Building a High-Performance Culture with an Emphasis on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

On Tuesday, April 20, top technology executives of St. Louis-based companies gathered for the 2021 St. Louis CIO Summit by HMG Strategy and Technology Partners. This year’s theme was “Courageous Leadership and Fearless Reinvention: Guiding the Modern Enterprise in Dynamic Times.”  

Complementary to a full day of panels and keynotes, Lisa Nichols, our very own CEO, moderated a discussion on “Building a High-Performance Culture with an Emphasis on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” with a panel of five highly accomplished women leaders.    

As remote work has extended across much of 2020 and into 2021, many CIOs and technology executives have expressed concerns about keeping employees engaged and motivated over the long-term. On top of this, it’s also been challenging to convey a sense of organizational culture both to existing employees and new hires. This panel discussion with top executives focused on what’s required to cultivate a connected culture into the future – including one that embraces diversity, equity and inclusion.  

Consider the wisdom and insights below, inspired by Lisa’s conversation with the five panelists.

How can we enable the performance journey?  

Kristin Johnson, CHRO, Edward Jones: Next year, Edward Jones will turn 100 years old and while we have always had a strong culture, we are continually considering how we can enhance our service to the client.  Having a high-performance culture is imperative to serving our clients well. 

Five areas Edward Jones focuses on include the following:  

  1. Leadership: How are we as leaders holding ourselves accountable to helping others thrive? 
  2. Place of belonging: How are we creating a place of belonging – a welcoming and productive environment where we’re all achieving our potential? 
  3. Continuous Learning: What new experiences and perspectives are we embracing and learning from?   
  4. Effective decision-making:  Are we making effective decisions and using our time wisely?
  5. Growing our impact: How are we adding value to clients and communities? 

What makes a high-performance culture?

Paris Forest, Sr. Director IT, Boeing: Empowerment and resiliency. It is crucial for decisions to be made as close as possible to the work in order to have the efficiency to handle the changing demands of your business environment. Empowerment of your people helps an organization make this a reality.  

High-performance cultures are resilient. They’re like palm trees–they bend, but don’t break. In a business environment, the winds of change are constant. Our ability to respond to those changes increases not only when we work to empower our teammates, but also seek to build resiliency within the team.  We have to be transparent and help them understand the forecast and outlook of the business environment. 

Stephen M.R. Covey shared, “Innovation is accelerated when your differences collide in a high-trust environment.” How important do you believe diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are in a high-performance culture?  

Kristine Swan, VP of IT Business Partnering – Digital Farming, Bayer Crop Science: Organizations must have a culture that celebrates and empowers people of all backgrounds and thought processes.   

Studies have shown that companies with the most inclusive and diverse cultures are 6x more innovative. Kristine shared, “For employees to have the ability to come to work with a web of trust, the feeling of inclusiveness allows them to be their whole selves–bringing all of their great thoughts to the table–and be able to come up with the best solutions and offerings that we can for our customers around the world. I think diversity, equity and inclusion are core to being able to be innovative as an organization.” 

How are we doing as a corporate collective with regards to DEI?

José Zeilstra, CEO, GenderFair: For women in particular, things don’t look so rosy when it comes to the tech industry. 

This results in a large gender gap that manifests itself in many ways including employment opportunities, leadership, and wages. Having senior leadership positions that are more diverse can have a real positive impact on the environment, the culture. Insights shared by José:

  • 22% tech jobs held by women, even lower held by women of color.
  • 6% of computing-related jobs were held by Asian women, 3% by African American women and 2% by Hispanic (2020 study by Builtin)

    Women currently remain underrepresented in software engineering
    18% of computer science bachelor’s degrees are earned by women. In 1997, this was 27%, in 1985: 37%. STEM has not been the first career choice for women.

    While the quit rate for women is 53%, it is only 31% for men. This illustrates the “leaky pipeline” in the tech industry as it is more challenging to retain women in STEM jobs. The pandemic has exacerbated this as women in technology were almost twice as likely to lose their jobs or be furloughed and additional caregiving duties–especially for moms–have led to many leaving the workforce altogether.

