Speaking on inclusive culture in Brooklyn, from left, Maria Mejia of Hone, Hermon Ghermay of IPG Mediabrands, and Katasha Harley of Bravely (Photos for From Day One by Alyssa Meadows)

When leaders at IPG Media Brands, the global media and marketing firm, noticed that a lot of women, especially the ones with care-giving roles, were leaving the workforce during the pandemic, they promptly convened focus groups. Essentially, women in the groups felt that they couldn’t take a break, said Hermon Ghermay, IPG’s global chief culture officer. The women acknowledged that they had discretionary time off, but felt that they couldn’t use it because they couldn’t fully log off from work and worried about possible retaliation once they got back to the office.

“The only time they felt they could take time off is when the office is closing between Christmas and New Year’s,” Ghermay said.  So her company’s leaders considered how to replicate that break and decided to close the office again, for the week after Labor Day. “This did not solve the systemic issues,” said Ghermay, “but we listened, we understood, and did something.”

Listening, understanding, and acting upon what has been learned, as Ghermay’s example showed, is a superb way to develop an inclusive culture–not just to increase empathy for caregivers, but for all overlooked and under-appreciated workers. That was among the lessons shared by expert panelists in a conversation at From Day One’s May conference in Brooklyn with journalist Siobhan O’Connor.

In the last two years, what people expect of work and leaders has changed, with formerly taboo conversations now being not only accepted, but also expected. “What made an effective leader pre-pandemic is so different post-pandemic,” said Emma Mon, head of global talent at the real-estate service company JLL. “We still have leaders who still try to manage like they did pre pandemic.” In particular, she recalls how, at the height of the pandemic, JLL launched an employee resource group (ERG) for parents and other caregivers. “We had a session, and I could not believe the things in the chat, how many people were saying they were alone, overwhelmed. The people that were key leaders had no idea how to respond to any of that.”

How to make leaders more aware of the diverse life experiences around them–and change their behavior? Among the highlights from the experts?

Shifting From Awareness to Action 

It starts with conversations. Maria Mejia, a learning experience designer at the management-training platform Hone, is one of the people responsible for creating DEI and leadership training materials. “At the macro level, organizations want curricula that will meet them where they are and help them grow,” Mejia said, pointing towards more attention being devoted to the oft-forgotten leader, “the middle manager that now has this knowledge and wants to do something but does not know how to start and is uncomfortable reaching out.”

Emma Mon of JLL and Mejia, who said: “It’s key that leaders max out on demo-ing empathy”

On the micro level, by contrast, four skills in particular can contribute to inclusive culture. “Skills are transferable regardless of role,” Mejia said. These skills are: having curiosity (the ability get past one’s own discomfort); creating psychological safety within a team; developing fluency in intercultural competency (the ability to recognize difference and embracing it); and conflict management. “[Conflict] is going to happen in the workplace, and it’s up to you to find how to work around that,” Mejia said.

Democratizing Learning and Development Programs: The Case for Creative Pairings

Katasha Harley, the chief people officer for the coaching platform Bravely, has been studying intersectional data for a long time, which she sees as a starting point for designing learning and development and leadership programs in a personalized way. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, for example, she had senior leaders reach out to employees for one-hour conversations. “We know that relationships are important in career mobility. This creates new relationships, and then you begin to track how that appears: What do their career journeys look like, based on these experiences?” she said.

This does not solely apply to HR leaders, though. Harley advocates for having people with different roles in the same room: someone from tech, someone from marketing. “Who does this person have the least amount of exposure to?” is what she asks herself. The result is a cross-functional approach of people who would not normally talk to each other in the course of their work.

The full panel, including R. Carmel Boyle-Lewis of NYU at far left and moderator Siobhan O’Connor at far right

Similarly, IPG Mediabrands tackled inclusivity and representation where they observed the biggest representation gaps, which varies around the world. In the U.S., it’s Black talent; in Mexico, by comparison, it’s indigenous talent. The solution was a pilot program resting on three pillars, so that leaders could learn from it and scale it. The first step was focusing on the relationship between employee and manager, and not just their manager, but their skip-level manager. Creating structured ways to meet up on a monthly schedule proved helpful. “The second component is if that’s a relationship between your manager and your skip-level manager, let’s take you out of that group, and look at the relationship that you might have with a sponsor,” she continued. “So we created an advocate program, which is part mentorship, part sponsorship.” As a final piece, the company introduced an external coach for 1:1 coaching, an objective expert for employees to work with. The outcome: “We had a higher rate of people who were part of the program who were getting promoted,” said Ghermay.

Empowering People to Say No 

R. Carmel Boyle-Lewis, the HR director at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, has been spearheading efforts to have staff and faculty be more reflective of the student population. To improve the hiring process, Boyle-Lewis employed what she called “creative tactics.” She and her team created an inclusive recruiting guide, with the goal of mitigating bias and creating job descriptions that eliminated barriers.

“Our faculty is 65% white, which does not reflect the community or the student base,” she said. So she moved toward a new strategy. When there’s a job vacancy, and when there’s no candidate who brings diversity to the pool of finalists, the hiring process for that position freezes. “I brought this practice to my dean. We started doing that to drive home the fact that we want to see individuals to match the student base,” she said.

Leaders should be sensitive to what they’re not hearing from their team members. “Silence can convey something too,” said Mejia, who works with organizations where one of the values is to bring one’s whole self to work. “That means that, as an employee, I am going to get distracted, feel emotions, and that my productivity is not going to be at an optimal level. So it’s key that leaders max out on demo-ing empathy, especially when that community does not look or sound like that leader in question.” Failure of leaders to speak up and connect, Mejia warned, leads employees to create their own narratives. “[They think] maybe they belong somewhere else.”

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.