Creating inclusive organizations: A conversation from Table Stakes 2020

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For today’s business leaders, it’s critically important to create an environment of community, diversity, and inclusiveness within the walls of your company. In our Creating Inclusive Organizations panel at the 2020 Table Stakes Summit, Carta’s chief people officer, Suzy Walther, sat down with Erika Irish Brown (Chief Diversity Officer, Goldman Sachs), Chris Michel (Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Bloomberg), and Kristy Wallace (CEO, Elevate Network) to learn their unique tips and strategies for fostering diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

The career paths that led you here

Suzy: I’d like to start by understanding how you landed here. None of you started in a career focused on the subjects we’re talking about today — you all have fantastic operating experience, actually. How are you in the roles that you’re in today?

Chris: My dad is an immigrant to this country. He came to the U.S. in 1963 from Haiti, and very much lived an immigrant experience (driving a cab for the first six or seven years). My mother marched for civil rights in places like Birmingham and Selma, Alabama in the mid-60s. 

I grew up in a context of voice for the voiceless, pushing for underrepresented folks to get representation and a greater seat at the table. I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to carry that over into my professional life — I grew up in this work.

Erika: My experience is very similar, in terms of having a family of Caribbean heritage and growing up in Brooklyn. My parents always instilled in me, “To whom much is given, much is required.” When I started on Wall Street thirty years ago, if you were talking about diversity, you were talking about our portfolio (not people). There were no formal roles like ours that existed at the time. I had to figure it out.

Being somebody who had found my way to an exciting career working on Wall Street, I always felt like my second job was to help others find similar opportunities. I did it on a volunteer basis — whether it was diversity recruiting, or going to campuses of historically black colleges and universities, or even just mentoring folks that might’ve only been two years behind me.  

Then, fifteen years ago, I had the opportunity to take it on full time. The space has really evolved [since then]. It’s become much more sophisticated, accepted, and focused on at every level of the firm, including the board. We’re at a point in time where it’s turning into a movement, especially around racial equity. Even as diversity has evolved, a lot of that work was in the gender space, and other spaces, before we came to this point in time.

Kristy: About twelve or fifteen years ago, I was working for a startup called Vault.com. We were doing a lot of research around diversity within professional services — these annual reports, where we were benchmarking progress within companies. And we saw very little of it.

We then went on to create a series of events, where we connected employers to the pipeline of diverse talent. This was back when there were still paper resumes. I’d go up to one of the recruiters like, “This is amazing. We’re creating change. Look at all these candidates you met today.” But the recruiter would say, “Yes…but with our firm, we really only hire from these three schools, and from this percent of the graduating class. There’s maybe one candidate here that fits our model.”

That’s disheartening. But for me, it was motivating to say: We need change. We need to create systemic change. That’s what led me on my path to Elevate. It starts with the community, with mentorship, and support from companies who are willing to put in the work to see change.

Building communities within an organization

Suzy: You mentioned the word community.  And Erika — you talked about the work you did when you were in an operating role, building community before today’s rules even existed. Can you talk about how you go about building community now? In that effort, what’s working for you?

Erika: I love telling stories about the time before there were roles like ours, before employee resource groups. The concept of women in banking getting together — supporting each other, sharing information, and helping each other — was something that we kept under the radar. Same with the black employees. It was viewed as a “negative” if you were seen with too many other women at the same time. If three or more black people were in one place, you were like, “Okay, we’ve got to disperse.”

Employee resource groups (or as we call them, inclusion networks) at Goldman Sachs are really effective tools for any diversity and inclusion leader. They’re a way to build community around a common interest in culture, and care for advancement of a certain group of people.

The nice thing is that you don’t have to fit that description to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community. You can be an ally. You can be an ally for racial equity, supporting the black or Hispanic/ LatinX community. I really believe in the importance of bringing those networks together — celebrating difference, celebrating culture, uplifting certain communities, addressing issues in those communities, but also acknowledging intersectionality. 

