtful and harmful and will be misinterpreted. Honestly, you have LGBT people in your organization — newsflash! — and lots and lots of allies that would really like to be activated and have something to participate in.”
Lo and behold, they took our advice, but there was a lot of push and pull and a lot of dialogue around, “We’re afraid to take this step.” That is a really important lesson. Same as male ally groups. Some of my clients are starting men-as-allies networks, and there’s tons of pushback on that from all sides, actually, like, “Why do men need a space? The world is their oyster,” right? Just all of those— I don’t know, people, I’m not sure if they think they’re being funny. To me, it feels very dismissive of the work that really needs to happen for all of us.
We all have to have a place to say, “Hey, I don’t know the answer. I need to learn. Before I go out there and declare my allyship, let’s have a space where I can learn what that actually means so that I don’t go out and cause unintentional harm, just being who I am and as clueless as I am.” And I can say that because I am that clueless person [laughs] but I would argue a lot of us are clueless. There’s enough cluelessness to go around in all identities about other identities.
Then, I would say too, to have a strategy. Every organization needs a DEI strategy. Treat it like every other business objective. Really nail it down to workforce, workplace, marketplace, whichever pillars you really want to orient it around, but create — with the help of an external consultant like us or on your own— and make sure you have a strategy and you’re working the strategy every day so that you’re not doing this one-off.
You could create employee resource groups, but I would say they need to dock in to a strategy that’s owned by senior leadership communicated out and that there is an accountability and a consistent messaging and there’s actions being taken by leadership along the way so that it’s not just— we can fall prey a bit to the thousand flowers blooming approach, to, “We’ll do a little training and we’ll have the ERGs and we’ll do this.” Without the connection, the docking into a macro strategy that addresses business objectives, I think there can be a lot of wheel-spinning going on and a lot of dismissal as irrelevant.
“Oh, unconscious bias training. Well, I don’t really know what it matters. I’m not really sure why we’re doing it. I phone it in, I attend and then I go back to my job.” To me, that speaks to a lack of alignment to something that is truly supported in a proactive way by leadership where everybody says, “Oh, I understand why we’re learning about bias because now we understand that it is prevalent in all of our systems and processes in every workplace. We understand the harm that that causes. We understand the performance impact and the ROI and the bottom-line impact of that. This is one of many tactics that we’re adopting to tackle it.”
If I could hear that coming out of unconscious bias training, I’d be so happy. We deliver inclusive leadership training. I think that’s our preference over unconscious bias training, honestly, because we prefer to have a behavior-based conversation and a skill-building conversation. Yes, the science of bias is really important to understand, but that’s not, “When I go back to my job, how can I put this in practice from a tactical concrete perspective every single day? In my hiring, in my interview processes, in my resumé reviews, in my promotion and advancement, in my performance reviews?”
Really getting down to brass tacks from a people processes perspective. That will change behavior and then holding people accountable, then to creating the— making the behavior change be measured. If you want to really bring this full circle, then the performance reviews measure our ability to not only attract diverse talent over time, but retain that talent and also get amazing numbers in terms of our engagement scores cut by diverse dimensions so that we understand how a leader is doing— not just based on who they can bring in, but who they keep, who they promote and advance, and who reports feeling fully able to thrive and a high sense of belonging.
That would be how I would hold leaders accountable. Sadly, or not sadly, sometimes what gets measured gets done. We can wait forever for people’s better angels to say, “I want to be a better person [laughs] or human. I’m going to do this because of all the things Jennifer says that I’m going to benefit from.” It’s the carrot and the stick. I think both of those probably need to be utilized so that we can create sustainable and broader change versus just leaving it up to people when they feel like it. Then they feel like it is not going to get the job done, and I fear we’re going to continue to lose really amazing talent if we leave this to somebody’s better angels.
It’s just— we say the moral argument for all this stuff, all of us in the field wish that that could be enough? I wish it could be enough for me to say, “I’m closeted at work, and I’m making up a lie about who I love and what I did over the weekend because I’m so terrified to tell you who I am.” I wish that were enough. However, some people don’t think it’s enough.
I can’t fathom it but it’s all right. You know what? We meet people where they’re at and there’s like, I try to just not have judgment because it’s a road that goes nowhere, because ultimately, I think we have to keep our eye on the prize and enlist as many people, meet as many people where they’re at, with whatever compelling information will create that “aha” moment. I don’t care which one it is as long as people get on the train.
Patrick: Jennifer, this has been an amazing conversation.
Patrick: We are coming to the end, but just to wrap it up quickly, I just want to say: first off, thank you for telling your story, for inspiring me, for inspiring our listeners, for doing the work that you do. Please continue to have the passion that you’ve had over the past 45 minutes of time speaking and just a heartfelt thank you for what you’re doing and for your perspective and for giving us all inspiration for what is possible because that is really how we can be fueled for the future, is just to keep our eyes on what is possible. Thank you, Jennifer, I appreciate it.
Jennifer: Thank you so much. I feel so seen, Patrick. Thank you so much.
Patrick: Thank you. It was excellent. Thank you so much.
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