In the wake of the tragic killing of George Floyd, leaders are being challenged to listen, learn, and do better. We recently had the opportunity to meet with Bryce Bowman, Internal Communications Lead at McElhanney, to talk about the kind of listening and learning that leaders—particularly white ones—need to do if they want their teams, companies, and communities to succeed.
TE: How did you get the D&I conversation started with your team?
BB: It’s been a heck of a year, with COVID starting in March and then the BLM movement following shortly after. We noticed that there was a lot of pain and sadness among staff, and that we needed to support them and take a stand. We were also having a lot of conversations internally: What are we doing? What are we going to do? Where do we stand?
At McElhanney, two of our core values are that we a) care for our people, our clients, and our communities, and b) stand behind safety and respect for all. So it was an opportunity for us to check in with everyone across the company, see where everyone’s at, and what they’d like to see out of our EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion) efforts.
I spoke with our EDI chair and said, “Hey, we’ve got this tool [Thoughtexchange]. They’re promoting some ideas for EDI questions right now. Is this something we should dig into?”. We partnered on getting her the information she needed to take action, make decisions, and move the company’s EDI efforts forward. Before that, EDI was something we were very much focused on as a company, but it was more in the background. This was an opportunity to make this a front and center conversation.
TE: What is it about opening the floor to these kinds of conversations that you think leaders are afraid of?
BB: The good thing is that our leadership hasn’t been reluctant. They were behind it right away and wanted to have these conversations. But I think there is a nervousness: Are we aligned, you know? Is the company going to be where we think it’s at? I think we’ve got a good finger on the pulse of our culture, but there’s always a nervousness when you put something out there. How’s it going to be interpreted, and how is it going to be answered? And what’re the responses you’re going to get? But when it comes down to it, at least if there was a problem, we’d be able to identify it. And if we are aligned, then hey, great, we’re aligned. We can keep moving forward and take action right away without having to work to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
TE: For an emotional and subjective topic like D&I, everyone likely has their own picture of what work needs to be done—what needs to be prioritized within the company. How can you set those priorities and hear from everyone?
BB: Hmm. One big thing was that we ran an exchange live with 500-plus staff on a call. We got everyone in there at the same time putting their thoughts out and rating the thoughts of others. When we put out surveys in the past, y’know, there’s some qualitative feedback there, but we weren’t sure if those opinions exist across the company.
I think one of the best parts of it is—I have the exchange open right here in front of me—we’ve got the top 10 [thoughts] and there are some quick-action items in there that we can take immediate action on. And then there are also some longer-term items that we can focus on as we start to build out our EDI strategy from where we are now.
TE: Were there any other groups who benefited from the exchange?
BB: We have two groups who are working very closely together: Women at McElhanney and EDI. And the chair for our EDI is looking to get some new initiatives underway. Actually, when we ran this exchange, there were some items for Women at McElhanney and some for EDI. And when we were theming the exchange, we were able to organize internally and get the actionable items in the right hands. That was great for us. The exchange fed into some of our other programs that can take some of these thoughts and run with them.
TE: Going back to the surveys for a moment—how do you think a survey would have done in this situation?
BB: We would have noticed things like, “Hey, there are a bunch of people mentioning training. Okay, more training for people and make training mandatory for managers.” That kind of stuff. But there were also comments within the exchange that were more difficult. They were a departure from our core values. But we could see that the handful of comments that made me say “this isn’t what we’re looking for out of people at McElhanney” got very low ratings. So we were able to say “Okay, the group doesn’t feel like this is important, or that they agree with it. They actually disagree with it.” It was great to see that. We wouldn’t have gotten that with a survey.
TE: It sounds like the exchange results reaffirmed McElhanney’s core values.
TE: Let’s talk about your exchange. When you’re in the Discover Dashboard, which tool do you geek out over most? What’s your go-to out of all of them?
BB: I really like Themes. It’s the first place I go to get everything collected and correlated. I love that. But I also really like using the Differences area to see exactly where people in different camps are: Where Group A agrees; where Group B agrees; where they disagree and agree with each other. I love that kind of common ground. We can then maybe find an area where we can bridge the gap between two groups who seem like they’re on opposite sides of the fence.
TE: That’s awesome. Lastly, any thoughts or advice you’d like to share with other leaders?
BB: It’s more than just increasing diversity. It’s about creating a space where people can find belonging. And regardless of your gender, your race, your sexual orientation, you should be able to show up and be your authentic self. That’s what we’re working to achieve by challenging our staff, by getting everyone to participate, and by having them help us all to learn and move forward in this conversation. That’s really where we’re trying to go. We hope that resonates with people at McElhanney, and hopefully that resonates with other leaders. It’s about creating that culture in our company, and the only way we can do that is by having these conversations.
We’re all on a personal journey. We’re all in different places. And I think it’s important that we reach out to support each other and help each other through these times. That’s the only way we’re going to move the needle.
So, I leave that as a piece of advice: Don’t shy away from having these conversations. They can be difficult. They can be tough. But in the end, they’re worthwhile. They spur growth. And as good corporate citizens, it’s our responsibility.
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