Statistics show that companies that focus on diversity are more likely to succeed than those that don’t.
That’s because having employees with different outlooks, experiences, skills and knowledge allows companies to approach a service, product or project in different ways, which fosters effective innovation.
But if your company hasn’t been focusing on diversity, where do you start? What does incorporating a diversity initiative mean for your business’s culture? How do you provide helpful training for a topic like diversity?
Special guest, Marsha Sampson Johnson, the former Chief Diversity officer at Southern Company, and April Harry, Warren Averett’s Chief Operating Officer, come together on this episode of The Wrap to discuss what it looks like for companies to intentionally foster diversity and inclusion within their organizations.
After listening to this podcast episode, you’ll be able to:
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About Marsha Sampson Johnson
Marsha Sampson Johnson retired in 2010 after working almost 25 years with Southern Company. While at Southern, most notably Alabama Power Company, she held various executive level positions including senior vice president human resources and chief diversity officer. Marsha has held significant community service and economic development positions with chambers of commerce and economic development boards, and is an alumna of Leadership Jacksonville, Leadership Atlanta, Leadership Mobile, Leadership Birmingham, and Leadership Alabama. In 1999, I was selected as one of 14 women internationally for the acclaimed Leadership Foundation Fellows Program of the International Women’s Forum. Today, she is a Global Director of the International Women’s Forum and serve on the board of directors of IWF Georgia.
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Intro (00:00) Welcome to The Wrap, a Warren Averett podcast for business leaders designed to help you access vital business information and trends when you need it so you can listen, learn, and then get on with your day. Time is tight, that’s why our advisors have wrapped up today’s most timely topics into a podcast with actionable advice. Now let’s get down to business.
Kim (00:22) Hey, Paul.
Paul (00:23) Hey, Kim.
Kim (00:24) How are you today?
Paul (00:25) I’m doing well. How are you?
Kim (00:26) I’m great. I’m glad to have you here in Atlanta.
Paul (00:28) I’m glad to be here. I’m looking forward to this conversation.
Kim (00:30) Me too. You know, when we started The Wrap podcast, our mission was to be a reliable source for business leaders to find information about industry trends and business strategy so that they can be more effective business leaders. And today’s topic, I think, speaks exactly to that. Our topic today is embracing diversity, and I’m really excited about this podcast episode. Here at Warren Averett, embracing diversity is one of our fundamentals of our culture. We have learned a lot as we’ve embraced diversity and we are learning as we go.
Paul (01:13) I agree with that. I think that in talking about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, our business leaders that are listening to this podcast, it is essential to creating that culture, that tone at the top. And they’re the ones that if if they are entrenched in it, if that’s one of their tenants in life, the rest of their workforce will follow. So I think it’s really important. To the guests that we have today, one of them is April Harry, our COO here at Warren Averett. April, Welcome.
April (01:44) Thank you. Glad to be here.
Kim (01:45) Yeah, and joining April, we brought in who we would consider an expert on this topic, Marsha Sampson Johnson, and Marcia retired from 25 years with Southern Company. While she was at Southern Company, she was a senior vice president of Human Resources and the Chief Diversity Officer. Today, she is the Global Director of the International Women’s Forum and serves on the board of directors of IWF Georgia. Welcome, Marsha.
Marsha (02:12) Thank you, and I’m happy to be here.
Kim (02:14) Thank you for being here.
Paul (02:15) Glad to have you here.
Kim (02:26) So, Marsha, let’s start with just kind of a basic starting point to help us understand what the difference between diversity and inclusion is.
Marsha (02:26) Well, diversity captures all kinds of differences, and some of the differences we can see, some of the differences we can’t see. So when you start talking about race, ethnicity, gender, all of those things – inclusion? I can’t see. I have to experience it. And so inclusion is how I use diverse talents, how I bring into my everyday work, how I use diverse talents in day to day tactical and strategic objectives. That’s inclusion. So I might look at a group of people and say, “Oh, this is a very diverse organization,” but I have no clue about that until you experience and see how the talent is utilized, you won’t know that the organization is inclusive, and that’s at every level of the organization.
Paul (03:32) Why should companies address this in the workplace and the million dollar question, how do they address it?
