How Employees Can Take the Lead on Diversity

What would a century old agency, with its roots in the man-made world of automobiles, which flourished through the Mad Men decades, have to tell us about empowering women in the workplace.

A lot, as it happens. And what’s more, the commentary comes in the form of concrete, actionable advice about strategies every workplace (I submit) should consider when it comes to acknowledging, valuing, and recognizing their women, LGBTQ, and minority employees. I got the rundown from Fiona Bruder, EVP of client success at global experience agency George P. Johnson (GPJ).

We started with the history.

“Our heritage is something we’re profoundly proud of, ” Bruder said. “Our legacy is really foundational for who we are. We started in Detroit in the automotive industry, and did the first auto show, with Henry Ford. I think the reason that we’ve endured and grown for so long is that we’ve continually re-invented ourselves and stayed ahead of the market; and our founders grandchildren, who run the company today, are really willing to do that, and not get mired in a point in time. In 2009 and 2010, after the economy crashed, and all that happened with  the auto industry, we helped them think about how you get people to experience your brand in a different way. We’ve done that in all the industries, including for the big IT companies.”

Employee ownership

One important re-invention from the perspective of employees was that GPJ became an ESOP around 10 years ago. “When our founder’s son-in-law retired, that’s when he started the ESOP, because he wanted to ensure that his legacy remained at the core of our company, and for our employees. We started as a family-owned business, and although we now have over 2,000 employees, and are global, and have the largest clients in the IT and automotive spaces, that sense of still feeling family-owned is why we started the ESOP. Keeping that tight-knit family feel while growing is something a lot of companies struggle with.” The ESOP share value has grown nearly 2,000 percent since its inception.

Evolving the workforce

“Yes, historically we were very male-oriented because of the automotive industry. We have diversified our services and our industries, and with that diversity, we’ve changed our mix; and then we’ve had a focus from the leadership team and HR to focus on diversity — not just in gender, but at lots of other levels — for quite some time.” Progress on gender diversity was slowed a little by the longevity of senior leaders at the company, but, said Bruder, “there are a lot of women within this industry in general, and 50 percent of our organization is women, so we’re split. It varies a little at different leadership levels.”

Bruder notes that the agency is increasingly dealing with women clients. She herself runs the IBM account, for example, and so deals with IBM’s CMO Michelle Peluso. Indeed, its worth noting that Oracle, Salesforce, and SAP all currently have women in their most senior marketing leadership positions. 

I asked if GPJ is benchmarking progress in this respect, or even trying to meets set quotas. “When HR and leadership started talking about diversity, we talked a lot about targets, and actually we didn’t want to set specific targets. We do look at the data, we look at trends, and industry standards. But we wanted to change the mind-set more, so instead of having a target for this many women, what we started to think about with HR  that you can’t have a difference in your hiring practice unless you have a diverse group in the first place; so that’s the process we’re in the middle of right now.”

The first step was what Bruder calls “widening the circle” when it comes to diversity and inclusion. “That starts in hiring practice, onboarding practice.” But what’s key for Bruder is that these initiatives are not just coming from the leadership team, but from employees.

Employee resource groups

“The person who kicked off our women employees resource group worked for me as a strategist. She’s senior, but she’s not on the executive team in the company; and she was given full rein to create this group with support from myself and the executive team. Input comes from everybody in the organization.”

The leadership team, said Bruder, is 100 percent on board. “I report directly to the CEO [Chris Meyer], and he’s one of the most progressive and inclusive leaders I’ve had the luxury of working with.” 

What are these groups all about? “Any employee resource group needs to be managed not by the company, but by the employees. It needs to be organically grown. The employees request an executive sponsor, and I happen to be the executive sponsor for the women’s ERG. There’s a different executive sponsor for the LGBTQIA group. We’ve invested in technology for communications.” They’re using Chatter. “And we’ve engaged our clients to come in, and partner, and talk to us.”

Is their an employee resource group for people of color? “Not yet, but I think that will be the next one that gets started. Again, it’s employee based; we will not create one top down, because that’s not the way these groups get created. The first women’s ERG we had, there were more men in the room than women, and we still see them attend. During Pride Week, we launched our LGBTQIA one, and same thing: so many diverse groups of people are being supportive of that.” Indeed, there are people in the women’s or LGBTQIA groups who are of different backgrounds, nationality, and color.

Clients are all in

How do clients view these initiatives? “IBM, Google, Salesforce, SAP, they’re all our clients. It’s so important to them. IBM just launched a campaign called Be Equal. It’s really important for them to have agencies, and other partners, that are like-minded. It’s not about having targets, it’s about an agency that has different perspectives, and insights, and thoughts, and experiences, that bring idea to our client. This is not just a need to support our employees, it’s a great value to our clients as well. If they don’t demand it, they certainly expect it. Google had an all agencies meeting, and literally had people stand up in the room if they had employee resource groups, if they had women executives in the top ranks of their leadership teams. It was that important to them.”

Bruder emphasizes that it’s not about ticking things of a list to demonstrate progress; it really is about “like-mindedness.”

Are all industries at a similar level of maturity on these issues? “I think some of the more traditional verticals are not as far advanced. A lot times, I think people do start with the check-list and the target, versus fundamentally changing how your company behaves. Also I think a lot of companies struggle with control; they want to manage it top down. Our philosophy is three things. First, it’s baked in, not packed on. It’s intentional, but subtle; it’s an open circle, people come in and out as they choose. And it’s ever-evolving; it grows as the employees need it to grow.

One observation that’s been made to me recently, is that start-ups can have a significant diversity problem as they grow, especially if they were created by a group of college buddies — groups that do tend to be somewhat homogeneous. “I think that’s one of the biggest flaws is that people just think for the short-term, not the long-term, and where the industry is going. You have to get ahead of that.”

Practical Take-Aways

  • ERGs should start from the ground up
  • They should follow a common format
  • They need online space for communications and sharing
  • Each should have an executive sponsor
  • No top-down control

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