    Women as senior leaders in large corporations has increased from 21 to 24% in the last couple years. For example, Apple has 29% women in leadership and 25% Google women in leadership. There are limited CIOs in Fortune 500 companies – around 17%.

    Gen Z will begin to flood the technology field. TechCrunch recently reported 74% of girls desire a career in STEM, perhaps as they see more women role models. 

We have made progress, but we still need to move the needle as you just heard from the stats that José shared. What practically can we do to improve?

Shavon Lindley, CEO, ion Learning:  The human brain works best when it achieves psychological safety. Any perceived threat diminishes our ability to listen, learn, collaborate, and function at our best. Our ancestors would get triggered into a fight, flight or freeze response by a physical threat.  However, now, it is more of a social or psychological threat such as stress, worry, fear, exclusion, working in a new environment, etc. Our reaction to social or psychological threats is the same response that a physical threat. There is no difference.   

Due to the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees are not using the highest-level brain functioning possible. We should be focusing on creating a psychologically safe environment where people feel safe to learn and grow.  

Next time you’re rolling out a new training initiative, leverage small, diverse peer-learning groups. Require that these peer-groups meet to discuss the content they are in learning in between every module. During this collaboration time, employees will learn how to provide feedback, support each other, and practice inclusion in real time as they work with people that are different from them.  This will create the optimal environment for trust and psychological safety to develop. When this occurs, insights and innovation soar which will strengthen your high-performance culture all the way down to its core. 

Shavon shared a recent study ion Learning conducted with Golden Gate University to measure the impact of their methodology, “Last year, we were able to measure our science-backed framework for learning with a global biotech company. We learned that within six months, we were able to increase trust by over 9% and reduce turnover intention by 38%. Employee turnover costs companies about $15,000 per employee. Digging deeper, it costs 30-50% of an entry-level person’s salary to replace them, 150% for mid-level, and as much as 400% for a senior level employee. These hidden costs are costing companies billions.

Final words from each panelist on this important subject are as follows:

Paris Forest: “Be brave. Get started. You cannot start at the destination.” 

Boeing’s CEO has been intentional, not just in conversations about resolving gaps, but also in actions. The leadership team holds themselves to specific measures. Further, they have created the Racial Equity Taskforce designed to represent Boeing’s 140,000 employees and serve as a think tank for senior leaders. We are engaging in active listening.  While leadership is intentional with their plans, they are also listening to the people who live in the culture.  This feedback is necessary if we are to continue making progress.

Kristin Johnson: “Be intentional about helping people see that they are ready and capable. Edward Jones now has 35% of tech roles held by females; 22% held by people of color. The organization also has more up and coming junior talent in tech to nudge and encourage which is exciting.”

Kristine Swan: “Everybody comes with biases. No matter who you are and what your background is, you come to the table with something. Being open to discussion about our unconscious biases has made a positive difference in our culture. Talk about it. Create an environment where people feel comfortable having the conversation–even about biases. Ask questions such as: 

  1. Tell me about your background?
  2. What are your experiences? 
  3. How does all of this make you feel?    

Shavon Lindley: “A high-performance culture is one that is built on a foundation of trust.  Employees need to feel like they belong, are continuously learning, making an impact, and having that human connection.  This is facilitated by making the culture psychologically safe.”

José Zeilstra: “We believe at GenderFair that as consumers are more aware of organizations ‘real’ commitment to DEI, their buying behaviors will be influenced. This will in turn influence the behavior of the organizations. We have a certification process that rates companies on 16 different components such as employee policies, promotional opportunities, sponsorship, mentoring, and pay equity analysis. The companies are then given a grade.  This certification process will help companies identify areas for improvement.”

A company’s organizational culture is the foundation upon which employees and clients stand. Reflect on the insights shared by our panelists and consider your role in facilitating psychological safety, building trust, and encouraging resiliency within your team. As Paris Forest shared, “Be brave. Get started. You cannot start at the destination.” 

Want to attend the next St. Louis CIO Summit? 

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