Marsha (03:40) Well, the why is I think clearly born out in research and literature. The statistics show us that diverse and inclusive organizations are really outpacing those who are not, in revenue generation, in attraction and retention of top talent, in satisfaction of clients and their employees. So if you’re not looking at diversity and inclusion, then you probably missing the ball and probably a little confused about why you may not be hitting certain targets.
Paul (04:22) When you think of things differently in an organization, you look at the outcome different, and that’s where the inclusion, I think, starts to take hold is we’re thinking about it in a different manner than others. They’re thinking of it the same way they thought about it for 30 years. And if you’re doing the same thing you’ve done for 30 years, it’s not going to continue to work. And maybe that’s why that outpacing is occurring because we’re just approaching the problem completely different.
Marsha (04:49) Well, the good news is, organizations are rejecting a one size fits all solution, and that’s the good news. But what’s not negotiable is that you address the issue of diversity and inclusion and weave it into the fabric of your organization. How you do that, and where you start, is really a function of where you are as an organization, but you have to start with intentionality around a vision for what your organization looks like, how it functions, how people interact, how you weave all of this and you have to start with that vision.
Kim (05:40) I think that’s a great segway to the fact that here at Warren Averett, we are focused on diversity and inclusion, and April, maybe you can share a little bit about what the catalyst for that was and how it’s going.
April (05:55) So Warren Averett right now, we’re really focused on becoming more of business advisors to our clients, and in doing that, you have to represent your clients well. And so the one thing that we’ve realized is that in our clients have very diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and we didn’t necessarily match up. So if you look at our A+ wheel, we focus at Warren Averett on A+ talent, A+ clients and A+ service. We found that diversity inclusion weaves very well into those three fundamentals that we focus on. For example, A+ service, Warren Averett embraces the diverse talents and perspectives of our team members so that we can bring different perspectives to our clients. And that is our ultimate goal, to always serve our clients better, that’s why we’re here. In order to be able to do that, you have to have many different perspectives, and that’s not always different perspectives from the way that people look in a gender, age, race, just the typical diversity, but it’s also in thought leadership as well as just experience background. We are better whenever we surround ourselves with people who have different opinions and different perspectives.
Kim (07:08) I love that. And you know, I think that is reflected in the fact that we have a Chief Innovation Officer and we now have a Director of Diversity. I think that goes to show that there’s one thing to say, that diversity inclusion is important and it’s another thing to live it out. And you know, the proof is in what we do and our team can see when we have programs available to encourage innovation and encourage new ideas and new thinking then that excites our young people to say “Oh, they’re serious that they really do want to have diversity of thought, that they don’t want everyone to look the same and think the same, that they are encouraging there to be unique strengths and unique gifts brought to us.”
April (08:04) And I think you know, Marsha touched on this word earlier, but it really is all about intentionality. We have to be intent that we are poised to make this change and that we’re going to make this change. it has to be something that at the end of the day, that we think about and that we work on every single day. So it can’t be an initiative, it has to be something that we weave into our culture and I really think that Warren Averett is ready to embrace that. It’s just exciting.
Kim (08:32) That’s very exciting.
Paul (08:33) On one of other podcasts where we were talking about building a team and who we look for in that team and making sure we bring people with different backgrounds – one of the things we talked about was when I’d interview someone and they had given me a resume and I look at that resume and that’s what they expected me to want to see. I always ask the question, “What is not on this piece of paper?” because that’s the thing that is most passionate sometimes to them where they didn’t think, “Oh, I’m going to talk to an accounting firm. I should only put on my resume everything related to accounting or whatever I’ve done in my in my previous life that can push me into that role.” That’s fine and that’s great and that helps me with your knowledge from a technical perspective, but I want to know what you’re passionate about, and when you’re passionate about something, you’re going to wake up every day and it’s going to be a career. It’s not going to be a job, and you’re going to want to come to work and you’re going be excited about it. And that is what I do, and that is what I tried to get other people to focus on is, you know, find out what it is that drives people and use that as the catalyst or as the way of doing something a little bit different than we’ve done before. Find the person that thinks about it completely.
