It has been a week since #SHRM22 in New Orleans came to a close. After a long-awaited year in anticipation of seeing real-live people, reuniting with old friends, and making new acquaintances, it’s hard to believe that we’re already making plans for next year. It was a whirlwind week.
2019 was the last Annual Conference that I had attended in person, which also happened to be the year that I announced I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2019, I was most focused on meeting people and spending time with them because I was genuinely afraid that it would be the last time I was able to do so. Then we all know what 2020 (and 2021) delivered. We’ve all been transformed by the changing world around us.
My purpose in attending the Annual Conference each year is two fold. One, I want to learn. It’s important that we are life-long learners, and to evolve and grow so that we can continue to make a positive impact in our organizations. Two, I want to connect with others and learn from them. Each person has a unique story, and a unique perspective based on their own experiences and background. There is so much value in learning from and with others. This was a lesson it took me far too long to learn. (Last year when I attended the conference virtually, I realized that I learn so much better in the company of others. There is deep value in the dialogue that happens during and after the sessions.)
My perspective of just about everything has changed significantly since my cancer diagnosis. I appreciate tranquility. I listen more – to the sounds around me, to people, to my own breath. I like to take things slower than before. This year, I unexpectedly found myself observing far more than I had in the past.
Rather than sharing my takeaways from the sessions I attended, I want to share with you two observations.
First, there was a theme that seemed to be woven through almost every session, and at the forefront of conversations: HR professionals are weary. (I would strongly argue that everyone in almost every profession is weary, but since we are talking about an HR conference, I want to focus my comments there.) It wasn’t long ago that HR demanded a “seat at the table.” Well… 2020 came and whether we were ready or not, we were shoved into that seat (and glued down). HR had an incredible opportunity to lead their organizations through some extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Not only were organizations struggling to quickly pivot and do business differently, but every person was struggling, too – from challenges with virtual school, loss of childcare, caregiving for family members, not being able to see family members in long term care homes who were suddenly closed to visitors, losing loved ones to COVID, their own COVID diagnoses, loneliness, mental health challenges, psychological and physical safety, loss of jobs and income, access to healthcare, and on top of all of the COVID19 related challenges, communities have been facing relentless discrimination, racism, and violence…. HR was trying, gallantly, to keep it all together – support their organizations, employees and their own families. It has been a tough, TOUGH couple of years. I saw it on the faces of almost every attendee I met. I would ask, “How are you?” And, as expected, I would hear some variation of “I’m doing ok/fine/great…” Their eyes said something different. I would lean in and say more gently, “That’s excellent to hear. But how ARE you?” After a pause or two, their answers changed, and they would share what’s really going on, often from behind tears.
I often hear comments that “there isn’t HR for HR.” This may be true in most organizations. So while HR is there for its people, who is there for HR? HR professionals need an ear (a shoulder) just as much as any other human. Showing your humanity isn’t a weakness. Demonstrating vulnerability doesn’t make you less credible. We are emotional creatures. We get scared. We get angry. We get frustrated, sad, confused, and hurt. I encourage you each to reach out to your colleagues and peers and ask how they are doing – for real. And then give them room to answer. You don’t need to fix anything. Just listen.
The second observation is: HR people are good people. Certainly, there are a few bad apples (who often, unfortunately, can spoil the reputation of the good apples). And sometimes HR people can behave badly. At the sessions that I attended, most were packed - learning why DEI&B efforts were failing – and what to do about it; how to stop the retention bleed that may be a reflection of toxic work culture or a resistance to evolve the business and how it operates; how HR needs to evolve to be future-ready; how to think (and act) like an owner; and how to foster a people-centric culture. I heard laughter. I saw tears. I saw people. People who want to do the right thing and help others thrive. I saw people who are exhausted from trying to do the right thing, but often being accused of doing it all wrong.
We are in the business of people. Most of us are in this profession because we genuinely care for others and want to make the work experience a positive one. We want to make a difference in the lives of our employees, and in our communities. Over the course of five days, I observed 13,000+ HR professionals from around the globe coming together for a common purpose and shared values.
