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Are we advancing inclusion & diversity?

Inclusion and Diversity|Talent
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September 26, 2019

I&D trailblazers from American Water, GE Appliances, The Posse Foundation, Seneca Women and Vizient explore what organizations can do to create an inclusive culture.

For years, organizations have been focused on attracting and retaining highly skilled talent from a broad and diverse talent pool. But more recently, organizations are shifting their focus to place equal (if not more) importance on creating a healthy company culture where all employees feel a sense of safety, self-worth, opportunity, and acceptance, and have the ability to bring their true selves to work.

Inclusion and diversity (I&D) trailblazers from American Water, GE Appliances, The Posse Foundation, Seneca Women and Vizient recently brought their unique perspectives to Willis Towers Watson’s Accelerate conference in New Orleans to explore what organizations can do to better create an inclusive culture.

Willis Towers Watson Managing Director John Jones moderated the discussion.

Meet the panelists

John Jones (Moderator)
North American Talent Leader, Willis Towers Watson

John specializes in improving employee engagement and aligning HR with strategic business objectives, bringing more than 30 years of HR, change leadership, communication, compensation and talent identification experience to his clients.


Kim K. Azzarelli
Co-Founder, Seneca Women

Seneca Women is a global leadership platform centered on advancing women and girls to bring forth a more equitable and prosperous world. Azzarelli is also a business, philanthropic and legal advisor who has held positions at Goldman Sachs, Avon, Newsweek, The Daily Beast and practiced law at Latham and Watkins. An adjunct professor at Cornell Law School, Azzarelli co-authored, Fast-Forward: How Women Can Achieve Power and Purpose, an Amazon Best Business and Leadership Book pick of 2018.


Dr. James Dabney
Director, Posse New Orleans

The Posse Foundation is a national non-profit, situated in 10 major U.S. cities, that identifies, recruits and trains young leaders from urban public schools and sends them to top colleges and universities across the country on full-tuition leadership merit-based scholarship. Dr. Dabney, a first-generation college student, attended public schools in New Orleans, went on to obtain a B.S. from Southern University, an M.S. from Florida State University, and a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University. Dr. Dabney has extensive experience assisting underrepresented students to gain access to higher education and have successful academic and social experiences while in college.


A.J. Hubbard
Global Senior Director of Inclusion & Diversity and Human Resources for GE Appliances (GEA)

Since joining GEA in March of 2018, A.J. has been responsible for setting the strategy and building an I&D infrastructure to foster innovation and drive business results. Along with a cultural shift to add I&D to GEA's strategic goals, he has led the way to create I&D Executive Talent Councils, advise on GEA's Supplier Diversity Board and partner on philanthropic and citizenship endeavors. Black Enterprise magazine listed him as one of the top executives in corporate diversity.


Melanie Kennedy
Senior Vice President of Human Resources and a member of the executive leadership team at American Water

Kennedy serves as executive sponsor of the company's Inclusion & Diversity Council. Prior to joining American Water, the largest publicly traded U.S. water and wastewater utility company, Kennedy spent nine years as a labor and employment attorney in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.


Chris Moreland
Chief Inclusion & Diversity Advocate, Vizient Inc.

Vizient Inc. is a Dallas-based healthcare performance improvement organization. Moreland previously spent his career in a series of sales and marketing operations leadership roles at organizations that included GE, Johnson & Johnson, Pepsi, Microsoft, and Expedia. In 2016, he founded Storytellers Consulting, a firm designed to teach the art, science, and impact of storytelling to corporations, leaders, and individuals. He also keynotes, mentors C-level leaders, and is currently co-authoring a book on I&D.


The following aims to capture the lively dialogue of our panelists.

Setting the stage

John Jones (Willis Towers Watson): I&D has been an important topic for a long time, but not necessarily a hot-button topic in the C-Suite. In the past five years though that has changed. One of the influencing factors is that I&D positively impacts an organization’s bottom line. It's amazing to me the overwhelming research over the last 10 years that strongly supports how I&D can positively impact attraction, retention and engagement.

Beyond the research, however, media environments have created a focus on I&D that has accelerated its importance in the workplace. From the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements to increased awareness of pay equity issues and LGBT+ discrimination. America has seen these issues come to the forefront in professional sports and the entertainment industry, in particular.

For example, if you follow sports at all, you see the U.S. women's soccer team out there destroying the competition. And they have pay equity issues that have made the headlines. While the U.S. women’s soccer team has been a force to be reckoned with since its inception, the U.S. men's soccer team has not. It shines a bright light on the issues.