April (09:48) And you know, I’m glad that you brought up the recruiting efforts and talking to people interviewing people because I think that’s something that all business leaders can really think about. We all have unconscious biases. We all have affinity biases. So you have a resume, and it’s someone that went to the same college or they were in the same sorority or fraternity with you, and you have a natural connection with them. You might make them feel more comfortable in an interview, but challenging yourself to really say, “Are they truly the best talent? Are they the person that will help us to catapult ourselves in the future and to help us be a better firm and try to remove some of those biases?” So here at Warren Averett, we are going to go through some training around those. There’s just unconscious things that people do on a daily basis just to try to help us be better. But I would even challenge people that when you’re recruiting, maybe the first interview is just a phone interview with basic information, not necessarily a resume, so that you can truly not know anything about the person, except for what you do see on that paper, what really is important and so that you don’t have the opportunity to have those affinity biases.
Kim (10:59) So, Marsha, if a business hasn’t been intentionally fostering diversity, where do they start?
Marsha (11:05) You start with the vision. You have to have a vision of where you want to go, and you have to embrace that vision. If you don’t see in your business trajectory a firm that is just overflowing with all kinds of people, you’re not going to start in earnest because you don’t see the need for it. There is a big difference between my saying that I believe in diversity and my being intentional and acting to make it happen. It could be requiring the human resources department to have a diverse, highly skill pool of candidates for every position so you measure them on that, you measure their effectiveness on that. We have had positions held until we got a diverse, highly skill pool of candidates. So that’s the kind of intentional action that I think people who are serious begin to take. And in hiring, it’s so amazing. Unconscious bias is a kind of training that ought to be required of everyone. In addition to that, you have to scrub your internal systems and processes for unconscious bias because it exists in systems and processes. And so before you train the employees, or perhaps on a parallel track with training employees, just look at exactly where you are recruiting. What questions are you asking? How are people screened? Who’s screaming them? Who makes the final decision about hiring? Who determines that this candidate, though equally qualified, isn’t the right fit? What does that mean, not the right fit? So I think there are opportunities to really scrub the organization top to bottom if we’re serious about creating a platform where people feel welcome and where you encourage not only encourage diversity and inclusion, but you hold the organization accountable for making sure it happens.
April (13:45) And I think Kim started this off asking, “What’s the difference between diversity and inclusion?” A lot of what we talk about really is probably more toward diversity. One other thing that we really want effects on is inclusion even once you’re within our organization. So, for example, a lot of times in the accounting profession, people have breakfast meetings or golf outings or lunch meetings, dinner meetings that may not be inclusive to everyone. For example, you may have a single mom who has to make sure that her kids are at school in the morning, or a single dad who has to make sure that the kids are at the activities in the afternoon, and it limits that they cannot go to certain meetings because of their personal commitments. It’s important that we really get to know individuals so that we can make sure that all people are included and that we have opportunities in which everyone can feel as if they fit in.
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Paul (14:52) So Marsha, openly discussing diversity and inclusion, sometimes makes people feel uncomfortable for fear of offending someone. What should a business do to try and facilitate a more open conversation on that?
Marsha (15:09) I think the unconscious bias training helps. There’s also training on uncomfortable conversations, so those kinds of support mechanisms exist, but they have to be modeled inside the organization, so it has to be done in a way where people see it happening and they’re not punished one way or the other for engaging in it because this isn’t something you trust because you read about it. You trust giving that kind of feedback and engaging in uncomfortable conversations when you do it and live to say, “Well, that wasn’t so bad” or, “I made a difference. I helped the person understand, and the person understands me better.” We have to unleash it. Even in our communications, as leaders were so guarded until we don’t just speak the truth unfiltered. And so if we don’t speak the truth, if we’re not willing to say, “Oh, this is an uncomfortable situation,” then why do we expect our employees to risk that? They have far more to risk than we do. So I think leaders have to be held accountable for modeling certain behaviors even in individual team meetings, because that’s where the change will occur. It will occur on a micro level, not a macro level, and so who we put over teams matters. They are the ones who will model these differences, these changes. They’re the ones who will encourage employees to trust, to risk, being they’re bringing their full cells to the organization
April (17:11) I also think, you know, we talk a lot about relationships. One of our culture and value statements is to build relationships. I personally think that if the best way for you to be able to have an open and honest dialogue with someone is to have relationships that allow that. If you foster that relationship in a way in which everyone is comfortable, it’s your safe zone, then I think that we can have those conversations. I know I have friends at work, that air from different cultures, and if I have a question about their culture, I don’t have a problem going and asking that. And they don’t ever feel offended by the question. It’s just a simple, innocent question. So we’ve got to foster that kind of an environment.
