How To Lead A Diverse and Inclusive Workforce

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CHRIS: Hi, HR Nation! This is Chris Rainey; welcome to HR leaders, the show where we interview today's most successful and innovative HR practitioners five days a week. Today we have a special guest, we're joined by Robin Everhart; Robin is the senior vice president and chief diversity officer at Cintas Corporation. Welcome to the show, Robin; how are you?

ROBIN: Thanks; great pleasure to be here.  

CHRIS: I was saying, Robin; just before we hit record, we just named our daughter Robin, so a great name!

ROBIN: It is, I appreciate that! I’m honoured.

CHRIS: Before we jump in, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself personally; and your journey to becoming the Chief Diversity Officer at Cintas Cooperation.  

ROBIN: Of course. My career actually didn't start in business, it started in social work, and that was kind of the beginning of my love for people; and through some divergence of paths, if you will, wound up in the corporate arena. Initially wound up running compliance and ethics for various corporations, and that led me to various organisations; and in doing so then I fell in love with operations, because I've been assessing risks for all these companies and spending a lot of time with the business leaders. In operations, it became glaring throughout my organisation that we really had a tremendous mix of sameness; we had terrific performers and executors and leaders, but we didn't have a connection to our people. We were kind of reaching a place of complacency, I'd say, where innovation wasn't as fresh because our ideas were very similar; we weren’t seeing an outlook that was different because we all kind of came from the same place or background, yet we have a million customers who are incredibly diverse and it became apparent that we had to mirror the marketplace. I had been asked if I would be willing to take on this role, and our company was brave enough to say, ‘Hey, we're not making as much improvement as we'd like; and we're going to take this to a really formalised department, if you will, and look at how we can impact the organisation.’ That's really the position I've been spending my time in for the last, almost, five years.  

CHRIS: Fantastic; how did the D& I project actually start, then?  

ROBIN: You know, it was created initially by our CEO-  

CHRIS: That’s always a good sign, by the way.

ROBIN: It is a good sign, because it requires the commitment from the top; but interestingly, I would tell you that from our culture and background, D& I has always been a part of the culture and history. It just wasn't called that, but if you look at our code and you look at the message from the founder, he talks about making sure that every individual who works for us has a place of authenticity and value-add. So a lot of what he expresses really is in relation to diversity inclusion, it just wasn't called that at the time. So as we move forward in this and the CEO says, ‘Hey, I want this position; I want it reporting directly to me; I want to make sure that we're creating transition’, he built it into his strategy, and I think that's where it has to live, right? It's not just about performance; it's about, how are we performing through our people and our relationships, and meeting the needs of our marketplace?

I would tell you, it started a little unknown, because we hadn't done this formally prior; so it really required looking at what we thought our needs were, the changes we wanted to make, and we built it from the ground up. So we have a team currently of 16; our scope is a little greater than people would imagine when they see the title, because we do focus on diversity & inclusion from the landscape perspective, from a metrics perspective, from a training and awareness perspective. But we've got arms, if you will, of talent acquisition, training and development, so that we can really make a holistic impact that really transitions the organisation from the standpoint of, how are we hiring people? Are we making decisions through a biased lens, and deciding ‘I’m not going to hire that people because I don't understand them’, even though they may be highly qualified and bring something amazing to the table?  

CHRIS: I love that link, by the way, to those other areas you mentioned; because then you have a real meaningful and measurable impact in the organisation. We were talking before the show about ‘just ticking the box’. 2018 was the year of everyone just hearing the buzzword ‘D& I’ and ticking the box, we all saw that. Whereas clearly straight away - just from those examples you’ve given me - you’ve linked that directly back to business challenges that you're having and how D&I can help impact that, through talent acquisition, innovation etc. So at the moment you're managing all of these different areas; what's really occupying your mind on a day to day basis?  

ROBIN: Talent is always occupying everyone's mind, and so I’ll be very brief on that; because I think every organisation, if you said, ‘What keeps you up at night’; right now it's talent. It's finding the talent, it's keeping the talent, it's ensuring that you're competitive in that area. I have to say that because that is-  

ROBIN: It’s true, same for me; we're growing our small startup here, the only thing stopping me right now is finding the right talent.  

ROBIN: That’s exactly right; I would tell you the next challenge that comes with that, though - that really is on top of mind for me - is how we include that talent. We can focus on bringing it in; we can focus and understand the importance of diversity and having those differences, and all of the research and studies show the benefit and the performance - the performance that the organisations and teams who are diverse are succeeding at, versus those that are homogenous. But education and awareness is really top of mind for me, because it's really having deep, difficult conversations with ourselves and with leaders, in the essence of, ‘Okay why didn't I hire that person? ’ or ‘Why did that person make me feel uncomfortable? ’ or ‘Why am I basing this off of what I believe it should be’, when the reality is, I shouldn't be leading people based on my own personal opinion. I share it with our organisation; I call it the Backpack of Beliefs.

CHRIS: Unconscious bias, is that-  

ROBIN: Yeah, or how we lead. So for example, I think companies like to think, ‘Hey, we're all going to check it at the door when we come in’, and we're just going to-  

CHRIS: We don’t; we don't do that.

ROBIN: We don’t; that’s the reality. For us, we have 42,000 individuals who show up to work; and when I say Backpack of Beliefs, we all walk in with one. So in my backpack are all of my things - it's my experience, my exposure, my belief system, my opinions - and they're mine. The challenge is, as humans and as leaders, we tend to lead people or interact with people under the assumption that your backpack has the same things than it than mine do or should, and that's not the case. And if we're not willing to look into somebody else's backpack and unpack it and learn more and remain curious - even if we don't understand or agree with the things that are in there - we have to know what they are in order to lead people who are different from us, and in order to create a more comprehensive education for ourselves. Because we're going to learn something when we look into each other's backpacks; and more often than not, we're also going to find significant similarities.

CHRIS: It's in those differences that innovation comes - and new ideas, new thinking, new perspective - whereas actually, people find that being uncomfortable in situations sometimes is the best thing.

ROBIN: Absolutely.

CHRIS: As soon as you get comfortable and everyone's thinking the same way, as you mentioned beforehand, then that's a very dangerous place to be in. You will be disrupted, and we're seeing it happen all around us with organisations every single day now. Before it was maybe one or two companies a year; now it's every other every other week, a company in the news now, that are going out of business because there's a lack of innovation and diverse thinking in the organisation as well.

So how are you educating your own leaders, then; your own leadership in the organisation, to think differently and be open-minded? Step away from the conversation and to not impose your own perspective on it?  

ROBIN: It's intentional and comprehensive, and required a huge commitment. So when we implemented the formalised structure - and in my regular meetings with our CEO, one of the things that we conversed about regularly is - this can't just be a token position; this can't just be something we do half-heartedly. So we're going to have to spend a significant amount of money to identify what are some of the biases; what are some of the gaps. How do we do a better job of what I call leadership training; and that's really to me what is it. It's about ‘How are we leading people who are different from us? ’, and we have a very comprehensive training that we've put together - that that runs a number of days - that is different from anything we've ever done. We don't talk at all about the business; we don't talk about our metrics, and it is fully integrated, as well as having outside experts. We dive really deeply into unconscious bias, conflict resolution; we go into different generations, different races, different walkabouts, if you will. LGBT, racism, gender, all of these different areas; we dive deep, and I would tell you initially it creates an environment of discomfort.  

CHRIS: Yeah, I can imagine!

ROBIN: And we address that.

CHRIS: It’s healthy, it's good.


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