Acknowledging intersectionality helps to create common understanding — both in the challenges that are similar, as well as what’s different (and where the points of partnership are). I love the grassroots nature of the inclusion networks. 

One of the things that we’ve done at Goldman is make sure the partner heading that network in the region also has a seat on the regional diversity and inclusion committees, so that you have that two-way communication in terms of cascading down — and filtering up — information, insights, and sentiment. It’s very important to have that two-way communication. 

What the networks also do is create connectivity, communication, and visibility for our senior-most leadership. At Goldman, every community also has a management committee sponsor. [This person is] sponsoring that community, engaging with the leaders of that community, and advancing the work of the inclusion networks. There are lots of other informal ways, but the evolution of networks has been really meaningful. They can be very strategic if you enable them to be.

Chris: What you just said, Erica, reminds me of a very funny story. At one of the companies I worked at, I stood up an employee resource group program. I remember we had the first meeting of the black professionals group, and I saw an older woman (who had been in the organization for a long time)  looking around furtively, and wondering what was going on. 

I walked up to her and I said, “Are you okay? What’s going on?” She whispered, very conspiratorially, “Is this way to the meeting?” 

She was just scared to death that this meeting of black folks was getting ready to happen, because we grew up in an environment where, if there were too many of one thing or another, people would be worried about, “What’s going on over there?” The ERG communities (as we call them at Bloomberg) are very important to driving that sense of community. 

Other than that, something that has really taken off this summer at Bloomberg has been just having these difficult conversations that people aren’t used to having. Again, many of us grew up in a time where you didn’t talk about politics. You didn’t talk about race. You didn’t talk about religion in the workplace. Now, I think a lot of employees are expecting you to have those conversations. Certainly our Millennial and Gen-Z employees are expecting that. 

Providing a framework, and a context, in which you can have those sorts of difficult and uncomfortable conversations is very important to drive that sense of community as well.

Erika: We just had a cross-networking event about…okay, so the election is over, now what? Because people are left feeling all types of ways. We had breakout sessions, and just a real honest dialogue. [In the past,] politics were off the table, and religion was off the table. Now, we say, “Bring your authentic selves to the office.”

Suzy: I love the two key takeaways. This is for founders of organizations of any size — for our employees, you can stand up these groups with very little effort. It’s not hard to just put a little elbow grease in, to create these resource groups and inclusion networks. And it’s not hard to enable tough conversations. Those are two things people can do. Get involved. Speak up in these conversations, and get involved with these groups. 

Building external networks and empowering your team

Suzy: It’s not only about the networks that we build inside our companies. The networks we have outside are also important for us. Kristy, could you share a bit about why you started Elevate? What impact is that network having?

Kristy: What Chris and Erika have been saying is really resonating with me. As we create networks, oftentimes they’re homogeneous. They come through the school we went to, who we know, the industry, or the company. There’s such power in diversity. Opening doors and providing diversity in your community — and in your workforce — provides awareness and thought-disruptions that have certainly served me as a leader. 

Elevate started over twenty years ago out of Goldman Sachs. A woman named Janet Hanson founded it, and it’s grown over time to be cross-industry, cross-function, cross-geography, all career stages. What’s central [to our mission] is not just having this big community, but a community that has impact.  

How do you create these smaller conversations — ones where you can be intersectional, celebrate different identities, and come together around a shared purpose? If that means opening the door for opportunity, or providing peer mentoring, or simply sharing what’s working and not working, it all matters. 

I was leading a weekly executive roundtable, and in the roundtable we acknowledged that the Breonna Taylor verdict is something that’s really important to talk about. I work for a major company, and someone sent me a message after our all-hands meeting today saying, “This wasn’t addressed. Thank you for sharing and addressing this. I feel a little less alone.”

You can start resource groups at any stage of a company. In our organization, we do community hours. We set aside time every month to bring everyone together and talk about what’s on our minds, what’s happening in the world. It’s a way to feel connected, and to help raise awareness to those who may not know about these issues that are impacting them and their communities. 

