Podcast: How DEI Works on the Ground

Diverse Culture

Transcription

Mark:

Welcome to PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. I’m Mark Feffer. My guest today is Reggie Willis, the chief diversity officer at Ally, a digital financial services company. He’s responsible for the D&I activities there, including the implementation of programs, working with stakeholders and making sure his activities align with the company’s overall strategy. What’s it like to be a diversity officer? That’s what we’ll talk about on this edition of PeopleTech. Hey, Reggie. Welcome. I was looking at your LinkedIn profile and it looks like you came up through the ranks before moving into DEI basically. Can you tell me something about that journey?

Reggie:

Yeah, absolutely. So I’ll take you back to the beginning, but fast forward, very quickly to the present, but graduated from college, had an undergraduate degree in psychology. Knew I had a passion for people, but didn’t know what to do with it. So my father and mom always worked in either banks or insurance companies. So I said, well, both of those kept a roof over my head and shoes on my feet. So I jumped in with both feet to the insurance industry and started as an underwriter, mainly because that’s what I saw my father do. But even at a very young age, had an understanding that people were my passion and that at some point I was going to have to figure out how I married that passion with my vocation. So I spent 23 years in varying risk roles for financial institutions.

Reggie:

And then when I had the opportunity to gain the knowledge about diversity and inclusion, along the way I took all of those opportunities. And when the opportunity presented itself for me to take on this work and it was kind of fortuitous. JB who’s our current CEO thought that having a focus on diversity and inclusion was critically important to his legacy as our CEO. And so he brought in a couple of people to talk about the value of differences and how you can create an environment of inclusion as one of his leading conversations with the full organization.

Reggie:

And I had an opportunity to speak to him shortly after that. And this was in October of 2015 and he said, well, what did you think about the guest speaker that we had? And one of our board members joined him. I said, I thought it was amazing. When we get serious about this work, I would love to be considered for the job. And so that was October of 2015 and fast forward to May of 2016, they had extended an offer to me and I started doing this work full time. So it’s been about six years now that I’ve been leading our D&I efforts here at Ally.

Mark:

What was it like moving from the business over to DEI? I mean, that’s not a small step. So how’d you think it through?

Reggie:

I probably didn’t do as much thinking in retrospect as I should have, but it was a situation where again, I knew that I had a tremendous passion for helping people feel like they had a place where they were and maybe more importantly, helping them understand the path that they would need to take to get from where they are to where they wanted to be. And so, to be able to do that at scale for an organization who had never had a deliberate focus on it prior to, it was scary if I’m being completely transparent. Having to build something from scratch, having to have the ability to mold it or shape it into something that would align to our current culture, but more importantly, advance our culture in a direction that the CEO and a number of his leaders felt like was critically important for our continued success. So the transition itself took some time.

Reggie:

So luckily I had a leadership team that believed in giving me the space to do the research and to understand what the right framework and strategy would be to marry to our culture. So I spent the balance of 2016 doing a lot of research and then launched and kind of executed on the strategy and framework we had built at the beginning of 2017. And we’ve just been ideating and iterating on that over the past five years.

Mark:

Ally aside, how do you think companies approach DEI? Are they doing it well? Are they not doing it well? Just in general.

Reggie:

I think many organizations and I think a lot of people who do this work use all the things that happened in 2020 as an inflection point, obviously the murder of a number of unarmed black individuals and kind of culminated with many of us seeing the eight minutes and 43 seconds of George Floyd’s murder. And a lot of institutions felt the need to jump into this work kind of with both feet at that time. And those organizations, you see that they’re doing it for all the right reasons, but you see that that reactionary approach is one that’s hard to sustain. So when you’ve got organizations that have been doing this work for an extended period of time, you tend to see them having the ability and the understanding that it has to be a part of the culture.

Reggie:

And it has to be a part of who you are authentically as a company for it to be sustainable. And so to answer your question, maybe a little more succinctly, it’s a little bifurcating. You’ve got a group of people that felt like had to do the work and that they’re still trying to figure it out. And then you’ve got another group of organizations who have been in this work for a while, understand the relevance, understand how it creates a difference for them as far as having a competitive advantage and really creating a culture where people again, have that sense of belonging, feel like they can be heard and that their opinions count. And those are the things that differentiate the folks that are just doing it versus the ones that are excelling at it.

Mark:

Are middle managers important to this whole equation?

Reggie:

Absolutely. Middle managers are probably the sticking point for many initiatives that happen that are generated through HR and that have to do with people because you need them. You can have the best executives, the best mentality, I could put forth the best programming and the best objectives around this work. But if you don’t get your middle managers to buy in and they have an understanding of what the benefit is for them leading the organization, but also the critical role that they play in pushing these things forward and really breathing life into them from a boots on the ground perspective. If you don’t get them as a part of the work, it’ll be a lot harder. It won’t be impossible, but it’ll be a lot harder to be successful.

Mark:

Do you find that most middle managers are easy to deal with, or do you find you have a lot of resistance?

Reggie:

It’s a bit of a mixed bag. I think much like society, most of our institutions and organizations are a microcosm of society. So you’re going to have people that are already on board, understand the value of it from a humanitarian perspective, appreciate it, and live their lives that way. I think there’s others that feel like you’re paying me to do a job and I don’t understand how this is a part of that job you’re paying me for. So you’ve got to always do your best to allow those individuals to see themselves in the work.