Let’s turn to our panelists:

How are connections formed when there is a lack of exposure to certain groups?

Dr. James Dabney (The Posse Foundation): As a diversity education specialist at Texas A&M University, I was responsible for creating a welcoming environment for all students at the university. I was also passionate about college access for underserved first-generation college students, as a first-generation college student myself.

I knew what access and a strong educational background could afford. At that time, Texas A&M was one of the nation’s largest universities with 60,000 students. However, only 1,000 of them, or 1/60th were African-American. Many students from rural Texas had never seen an African-American in person. I would get in conversations with students who helped to train me.

In those conversations, I would have black and brown students from the Houston area and white students from rural Texas in a room talking with each other about I&D. The way the students would find connections to each other was profound. That broadened my scope around the work of college access and seeing the value of diversity. That scope reached beyond the value of talking about diversity for white, male, Christian, heterosexual American students, and across social dynamics in the U.S.

What started your passion in I&D?

Kim Azzarelli (Seneca Women): More than a decade ago, I was secretary of the Board at Avon Corporation and found myself listening to a panel with an oculofacial surgeon who had recently returned from a medical expedition to Cambodia. The surgeon had been working as a volunteer on the “Acid Ward” in a hospital where women who had experienced acid violence were treated. It was so common for women to have acid thrown in their faces that there was a hospital ward just for this.

The surgeon shared a story about a mother and her six week old baby who had been doused while breastfeeding and that not only was there no penalty for this crime, but people there suggested: ‘Just throw the baby out. We’ll make another. She’s a girl.’

In that moment, everything changed for me. I thought about the fact that I was a lawyer working at a company dedicated to empowering women. I told myself, ‘Kim, you’re a senior attorney at the company for women, surely you can do more.’

I realized I didn’t have to quit my day job to make a difference. Instead, I could use my position to advance awareness and affect change on issues like violence against women and girls. That baby changed my life. I started thinking about how I could use my skills and whatever I had to try to advance women and girls.

The surgeon helped that baby and recently I saw her. She's 14 now and wants to be a doctor. She is such an amazing and talented person and I thought, ‘My God, this is what we’re talking about.’

What value can be derived from more voices at the table?

Kim Azzarelli (Seneca Women): If we want a different world, and I think we all want a different world, we need diversity of perspective.

Chris Moreland (Vizient): As an African American man, first generation college graduate and the first in my family to live above the poverty line, I realized that when it came to diversity at the office, I was it. It was alarming to sit in a meeting or around a board table and know that there are so many other perspectives that were not being considered.

I had been promoted and rewarded by a variety of organizations as I made my way up the corporate ladder, and I have lived in homes and neighborhoods my parents had never dreamed of inhabiting. When I was about to leave one of my jobs, the CEO of the organization asked me: “If I could create my own position at the company, what would that position be?” I flippantly told him I’d like to create and lead the Office of Inclusion & Diversity. The CEO offered me that job.

It threw me. But it also made me decide to become a lot more purposeful about what I was going to do.

I wish I could wake up and flip a switch that would make everyone less aware of ethnic, gender and orientation differences; but since that switch doesn't exist, I see my job as helping others to learn acceptance. I'm passionate about creating a better world for the four kids I have and for people who aren't even born yet, so they will have better opportunities to serve and provide value in a world that today is what I consider sub-optimal in terms of inclusion and diversity awareness.

Why is it so critical to stop and listen?

A.J. Hubbard (GE Appliances): In one of my earlier HR experiences, I was asked to step in when 22 African American men filed an unfair pay and promotion practices class action lawsuit against the utility company for which I worked.

The plaintiffs, all of whom worked in one of the company’s plants, were not in my client group; they had not brought their complaints to HR prior to filing their lawsuit; and they didn’t want to talk. When I tried interviewing the first man, I too was met with silence. Then I said, “You've already filed your case, but could you do me a favor and think about the next African American male that comes to work here? If there's something you could share with me that we could put in place right now, that would make his experience different than yours, would you be willing to help him out?"

The man started to talk, as did each of the others I interviewed. As a result, we actually launched a diversity department.

How does an organization start to transform itself?

Melanie Kennedy (American Water): One of the critical aspects of transforming I&D at American Water was when the company began exploring how we might cast a wider net when it came to recruitment. The company charged hiring managers with the responsibility of ensuring there would be a diverse candidate in every hiring pool (and measuring that).

That started to change how our hiring managers were thinking, which was really critical for us in our transformation to I&D. They also began recruiting through organizations that serve veterans because these organizations are often inherently diverse in terms of including women and individuals with disabilities.