It’s a way to really bring it back to the human — to your “whole self,” the person who walks in those doors every day to do work for your organization, and feels like they’re really included and heard.

Erika: The one thing I would say is that depending on the size of your organization, one thing we do in our smaller offices is just create an inclusion network. It’s not the black network, or the disability network, or the veterans network…it’s the inclusion network. That way, if you may not have a critical mass of a certain group, you can still acknowledge the dimension of diversity as a whole. That could be a strategy, depending on where you’re starting and how big you are.

Kristy: It’s about, how do you just start the conversation? How do you acknowledge that as an organization, we’re not as diverse as we’d like to be? As a leader, how do you say, “I know a lot is happening today or this week — how do I best support you? How can I just acknowledge that I’m listening, and that I’m here?”  

This year, it has been so inspiring [to see] leaders, as well as employee groups, coming together to work towards more equity, quality, and diversity. We need that — and we need it not just during times when it’s so urgent like we’ve seen this year, but all the time. Each of us has a role to play. Regardless of your role in your organization, or the size of your company, each of us [needs] to make that commitment to understand the environment in which we’re working, to speak up, to try and create change, and to be that ally.

Chris: To that point, we want our leaders to be able to speak up. But oftentimes they don’t know how, and they’re scared to.  Something we’ve worked a lot on is providing our leaders with the skills to actually have these conversations. 

I can’t tell you how many people I spoke with this summer who said, “Chris, I don’t know how to approach my employees about this. Please help.” Really teach it — help them understand that they should come to it with some level of humility. They should be able to admit that they don’t know what they don’t know. They should also not be too prescriptive. They should put their ears on — really be willing to listen and understand what’s going on before they’re prescriptive about some of these things.

Erika: Leaders have to be willing to be vulnerable. For those who are leading a company, you may be that type-A person who’s used to having answers. Very often there are no answers to these questions about racial equity, and advancing diversity. 

Being vulnerable is an important skill to embrace. You have to be willing to make a mistake, right? We hold our leaders to that standard at Goldman Sachs. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it and keep moving. We also told our folks: You might have to forgive some mistakes. This is how you create the dialogue that needs to happen — you may have to offer some grace when it comes to people making, and acknowledging, their mistakes. We also told leaders: If you make a really big mistake, come to us and let us know (laughs).

The dialogue has definitely changed. I think people have opened up on both sides, through the workshops that we did at the firm, I told my own personal stories that I never would have shared in mixed company before. I would have felt these stories would be misperceived by people and viewed negatively — either upon my son or my family, rather than the system or that police officer, et cetera. I really do think that people have opened up to the dialogue, but you have to make yourself vulnerable on both sides.

Creating inclusive leaders within your company

Suzy: Kristy, is Elevate a resource for founders and other CEOs who might not have the internal manpower to get these things going? How do we (company leaders) think about leveraging organizations like yours to help us?

Kristy: I think it’s great to leverage organizations like Elevate. We can be your ERG in a box, if you will. We’re doing a lot of programming and community building that can supplement your efforts, and take some of that work off of your plate.

But what I think is more important about a community like ours is that we look at our community as more than just a large ecosystem. I lead a round table for senior executives every week, and we cover a lot of topics — not just how we’re planning for 2021, but how are we driving social impact? How are we supporting our teams? How are we talking to our customers during this time? I’m learning from people in other industries, and other companies, that disruption of thought (and diversity of thought) matters. 

We also have our Squads program, which a peer mentoring program that has proven to be really helpful in leading to confidence in progress. We had a whole program on inclusive managers — a series of events exploring the different identities that are represented on your team, and how you can best show up for them. How can you be a better manager by not just applying your lens and your paradigm to your team, but by understanding the complexity and the diversity of that team?

People don’t leave companies. They leave managers. Having been on the founding team of a company before, and with a company that went through extreme growth…culture is often not a focus. Diversity inclusion, oftentimes, is seen as an afterthought. You’re focused on scaling, building, fundraising, and all of these other aspects. Your customer is your primary focus, but your employees are central to your success. Investing in that — creating the foundation, framework, and commitment — not only serves you now, but serves you in the future. 