Paul (17:51) And I think getting to know people and their why in life, right? So they had an upbringing that may be different than yours, it doesn’t mean one was right on one was wrong, it’s just how it happened and not judging folks based on what they say and doing that because you understand where they’re coming from. I think part of the question was so that people aren’t offended. People, I think, in society get offended because somebody’s thinking something differently, and maybe they don’t understand where that person is coming from and when you do understand where they’re coming from, being offended goes away. You’re not thinking of it in that term.
Kim (18:33) But I think that it is important to point out that there will be some people that do have a negative response to this, and as a business leader, I think you have to be prepared to respond to those employees. What would be your advice on handling an employee that does have a negative response to the whole conversation around diversity and inclusion?
Marsha (18:55) It starts, though, with clarity of purpose and mission around diversity and inclusion and a clarity that is written, and then you also write how your expectations are to have each employee on that. That’s a part of as much a part of performance as anything else. If we talk about it in those terms, people understand that I’m not going to be an A plus performer if I’m sitting back and I’m really resenting the firm’s intentional actions around diversity and inclusion. I think there are a lot of one on one conversations that have to be held. I have moved people out of positions who were incapable of embracing the firm’s direction, and that just happens. It’s not a fear tactic, but it is important to demonstrate how serious we are, if in fact we are serious about moving, You train people there, people you might have to give individual attention to, you know they are, and you give them a period of time to get on board. If they don’t get on board, then you have to do something else. But it would be not truthful to say that everybody is going to love this and rally toward this. Why? Because the job you give to the next highly skilled and I start with highly skilled, diverse candidates – somebody out there thought their cousin, their niece, their brother or sister, their neighbor, their church member, their somebody was qualified to get that job. Once you start looking at the leadership ranks in the organization and you start saying, “No, this person is not only qualified, they bring to the table the kind of diverse background and experience that will enhance our efforts. The reason we stagnate in diversity and inclusion is because we don’t stay the course and we, as leaders of organizations, are unwilling to endure the criticism and the pain of change. If we think that this will happen without a certain amount of disruption, a certain amount of pain, then I suggest we’re going to be here next year at the same spot.
Kim (21:47) I’m shaking my head. We can’t see that on the podcast, but I’m shaking my head to say yes, and I loved how you said there’s training on unconscious bias and there’s training on uncomfortable conversations in general. I think that is something that is not taught in school and it’s a learned skill and you have to practice it in order to get better at it. So because it makes people uncomfortable, they don’t do it and because they don’t do it, they don’t ever get any better at it. I think that you have to have that as part of this whole conversation.
Paul (22:32) I like to say, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Marsha (22:35) Yes, exactly.
April (22:38) And I will say, just from experience, there’s always the 80 20 rule, you know, 80% of the people will be okay and they’ll move on, you know, and get on board with something, and 20% will always find a way to not get on board initially. And so I think it’s our responsibility is leaders to make sure that people understand that this is the new norm. This is not an initiative. It’s not a flavor of the month. It really is something that we are embracing and encompassing in our culture. I think once people understand that and they don’t see it as an initiative, that’s when people can really get on board, because there’s nothing to get on board with. It’s just a natural development that we’ve gone through.
Paul (23:20) April, I’m sorry to say I don’t remember the numbers of all of our fundamentals, but somewhere in the teens is assuming positive intent with conversations, with internal external individuals, and I think a way to push people away from the negative idea of a conversation is just assume positive intent. If you go into the conversation, it won’t be uncomfortable because you’re not assuming that they’re going throw something negative at you. I think that that’s another great fundamental that we have that people can use within their organization is just, you know, when you have a conversation would go into it with positive intent. Just assume that the persons, whatever they’ve said, whatever they’ve done, it’s not negative.
April (24:08) Well and I will say, you know, what we’ve seen is that people disagree on a lot of things, and that’s perfectly okay. I think we’ve become a little sensitive in society for to accept disagreement. but at the end of the day, in all organizations, the majority of the people, if not all, want the same thing. They want success. They want personal success. They want success of the entity. So if you kind of feel back that onion and say, “You know, I disagree with Paul on this topic, but at the end of the day, Paul wants what’s best and so do I. So how can we get to a place where we’re both moving forward and rowing in the same direction?”