My hope is that each and every HR pro – in attendance or not – recognizes and cultivates the good in themselves and in others. That is one significant way we can #CauseTheEffect.
Part 3: Nicole Yeldell Butts - SHIFT: A Framework for Transformational Cultural Change in DEI&
You have extensive experience as a DEI strategist, coach and facilitator. Tell us more about you and what inspired you to dedicate yourself to leading organizations through transformational change.
Over the past 20 years I have served in various DEI roles, including Chief Diversity Officer. I have built three inaugural DEI offices and have, trained, coached and counseled senior leadership on DEI matters. What I have learned in my years of doing this work is that diversity, equity and inclusion must exist in the hearts of individuals. When it doesn’t, there is no law, policy or strategy that can create it. We have seen time and time again how laws are broken or interpreted so narrowly as to not honor the spirit of the law. How policies are ignored or reasoned away. How strategy is set aside as priorities change. DEIB must be in the consciousness and courage of individuals to create and sustain.
In this work I have seen organizations say one thing yet do another and the lack of trust and credibility that it creates. I have also seen organizational leaders sincerely struggling with their role in DEIB. Not knowing what it means, how to achieve it or what their personal role is in the work. I found that many leaders have good intentions – or think they have good intentions or want to have good intentions – but do not know how to turn good intentions into tangible action that positively impactful outcomes.
My inspiration is that I believe we as individuals and as a society want to do better and I believe we can do better. I believe that given the tools, we will do better and I believe SHIFT is one of those tools.
You mentioned in the session description that most organizations jump directly into DEI&B initiatives and strategy implementation, but that doesn’t achieve or sustain cultural change and improve outcomes. What is one of the major obstacles to sustainable change?
One major obstacle to sustainable change is losing focus on the “why”. Without a focus on and a commitment to the “why” of DEIB the ball gets held, passed or dropped when other priorities arise, and when push back happens. And both will happen. New priorities will arise. There will be push back to DEIB efforts. Both can derail organizational focus and commitment. Don’t hold, pass or drop the ball. Stay focused on why you are doing the work and keep the ball in motion.
Another obstacle to sustainable change is lack of measurable evidence of progress. One aspect of SHIFT is defining and measuring success. As with anything else, if we see progress, it motivates us to continue our efforts. This is no different. So we need to determine exactly how we define and measure success and continually monitor how we are doing. This ongoing monitoring of success helps support sustainability.
What have you learned are some of the beliefs and behaviors that create barriers to inclusive and equitable workplaces?
There are so many, we could write a full paper on the numerous barriers and how they show up but let me focus on four - the top two that I see from an organizational standpoint and the top two I see from an individual standpoint.
One of the greatest organizational barriers to DEIB is the belief that it is the work of a person or an office. DEIB is the work of every person in an organization and executive leadership must establish and hold true to the fact that it is the work of everyone. Organizations often hire a person to lead the DEIB effort and assume that is enough. They think of it as a job that a person is responsible to completing. DEIB is not transactional. It is cultural. DEIB is about shaping culture and culture determines the way everyone in the organization makes decisions, set priorities, acts and how we hold accountability. DEIB impacts every aspect of an organization and is the responsibility of everyone in that organization. Organizations can hire a person or create an office to lead this work, but they must understand that that person or office is responsible for leading overall organizational culture change, not simply doing DEIB work.
Another organizational barrier to DEIB is what I refer to as DEIB busy work. Just doing things because you think you are supposed to. Let’s create a Diversity Council. Let’s make Juneteenth a holiday. Let’s write a statement. Let’s provide implicit bias training. They are doing all these things, but those things are not getting them anywhere because they haven’t decided where they want to be. It’s like the old saying, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” So, they are DEIB busy but there is no direction, no purpose, no defined outcome. And then they say, “Well, we have done all these things and they aren’t working.” So, they give up and say they tried.
The top two ways I see individuals create barrier to DEIB is a lack of personal recognition and accountability, and fear.
