Spreading the Diversity Message

Since founding PRISM International 18 years ago, Linda Stokes has built the organization into a full-service provider of consulting services, training programs and products for leveraging diversity and inclusion. With her company serving more than 2 million employees in more than 160 organizations in 21 countries on six continents, Stokes has helped companies across the globe with their D&I issues.

Stokes recently spoke with Diversity Executive. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

How did you get into human resources as a career? What attracted you to working in consulting? What work experience prepared you for this field?

I have always had a passion for the essence of the work of D&I, from the time that I noticed separate bathrooms, drinking fountains and the role of women in my family and in many other homes and families. Like many people my age, I was greatly influenced by the people and happenings of the ’60s, including integration, Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy and other leaders of the time. The women’s movement was a strong influence as well as women were finding their way in society and the workplace.

After 10 years in corporate banking, 10 years in health care, three years with a global consulting company, and after the completion of my master’s degree, I knew I could align my passion, education and experiences to bring the kind of consulting and training programs that could make a difference in the lives of employees and in the success of organizations.

How do you explain the business case for D&I? How do you help companies improve their bottom line?

The business case for D&I has been made over and over, starting with the Hudson Institute Workforce Report commissioned in 1997. Certainly, the business case has been expanded to include not only workforce challenges and opportunities, but workplace and marketplace as well. Obviously if an organization meets its strategic priority goals, the company will grow and continue to be successful. The secret to a successful D&I process is a direct alignment to the organization’s strategic focus areas, rather than a piecemeal list of activities and events.

Can you give an example of a really successful ERG initiative? What tips do you have for an HR manager looking to start ERGs?

Successful ERG initiatives must satisfy three criteria: they must meet the needs of their primary constituency; they must be aligned to the business strategy of the organization and they must be aligned to the external community or marketplace.

One excellent example that is hitting on all of these points is the LGBT ERG of a major financial company. This ERG developed an initiative to include training, resources and ads in their financial advisers’ technical training and developed an online resource for all financial advisers so they were better prepared to reach out to potential LGBT clients. This resulted in the company better positioning itself to reach a very important market.

How can companies get the different aspects of HR — talent management, diversity, learning and development — to work together more effectively?

There are a number of approaches, such as ensuring there is an understanding of what D&I really is, then crystallizing what it means for the overall business in financial terms, and lastly agreeing on a strategic, comprehensive, business-focused approach that reaches across the organization’s workforce, workplace and marketplace. Next, each area — talent management, L&D, etc. — needs to know and commit to their part of the process and realize what is in it for them and their success. For the work of D&I to be successful, it must be a truly integrated approach that involves all aspects of the organization.

When working with a company that has “diversity issues” and challenges, what’s the first thing you do?

My first question is, “What makes you think you have diversity issues? Tell me more.” My goal is to determine if they are talking about representation concerns or inclusion issues. I also position D&I as a way to gain advantages and opportunities rather than problems to be solved. Next we begin to look at cultural and behavioral norms that may support or derail respectful, inclusive behaviors. Once we determine the situation, we discuss strategies for addressing the situation and support structures to reinforce the strategies and sustain the results.

What traits make for the best HR professional, specifically with regards to working in D&I?

Rather than traits, it is a question of what knowledge and skill sets are required. Over the years I have assisted organizations in the sourcing, selection and training of CDOs and HR professionals involved in D&I. Important knowledge and skill sets include: Does the HR professional understand the meaning of D&I, which is inclusive of representation and additional elements of engagement, inclusion and innovation? Does that person understand the business connections and intersections which are specifically important to their business? And do they have the skills and direction to set a path forward? Do they have a process by which to map the progression of D&I? Can they gain allies, create the appropriate structures and know-how to sustain the process over time? All of these elements are critical to success.

What advice would you give new chief diversity officers? How can they get started if there’s a blank slate?

A blank slate does not include a situation where there is not a firm commitment and adequate budget; those two components are essential. Commitment doesn’t mean comments from leaders about D&I during presentations or during your interview. It does mean, “I am not only behind this, I am standing beside and in front of you to move this forward, and here is why.” With that said, get started with quickly understanding the culture and business intersections between D&I and critical success factors so that you can articulate the business connections. Next, identify allies across the organization and purposefully work to resolve pain or pressure points while at the same time setting up a comprehensive, business relevant, long-term strategy and structure that the organization will support.

What advice would you give those who already have been working in the field? What’s next for them to be looking toward and how can they prepare?

I would offer suggestions for both looking back and ahead. If you have already been working in the D&I space, the most important thing you can do is to continue to be a knowledgeable, credible and skilled business leader in your organization. If you can’t align D&I with your organization’s strategic priorities, you and the process will fail. You must be able to talk the talk of the organization and translate the language of D&I into the language of the business. And not just the overall business, but the various departments and constituency groups as well. Another tip would be to go back to review your D&I strategies to ensure they are not composed of a long list of activities and events. I would ask myself, “Do I have successful structures in place to carry out the tactical elements of the plan?”

What was one of your biggest “setback” moments of your career and how did you address it? What do you consider one of your biggest achievements?

A setback moment and terrific learning occurred when working with a board room filled with male executives. During a Q&A session, I looked over to make eye contact with my male associate. At that moment, in that instant, I lost credibility. That subtle gesture was seen as weak and as looking to someone else for the answer, versus looking to my colleague to indicate inclusion in my response. What stands out for me is a CEO who, after an executive briefing presentation, said, “This makes sense. Before I thought this D&I stuff was only at 30,000 feet, but now I see how we can be successful with this, just like our other strategies. This makes sense!” We live for those light bulb moments.

Eric Short is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.