Paul (24:48) Just because we disagree, doesn’t mean one is right or wrong and that I think is why society has gotten a little bit more offensive. Offended, I should say, is because we assume just because we don’t agree on something that that is a negative connotation and it’s not I’m not. I’m not saying I’m right or wrong on something, it’s just different.
April (25:09) You know, one of the best examples – I really do like Ellen DeGeneres and she talks a lot about being kind, and one of the best examples of that lately, as she was at, I think, a baseball game and President Bush, W., was at the same game and there was a video clip of the two of them, you know, talking and laughing and just enjoying the game. There was a lot of criticism around that, because how can you be friends with someone who has such a different perspective and doesn’t have the same beliefs as you? And I really thought that she handled that very well and said, “You know, I’m a stronger person by surrounding myself by people who don’t think exactly like me and why in the world can I not still be his friend? What does that have to do with our differences of opinion?” I think that’s a good lesson for us to learn is that we can have a different opinion, but we can still be friends, and we can still be part of the same entity and a part of the same mission.
Kim (26:09) Yeah, and I think that one thing that I try to think about is how often am I having conversations with people that come from a different background than me that walk through life with different circumstances than me that I can learn from? And that is part of my growth and stretching myself. Oftentimes I’ll stop and think, who have I recently had coffee with? They’re going to dinner with or I’ve gone to their home or they’ve come to my home? And if all those people look a lot like me, then I need to change my calendar because I need to be surrounding myself with people that are bringing different perspectives because I think that’s the way you grow. I think that speaks directly to this conversation. As a business leader if you aren’t growing, you’re stagnant and you’re going to remain stagnant if you keep the same thoughts in your organization and if you’re leading out of the same thoughts that you’ve had for the past 30 years. You need to have an organization that is dynamic, that is growing and a big key to that is having diverse thoughts and that is in diverse perspectives, diverse experience. All of that encompasses a pool of different thoughts and I think that’s the way that you grow.
Paul (27:34) Interesting.
Kim (27:37) And I think that part of training to understand unconscious bias and to understand where there is systematic bias, there’s bias built into our systems. You do need to peel it back and look, but it also might involve someone else from the outside that doesn’t have an emotional attachment to those bias to look at them because we want to believe the best, so when we’re reviewing our processes and how we are, we’re believing that we have the best intentions, but to someone new or someone outside of that, it looks totally different.
Marsha (28:20) And there are your employees, your team members, especially when given a level of anonymity, tend to be brutally honest about how they see the firm and how they see opportunity and how they see everything. So there is probably, I don’t know if you’ve done it in the past, but there’s probably opportunity to engage in feedback from employees, surveys, assessments, 360 assessments of your leadership teams and all those kinds of things help. They signal to employees that you really want to hear what they’re saying, especially when you act on what they tell you.
Paul (29:06) Here on The Wrap, we like to wrap it up in 60 seconds or less, So April, Marsha, what do you want listeners to take away from this conversation on diversity and inclusion?
Marsha (29:14) I don’t want to wrap it up because it doesn’t matter where you enter, enter where you are, meet the organization where it is, and next year at this time, be able to look back and say, “We did that. We did that.” At least point to one thing that’s significantly moved the needle, may not be numbers of people, may be a system or process, may be a new recruiting outlet, it may be any number of things, but look back in 2021 and say, “We were serious. Our employees now know we’re serious.”
April (30:03) Everyone can make a difference. So, you know, don’t rely on somebody else to make a difference. We can all have some responsibility in this just by going down the hall and being inclusive of someone that you normally wouldn’t, for whatever reason. I think that we can look back in 2021 and say, “Wow, over the last 18 months, we’ve done everything that we can, all of us collectively, and we really have made a difference. “ And I think it will continue to catapult our growth in our productivity. Having diversity absolutely increases morale and productivity, so I think we’ll see a difference. And I’m excited for it.
Kim (30:42) Me too. April, thanks for joining us, Marsha, thank you so much for being with us.
Close (30:47) And that’s a wrap. If you’re enjoying the podcast, please leave a review on your streaming platform. To check out more episodes, subscribe to our podcast series or make a suggestion for other topics to cover. Visit us at warrenaverett.com/thewrap
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