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Art of Leading

Kelly Grier

Why Diversity and Inclusion Should Also Mean a Sense of Belonging for All

August 5, 2019

As diversity and inclusion becomes a bigger priority for more companies, the focus is now shifting to how to put the ideas into action. Kelly Grier, EY’s US Chairman and managing partner and Americas managing partner, shared her insights on how to make sure cultural initiatives apply to everyone, not just part of the workforce. She also had a smart take on her approach to building teams.

Why Diversity and Inclusion Should Also Mean a Sense of Belonging for All

Q. Tell me about when you were a kid. Were you in leadership roles early on?

A. I felt that the world was very small because I grew up in Avon, Minn., population 700. It catalyzed in me this desire to see the rest of the world. I was always very self-motivated. I literally have not had a break in employment since I was 12 years old.

Q. What was the oddest job you ever had?

A. I worked in a machine shop. I was 17 years old, and I would stand at this machine and I would literally drill the little screw holes in door hinges for hours on end. I was the only woman there. It was a little rough, but I really needed the job. They pretty quickly realized that it would be better if they were more respectful to me than not respectful.

Q. Tell me about your parents, and how they’ve influenced your leadership style.

A. My parents divorced when I was pretty young. It made an impression on me as a young woman to see the toll that divorce has for a single working mom, and the need to be financially independent was an imperative very early on for me.

My dad was in sales. He’s the eternal optimist, the mayor of everywhere, the friend of everyone. He has this way of just being incredibly empathetic to everybody’s plight, wherever they are in the world. He has great regard and great kindness for people who do some of the most menial things that are essential to the ecosystem of life. I’ve had a wide variety of those menial jobs, and it absolutely does create a level of appreciation and empathy.

Q. What was an important leadership lesson for you early on?

A. I was asked to take on an assignment in Europe fairly early on, overseeing these teams across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. They were very diverse teams, and I was the young American woman who’d been sent over to bring the American way. Within the first three months of a three-year assignment, I was really struggling. The work was inconsistent and they weren’t necessarily listening to me.

The CFO of a client at the time told me that I was going about it all wrong. He was of Pakistani descent living in Switzerland, which is where I was living, and he was overseeing a very diverse team himself. If you continue to operate this way, he told me, you will never succeed. They will never follow you, they will never listen to you, and you will continue to struggle.

It was one of those watershed moments for me. I went to the leaders of each of these teams, and I was just very vulnerable with them and asked for their help. I admitted that I’ve got this wrong, but that I didn’t know how to get it right.

I told them, “I really need your advice and your forgiveness for some of what I’ve tried to do here.”

I told them, “I really need your advice and your forgiveness for some of what I’ve tried to do here.” And they were wonderful and honest, and extremely helpful in developing totally different relationships.

We didn’t have a taxonomy for it back then, but it was really diversity and inclusion. It was first diversity without inclusion, which was catastrophic. And then I learned how to cultivate this element of inclusion, which made everything very powerful.

Q. What did you do differently?

A. I started to look at individuals around the table very differently, and wanted to engage with them on a very personal level and draw them out and understand how they saw the world and how they thought.

Now I constantly want to know what people really think and invite them into the discussion, and I’m very attentive to when people haven’t weighed in. The environment has to be safe for everybody.

It’s also about giving people permission to challenge you. As a leader, if you haven’t created a culture or an environment where people feel free to challenge you as the leader, you are in a very perilous and dangerous place, because you will have blind spots. You will be ill-equipped to make judgments.

As I’ve moved into my last four or five leadership roles, I’ve said to our partners, our people and our board, “You have a responsibility to help me actively work the blind spot. You’ve got to bring the truth forward. You’ve got to speak with candor. We have to have that level of trust.”

Q. How do you make sure people know you really mean it?

A. I look for opportunities to say, “I was wrong. You’re absolutely right. I didn’t think of it that way.” I also make a point of saying, “That’s a really interesting perspective. I just wouldn’t have seen it that way. Thank you for sharing.” People do test you, but those are the moments of truth when you make it real for them.

Q. How do you make sure that your team is operating like a real team?

A. The first step is you’ve got to build trust. You’ve got to have an honest conversation. You have to meet people where they are and understand how they see themselves and the team. And then you’ve got to create a common vision. That may sound trite, but very often, people don’t have a common vision. They’ve got their own agenda, and they perceive their own agenda as contributing to the team.

When I came into the role, I had this gift of a nine-month transition before I took the helm officially, and I took the team through a strategy refresh. We deliberated every decision, and we analyzed and debated every data set. Ultimately, we landed on a common vision.

The trust we built because of the honest conversations and this commitment to think more holistically drove a different mindset. They have conviction in it. They can evangelize the message on my behalf anywhere they are and in front of any crowd, and we’re all speaking with one voice.

Q. Nine months is a long time to build a strategy.

A. It is a long time. And we could have gone faster. I had a pretty strong sense of what needed to be done and where we needed to head. But the discussion was profoundly important. You can come in and say, “Here’s what we’re going to do, help me on the margins, and then away we go.” But you won’t have the level of conviction or trust that was built over time, and you won’t have people moving from their personal agendas to a team paradigm.

Q. You mentioned inclusion before. How do you make that idea real, rather than just a buzzword?

A. It’s such an important question. I have stopped, for the most part, talking about diversity and inclusion within EY. I’m talking much more about belonging. The reason I’ve evolved my narrative and mindset is because inclusion is a technique to exact the most you can from diversity, whereas belonging affects everyone.

Almost by definition, diversity and inclusion is targeted to certain members of your workforce that you really want to bring into the fold. You want them to feel like they belong. You want them to feel included. You want them to contribute and realize all of their potential, which is incredibly important, but I want that for everyone.

“If everyone believes that they belong, they’re much more inclined to behave accordingly with everyone around them.”

I want everyone to feel that same level of belonging and value and appreciation. And if everyone believes that they belong, they’re much more inclined to behave accordingly with everyone around them. So I spend a lot of time talking about this culture of belonging and how we need to bring that to our daily encounters with everybody.

You have to be relentless in how you talk about that, how you model it, and you have to hold the standard of accountability in an unrelenting way, especially when you have 75,000 people. You’re only as strong as the weakest link. The level of tolerance for conduct inconsistent with our values has to be zero. It has to be zero or you as a leader have a credibility issue as to whether you really mean it.

We had a very public incident a year ago, about an issue from 2015 that occurred between one of our female and male partners. When we learned of it, I had an all-hands webcast, and I looked into the camera and said to everybody that we will not tolerate this. We are responsible for not having dealt with the issue when it first occurred, and we’re fixing those mistakes, but make no mistake about it, this is antithetical to who we are. Those people are gone and they will be held to account. Others who conduct themselves in a similar manner have no place in our world, and they will equally be held to account.

I felt it was important to be on record with all of our people about what had happened, what we did about it, what went wrong and what this means for the way we are going to operate from this moment forward.

I was just about to step into the role officially. That was definitely a baptism-by-fire moment. But people are watching. Those are moments of truth. Who are you really as a leader? It was horrible, but in hindsight it was actually a gift, because it gave me an opportunity to be very clear, vulnerable and honest, and then set an expectation for what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.

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