Individuals often believe that DEIB is not their responsibility – it has nothing to do with me. I treat everybody the exact same. I am color blind. I have not bias. All my decision making is objective. They don’t recognize that we all have bias and that our bias impacts our decision-making and behaviors. And since they don’t recognize this, they also do not hold themselves accountable for their bias, their bias decision making and their impact on people and the systems in which they operate.
The other barrier that comes up for individuals is fear. One fear is related to feeling personally threatened as they fear being excluded in this environment of inclusion and they fear being displaced. Another fear is related to a fear of speaking up. They may see differential treatment, but they are afraid of calling it. They may not know how to effectively call it out, they may not know how to advocate for themselves or others, they may fear being ridiculed for advocating for themselves or others. So the status quo goes unchallenged.
Your experience led you to the creation of SHIFT. Can you describe SHIFT and the changes you’ve seen companies experience by using this framework?
SHIFT is a five-point framework for transformational change which means it the change is effective, measurable and sustainable. Using the SHIFT framework, we begin with identifying the desired destination – the North Star, which lies in the answer to the question, “Who do you want to be as an organization?” After determining your North Star, you than assess where you are currently in relation to that North Star. Next we chart a course from where you are now to where you want to be – this is the strategy development aspect. If I am currently here but I want to get there, how do I close that gap? What things do I need to put in place to close that gap and how do I measure my progress? Fourth we implement the plan developed in step three. This is where most organizations start. They just start doing random things – DEIB busy work, but those things are not aligned with an overarching strategy designed to get you to a North Star. And last, you assess, reflect and determine next steps.
By using this framework, I have seen clients move from arbitrary DEIB activities to intentional, directional and coordinated efforts with personal and organizational accountability. I have seen them define the culture they want to create and develop very clear and concrete pathways for shaping that culture. And most importantly, leadership is personally and organizationally committed to the North Star.
One of the learning objectives is how to develop a strategy for determining the organization’s DEI North Star. How do you describe “North Star”?
The North Star is the clear vision or picture of who you want the organization to be as it relates to DEIB. To become you must first envision and as Stephen Covey says we must begin with the end in mind. The North Star is beginning with the end in mind – visualizing and defining the way you want the organization to show up in the world before you just start doing random DEIB activities – that DEIB busy work I mentioned earlier. In setting your North Star you must determine the organizational DEIB values, why those are important to the organization and how those values will be demonstrated by the organization. The North Star allows you to define who you want to be and how you want to show up. Without the North Star you are aimlessly floating through the galaxy.
What do you say to HR professionals who know they want to do something to change their culture, but aren’t sure where to start?
HR professionals need to understand that there is a difference between organizational stated values and lived values. Companies often have stated values but culture is what is lived. The goal is to turn stated values into lived values. Always start with values. What is important, why is it important and how do we demonstrate it and then stick to it. DEIB is about shaping culture and the shaping of culture and socialization of new norms neither happens quickly nor by accident but rather takes absolute consistency over time.
What are some of the ways that HR can support the organization’s leadership through transformational change?
HR can support an organization’s leadership through transformational change by keeping the focus on stated values and the why of those stated values. Here is why we said this was important to us. If this is what is important and why it is important, how do we demonstrate it? Continually hold leaders accountable to the stated values by asking “Does this align with our stated values?” “Does this demonstrate and support our stated values?” When decisions are made and priorities are set that are misaligned with the stated values and the why, HR can push back by asking “How does this align with our stated values?” or more directly, “This does not appear to align with our stated values.”
I am intentional about using the phrase “stated values” and not simply values because there is a difference between stated values and lived values. Using the phrase stated values - “this is what you said but it is not what you are doing” – holds leaders accountable to their words. Continual consistency to those stated values will shape culture and turn stated values into lived values.
What is one thing you hope attendees of your session will take back to their workplaces?
The motivation and energy to continue doing the work of DEIB because now they have a clear roadmap for creating real transformational change.
Please be sure to add one of the two offered in-person sessions to your calendar. Additionally, take the time to introduce yourself to Nicole afterwards!