Close Inclusion Gaps Through Strategy and Credibility

Shirley Davis Sheppard began her career in banking. After a successful stint as a teller she transferred into human resources and found she had a natural affinity for coaching and development. At Capital One, she had the opportunity to work in every area of HR from training to recruiting and eventually, senior diversity roles. A series of serendipitous events brought her from being the head of diversity at Exelon to the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM, as the association’s first chief diversity officer.

For the past seven years at SHRM, she has been closing the gaps in knowledge and implementation in her field. As the “diversity officer for the chief diversity officers,” she works to identify trends, challenges, solutions and resources through her research.

Davis Sheppard recently spoke with Diversity Executive. Below are edited excerpts from the interview:

Coming out of the SHRM diversity conference last week, what are the trends diversity and inclusion is looking to now?

Diversity and inclusion is at a crossroads and there is a real need to focus on a global talent management effort. The keynote speakers helped people to understand the nuances and biases that happen across ethnicities and cultures and how we can work to change that on a global scale.

Another trend is crisis management and risk management in messaging. As diversity officers, we have to help our organizations navigate the new area of social media: How do we get in front of the messaging? If there’s an adverse message that is illegal, irresponsible or insensitive, how do we manage that?

We discussed leveraging technology for recruiting efforts and the unintentional biases and prejudices that come with it. In sourcing applicants through social media, we have to understand how what they look like, what their names are and other information might affect the hiring decision.

Innovation is an ongoing trend: How do you leverage the different backgrounds and diversity in your organization for a competitive advantage?

What keeps you passionate and interested about your work?

What keeps me going is knowing that this is something I’m called to do: I’m gifted in facilitation, development and speaking, which is key for any business leader. You have to be able to communicate, you have to be able to build relationships and then you have to have a caring heart, a servant’s heart, to help others.

When people call me and tell me: “I just got into this field, where do I start?” or “I’m running into resistance from the top, what do I do?” The fact that they call me and utilize me, I like.

I like solving problems, helping people develop strategies and seeing people succeed. I like sharing the things I learned because I started in this field when it was just getting started.

What personal traits do you need to implement change and effectively execute strategy against resistance?

You can’t always take rejection personally. It’s tough to learn. People are rejecting histories, the ways they have been socialized, their hidden motives.

When you talk to leaders about changing cultures and workplaces, it’s difficult because people have taken pride in those things. They have built a company that has been successful and productive. It can take time to change, but you are going up against a lot, so you can’t take things personally.

Also, you need to be thoughtful so that you have the level of credibility. You have to be a great listener and not push a personal agenda to get the program going or get your point across. Sometimes, you have to back up a bit and allow people to express their concerns, their obstacles and their challenges. And then lead them to the water and make them believe it was their idea.

You’ve also got to get some successes under your belt to show that the strategies work. Consultants will tell you all the things you should do, but they might not have done it themselves. We have too many consultants in this field with little operational and experiential knowledge.

Finally, you have to show your business acumen. If you are going to get leaders to make significant changes, diversity officers can’t be disconnected from how the business operates. If they can’t articulate the top three business objectives in their organization, it sabotages and undermines their ability to be successful.

What do you consider one of your biggest achievements?

When I arrived at SHRM, I partnered with Dr. Roosevelt Thomas to study the field. Through surveys and a global conference, we extracted information and insight from global thought leaders and created a strategies plan to implement the programs needed close the gap.

Here are we now five years later, and an increased number of organizations have recognized the need for a chief diversity officer or at least someone devoted to the diversity and inclusion strategy. That was a huge win.

A secondary thing is that more organizations come to SHRM for best practices, resources and professional development opportunities. We are now recognized on Capitol Hill as an influential voice. Whenever there is new legislation, SHRM has weighed in. Our voice has been heard and our voice matters.

Mary Camille Izlar is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at