You don’t want to be five or ten years out, looking back and thinking, “How did we get into this mess?” Spending the time to tap into these resources now is a great way to get that started, to learn from others, and to make that commitment.

Chris: I believe that you cannot be an effective leader in a large organization if you’re not culturally competent, and if you’re not capable of leading inclusively. We talk a lot about unconscious bias — I think you have to be consciously inclusive, and if you’re not developing that skill in your managers, you’re doing your business a disservice.

At Bloomberg, we do a lot of work around that. You can do all the “talent development” stuff — you can expose all of your female talent, your diverse talent, but if your managers aren’t prepared to lead a diverse workforce — especially in global organizations — you’re going to fail at being diverse and inclusive.

Erika: The set of competencies for a manager should be inclusive leadership competencies. A lot of times we talk about inclusive leadership separately from leadership, as if it’s a separate course from the standard new-manager training. Inclusive leadership needs to be what managers learn as they step into the role — it shouldn’t be viewed as separate. It shouldn’t be “training” and “diversity training.” It should be combined as one, and when you’re evaluating people in terms of how effective they are, it should be with that lens of their ability to be an inclusive leader. 

Suzy: As Kristy said, it should not be an afterthought. Let’s do it right from the start. And there are resources available for all of us to do that.

And for employees, if your organizations don’t have the resources, go find them in organizations like Elevate. There are networks out there to support you in the meantime, until your organization gets these things off the ground.

Measuring success in diversity and inclusion

Suzy: This work is really hard. One question that often comes up is how do you know if it’s working? How do you think about success with his work, and how do you think about measuring it?

Chris: It’s a dilemma. You can measure diversity very easily — you can count how many X, Y, or Z you have. Measuring inclusion can be more difficult. There are certain engagement markers, and inclusion markers, that you can utilize and evaluate. 

Plenty of organizations do culture surveys and employee engagement surveys. If you baseline those, there are questions you can ask as you go forward, that will indicate if you have an inclusive organization. There are measurements that you can take out of your employee resource groups — for instance, are the people who participate staying longer in your organization? Are they being rated more highly than people who don’t participate? 

Ultimately, it comes down to qualitative and quantitative measurements of [a few things]: Are the people who make up your diverse populations, and your underrepresented populations, staying longer?  And also, as they respond to initiatives that you roll out (such as formal/informal surveys), do they feel like the organization is a place that supports their growth? Do they feel like it’s a place where they can have the careers they want for themselves?

Erika: When you see people reaching out, instead of the diversity team reaching out, that’s also a measure of success. When you’re not pushing, but people are pulling you in. You really want for people to adopt it into their language, their behaviors, and the questions that they ask. You want for it to be part of their narrative. I love that I can go to client meetings with our business leaders, and that they can articulate our strategy and key pillars just as well as I can.

You have to listen to your people. The paradigm has shifted and employees can absolutely vote with their feet. Even now, in the age of racial equity, your black employees can absolutely vote with their feet and go double their money. You want people to be sticky to the firm. You want them to feel that they belong, and everyone plays a role in that sense of belonging.

Kristy: Storytelling is incredibly important. We’ve seen the data for years — diverse teams lead to customer retention and innovation. Yet we weren’t seeing progress. What takes progress is the storytelling. It takes understanding the lived experience of those within your organization, and listening to the stories, then connecting them to the data.

I encourage you to do that for everyone in your community. To understand how you can better show up for them. I just finished a listening tour with my team, and yes, it takes time. It’s time well spent to really understand those experiences, connect them to data, and then connect that data to the action and the plan.

Unique strategies for success

Suzy: Have you tried anything different that looks like it might be working? And if so, can you share a success that came out of it?

Kristy: A lot of what came out of [my recent listening tour] is around the culture of working remote. To be honest, for myself, [the important thing] is to emulate the behavior I’m encouraging. If I say, “Take time off,” but I’m not emulating that, then it doesn’t come across as genuine and true. 