Next, they evolved, ensuring their succession planning had diverse pools by taking more intentional actions to make sure their leadership team was diverse. If our leadership isn't diverse, are we sending the right message to our organization to promote I&D if we're not walking the talk? We are also now intentional in developing diverse candidates and nurturing them into leadership positions.

What's exciting is that our company has a female CEO and a female CFO; and our Board of Directors consists of 54.5% women. So it really is starting from the top down. Our CEO is very passionate about I&D, which helps set the tone in the organization.

Are there fundamental issues with how candidates align with jobs?

Melanie Kennedy (American Water): Creating more I&D can be a big challenge when it comes to industrial jobs which historically were white males. How do we attract different backgrounds, ethnicities, and genders into those jobs? The key is to look at and promote those jobs very differently. We realized our job descriptions did not appeal to a diverse group and we didn't have that perspective until we were pushed to ask ourselves how we were attracting people to these jobs.

American Water now partners with organizations that help women and people from diverse backgrounds to get the opportunity to work in nontraditional jobs. In New Jersey, for example, American Water partners with Women In Sustainable Employment (WISE), which offers hands-on instruction for women in the skilled trades, enabling them to explore non-traditional, in-demand jobs in the construction and energy industries. American Water also partners with local and national unions to help create diversity.

Without inclusion there can be no diversity.

Melanie Kennedy (American Water): American Water also uses surveys, roundtables and we have established an employee represented council charged with learning how the organization can be better, what we should be doing differently, and how we can get our leaders to understand and own the fact that without inclusion there can be no diversity.

If our employees don't feel included when they come in to work every day, we'll never be a diverse organization.

While the utility business still tends to be a male dominated industry, we're a very purpose driven company by nature. Being able to provide clean, safe, affordable water to our customers is extremely important, and there's a lot of passion around that. But thinking about our 14 million customers, and ensuring our 7,100 employees represent that customer base is equally as important.

The company had to learn how to listen to employee stories, including how employees feel about what they do, their connection to the service the company provides, as well as how they feel about being part of the company.

What is privilege?

Chris Moreland (Vizient): A lot of times when you hear the word ‘privilege,’ it's associated with majority groups, but privilege is actually something that we all have. As one of the more obvious types of privilege, I have privilege simply because of my gender. But also, because I’m a little bit taller than the average man, I have some privilege. In addition, the socio-economic condition that I am in right now, gives me privilege.

I often ask myself if I am actively using my privilege as a man to advance other individuals rather than sitting back. So if I'm in a meeting, I tend to talk and have a very loud voice, but I can use that privilege to bring another voice into the conversation versus hogging the floor.

A discussion about inclusion can be more appealing than one about diversity.

A.J. Hubbard (GE Appliances): There can be a stigma around talking about diversity and those conversations may feel obligatory and stilted. When I ask what diversity means to people I get responses that don’t typically take the conversation anywhere. Response like: Race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and age. But when I ask, ‘What does inclusion mean to you?’" people will sit up in their seats and say things like, To be a part of something. To be accepted. To be included. And when I ask how that makes them feel, they say it feels good to be asked your opinion and have someone take the time to truly listen. It feels good to be asked to join a meeting that you might not otherwise be in because your perspective matters.

We recognize at a baseline level that we are all diverse and have something unique about us in terms of how we think, operate and what we care about. But we're not all included. Inclusion is where the hard work begins.

How do we go beyond “policies?”

Melanie Kennedy (American Water): American Water has very intentional dignity and respect trainings. These trainings open employees up to conversations by asking things like: What does it mean to be respectful? How do you show dignity? What are behaviors that you may not have realized that you're doing that can be offensive? How do you leave certain ideas and beliefs at the door because bringing them into the workplace could have a negative impact? Having those real open conversations can make people really uncomfortable. But they can really help to create that awareness, and we'll continue that.

How is the I&D story evolving?

Kim Azzarelli (Seneca Women): I believe intentionality is real and in the C-Suite both of these things drive company policies. We have people in positions of leadership that have never been in leadership before and their values are rising to the top. In the organizations I’ve been working with, people really do care and want to see a different world. They want to find purpose in their work, they expect companies to be diverse, and they want their company to stand for something, which I find super positive.

AJ Hubbard (GE Appliances): Mindset shift is another important path to progress, but fear can get in the way. A lot of times people look at this as, ‘For me to win, someone’s got to lose.’ How does that potentially influence our willingness to actually have this shift which would advance policy?

Kim Azzarelli (Seneca Women): It goes back to the reality that I&D positively impacts an organization’s bottom line. I think we use the data to make the business case and that helps to shift the mindset of those in power.

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