Reggie:

So it’s not just about helping you name the underrepresented or marginalized group that I may or may not be a part of. It’s more about how do we create an environment here that we work in and hopefully in the society, the communities that we do business in, the organizations that we may work with, that they see the value of this work from a societal perspective and not just, well, I’m just helping X group of people and it really doesn’t impact me. No, we’re creating an environment, hopefully a culture and a society where people have a sense of self worth and value. And that in and of itself creates a better environment to do the work in for everybody.

Mark:

So how did Ally approach beginning this whole process? And do you think it’s a, was a good approach or a not so good approach compared to other companies?

Reggie:

Selfishly, I would say it was a good approach since it was mine, but no, I think we took a very thoughtful approach. I can remember one of the initial conversations that I had with JB and my leader, Kathie Patterson, and she is a white female. Clearly you can look at me and see I’m a black male. One of the things that JB was clear about, he said, Reggie, this can’t just be the black guy having a program for black people. And I said, exactly. And additionally, it can’t just be the black guy and the white woman having programs for women and black people.

Reggie:

And so we early on knew that it was important to start from a position of building an inclusive environment and inclusive for all, right, not just the people who had differences that were visible, but for people that maybe had differences in experiences, differences in cognitive ability, differences in sexual orientation, differences in whether or not they served our country in the military. So we took a very broad view of diversity, but we started from a foundation of, if we don’t make this environment one where everyone feels welcome, where everyone feels a sense of belonging, it doesn’t matter how many people we bring into the company that are different. We’re going to lose them just as fast.

Reggie:

So we started from a foundation of inclusion, and then once we felt like people understood what our motivation was, then we could start really thinking about, okay, how do we address representation gaps? How do we start to look at opportunities for increasing our representation at different levels in the organization and in particular, having a deliberate focus on our managers and above. So people who manage people and those who continued to excel within the organization, because one of the things we knew research showed is that people want to be able to see themselves in leaders. And much of that is experiences. But a lot of it is visual, right? If I’m a woman, I want to see other women in senior executive positions. If I’m a black man, I want to see other black people. If I’m someone that’s a part of the LGBTQ community, I want to see people that are out and feel comfortable expressing who they are to the organization. So it was really about starting from a place of inclusion and then moving to diversity. And now we’re talking about what does equity look like?

Mark:

So if some executive somewhere ask you about going through this whole process, and he asked you, what’s the worst thing that can happen to us, what would you say?

Reggie:

That’s a great question. I would tell them the worst thing that could happen to us is if we stopped and what I mean by that is we’re always going to offend someone, we’re always going to probably disappoint someone, we’re always going to have to deal with differing opinions, but if we don’t value the importance of how creating difference makes us better as a company, we’re going to find ourselves being outpaced by our competition. So the worst thing that could happen is we stop this work because of some of the things I mentioned, we offend somebody, or we missed a mark on something we were trying to execute on, and we just throw our hands up and not continue to push forward.

Mark:

Now if they ask the same question, but wanting to know the best thing that can happen, the best outcome.

Reggie:

You know what, I think the best outcome would be ideally me working myself out of a job, right? That we have so embedded this idea of how important diverse representation is, how important building inclusive spaces are for our culture and how making sure that we’re equitable and people have the access that they need, and that we’re meeting them where they are within their journey, that someone leading the work becomes duplicative because everybody else in the organization has got it so woven into how they do business, that we are at a place where it’s a part of everybody’s job description, not just mine.

Mark:

Last question is another sort of tell me about the landscape question. It’s basically, well, DEI seems like it’s always evolving and how will companies evolve with it? First of all, will they evolve with it? And just, how will they approach the whole thing of having to morph over time?

Reggie:

Yeah. I think if companies don’t evolve with it, you will see those companies being left behind. So I think they absolutely will evolve with it. I think the pandemic has for all its ills, I think shined a light on how we can leverage technology differently to be more inclusive. You see the three of us now being able to see each other, share this experience from the Zoom technology, which allows what would be maybe a conversation over the phone and less proximal, feeling like we’re now in proximity to each other, even though we are in different locations.

Reggie:

So I think technology has played a big role in advancing how you can create inclusive spaces. But I also think it has revealed some biases that people have, right? The whole idea of proximity bias and distance bias and expedience bias. All of those things now are coming into play as we all start to navigate this hybrid work environment, where we have people, set of people working from home, set of people working remotely. And so this work will continue to evolve, I think we’ll always have to grapple with representation in how we continue to create access for those individuals who are underrepresented.

Reggie:

But I think what I’ve seen over the past two years is that the efforts have now become much more communal and that people are from different industries, from different competitors even are working together to try to create a better environment as it relates to diversity, equity, inclusion. So I’m encouraged by that part. I think some of the difficult things we’ll have to deal with is that societal issues are now becoming the norm for conversations within the C-suite. And how do you continue to grapple with those very contentious, very divisive situations as it relates to trying to create a place of inclusion and harmony is going to be, I think on everyone’s mind, not just the chief diversity officers, but leaders at any level of an organization.

Mark:

Reggie, thank you so much. It was great to talk with you. My guest today has been Reggie Willis, the chief diversity officer at Ally, and this has been PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. We’re a publication of RecruitingDaily. We’re also a part of Evergreen Podcasts. To see all of their programs visit www.evergreenpodcasts.com. And to keep up with HR technology, visit the HCM Technology Report every day. We’re the most trusted source of news in the HR tech industry. Find us at www.hcmtechnologyreport.com. I’m Mark Feffer.

Image: iStock

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