The biggest thing is the fear that mentorship and sponsorship opportunities will fall to the wayside. All of those organic touchpoints that happened in the office, or in the hallway, or in the kitchen, where you’re building those relationships…it feels that now in this virtual world, we’re limited to who’s on that screen, or who’s in that meeting. 

I encourage everyone to think more about: Who haven’t you seen? How can you build a connection? Give them a call, shoot them a coffee invite. We want to make sure that the pathways that are so important around mentoring and sponsorship continue to thrive during this time, and into the future. We have to approach it in a different way, and be more intentional about it.

Chris: In its foundation-building years, the organization had not really embarked on any sort of targeted development programming. We landed on a targeted development program, where we identified a bright line in our organization’s past that women don’t go past, and where people of color don’t go normally.  

We put this program in place, we gave it a fancy name, and we identified a cohort. One of the people we identified was a woman who we’d identified as flight risk — we said, “Let’s figure out a way to flatten it, and to keep her here.” The program was four sessions over six weeks, and at the end of the program, there’s an exercise where everybody stands around in a circle, and you’re supposed to step in and say how this all impacted you.

The woman, as she was stepping into the circle, started crying. She said, “Before this program came along, I was going to leave this company. I didn’t see a place for myself here. But now, based on having done this program, two things have happened: One, I know the company is investing in me, and two, I’ve been able to see there’s a way for me to leave my mark here. 

Fast forward, and this particular employee was promoted to a pretty big job here in New York. Those are the sorts of things that keep you going in this work…because trust me, there are times when you’re doing this where you want to bang your head against the wall. It’s those things that, that really keep you going. You have to be deliberate about putting things in place, so that you can grow inclusion in your organization. It doesn’t happen by change. You have to be very deliberate about it.

Erika: The data always tells a story. You should be leveraging that data to understand what your story is, and understand what you want to address in your organization. Where do you start? What what are you trying to solve for? What are your objectives? 

Think about impact over activity. In the D&I space, people can stand up a whole lot of programs, and a whole lot of “stuff”…but that’s not necessarily where you achieve real impact. Figure out: Where can I be disruptive? Where can I be bold? Where can I put a stake in the ground? Where can I make a difference? How can I influence from the seat that I’m in?  

Something different we did this year was our board diversity policy. Goldman Sachs won’t take a company public if there’s not at least one diverse board member. By July next year, that will be two or more board members. 

When you’re implementing initiatives, you have to provide people with tools. You have to enable people to achieve those objectives. For us, in the board diversity initiatives, we also built a database of over 500 diverse senior leaders, board-ready, many with some type of real board training. So we also provided our clients with the tools to be successful in achieving board diversity before they go public (and even public clients that want to leverage that resource).

So any objectives you set, you also have to figure out: What are the tools to help people achieve those objectives? You can’t just assume, “Oh, everybody knows how to do that.”  The talent may exist, but that doesn’t mean everybody knows how to identify the talent, or access the talent. How you create tools, and give people the ability to be successful for your objective, is really important. 

Even if your objective is to make sure all your entry-level hires are 50% gender diverse…that might be just one woman. Maybe you bring in two analysts a year. 50% could be one or two people. It doesn’t have to be huge to be impactful. The addition of one “fill in the blank” person can actually create a shift in percent representation when your denominator is 20 people. Always focus on objectives and impact, empower people to achieve that, and start early. 

Suzy: Any last takeaways? One golden nugget that people should take home with them?

Kristy: Start now.

Erika: Start now.

Kristy: You are a person who can create change as a leader, an employee, an advocate, or an ally.  There’s so much impact you can have. I encourage you, don’t wait. Take action.

DISCLOSURE: This communication is on behalf of eShares Inc., d/b/a Carta, Inc. (“Carta”). This communication is not to be construed as legal, financial, accounting or tax advice and is for informational purposes only. This communication is not intended as a recommendation, offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security. Carta does not assume any liability for reliance on the information provided herein.

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