Helping Diverse Talent Thrive: Creating Responsive and Inclusive Workplace Structures

Helping Diverse Talent Thrive: Creating Responsive and Inclusive Workplace Structures

Author: Jennifer Brown

In this minisode, Jennifer discusses why diversity and inclusion are integral to the future of work. She shares her thoughts on the importance of creating an organizational structure that looks at employees in a more holistic way, and explores how and why organizations can create a workplace where all individuals can flourish and thrive. Discover the important role that men have to play in the process of reinventing organizational structures and the need to redefine masculinity in the 21st century.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • The connection between inclusion and the future of work (2:00)
  • What types of organizational structures help to attract and maintain top talent (3:30)
  • What prevents employees from reaching their full potential (5:00)
  • How members of the responsive community are challenging the status quo (8:00)
  • How to welcome and foster diverse talent (11:00)
  • The core values that Millennials look for in organizations (14:00)
  • The need for reverse mentoring  (16:30)
  • The importance of redefining masculinity in the 21st century (17:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome to The Will to Change. You may notice that this is not Jennifer Brown, this is, in fact, Doug Foresta, producer of The Will to Change. Jennifer is with me today, and we’re going to be hearing her voice in these “minisodes” talking about themes from the podcast and hearing Jennifer’s perspective on diversity, inclusion, and of course, the will to change. Jennifer, welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Doug. I’m pleased to be in this seat. (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. Yeah, we talked about that—being on the other side, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Quite lovely.

DOUG FORESTA: Another theme that’s come up that I want to talk to you about on this episode is about the future of work. And that is a theme that’s come up quite a bit. In fact, we had Aaron Dignan on, and we’ve had Robin Zander and others talk about what organizations are going to look like in the future.

It seems that, at least in their episodes, they believed that diversity and inclusion is very much an important part of the future of work. But I guess the question for you would be: Do you believe that diversity and inclusion is inherently an important part of the future of work?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I’ve really been intentional about spending time with people who are in the Responsive community. For those of you who want to learn more about it, it’s And it’s one of many emerging management philosophies that are out there—things like Holacracy, which I write about in my book, which Zappos, for example, has implemented over the last couple of years. Some of you may have read about that. They’re literally getting rid of job descriptions and structures and letting people be self-directed, self-forming in teams, and very purpose and passion-driven in terms of what they work on and who they work with. It’s been a really interesting experiment to watch.

I connect into this deeply, I think, because I have to look at organizations all day long, of course, as a consultant and somebody who’s puzzling through, “How do we create change in these massive, multi-national, multi-layered, siloed organizations with hundreds of thousands of people?” There’s a complexity.

What I’ve learned, and I’m so curious about, is the very structure of the organization as we know it. As Aaron Dignan often talks about, the org chart as we imagine it hasn’t changed since 1920. He has this thing where he flashes up the org chart and he asks us, “What year do you think this is from?” And everybody guesses recently, but it is actually from the early part of the century.

As somebody who looks at organizations all day long, when I look at org charts that have multiple layers, all I can see is a lack of mobility for talent, for example, a thwarted and inefficient knowledge sharing and collaboration that’s not happening. Organizations are leaking out this efficiency, I think because of how they’re structured, in part, and how we’ve thought about human capital and people, at the end of the day, and letting them be self-guided and more purposeful, and giving them agency versus treating them like cogs in the machine.

When our organizations are built around that whole premise of people being this disposable unit, and we don’t think about people as a sustainable element and asset—and perhaps the most important asset to sustain—we’re not being diversity and inclusion minded, either. What that is basically saying is, “You just are here to do a job. We don’t really care about your short-term and long-term hopes and dream, we need to check this box with you.”

That’s when we think about not bringing our full selves to work, a lot of us sense that the company is not on the same page as we are about our own journey and our own destiny.

I wonder, and I think everyone in this future of work community is asking the question, “What would an organizational structure look like that would enable human potential to flourish and thrive and for people to have agency, to be self-directed, to evolve, discover the unexpected, and find their purpose through work?” Right now, we labor under this structure that wasn’t built for a lot of us or by a lot of us when we think about women and people of color and LGBT people. We’re in this foreign structure, and then we’re under represented, we’re relatively isolated because of that under representation, and because of different cultural backgrounds, norms, understanding, and language. And then we have this calcified, immovable structure that we have to somehow navigate.

To me, this whole conversation is essentially about the future of work. When I say that, it’s an existential revisiting of companies, how they’re structured, how they communicate, and how they treat their people.

People make them go around, and we love the corporate talking point, “Our people are our business.” Okay, but how are you really going to walk that talk? And how are you going to challenge your norms? By the way, the world is changing really, really fast, and if we’ve got structures from 1920, we’re in trouble. (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly. There are not many other 1920 structures. Most people would not want to get in a 1920s airplane. Was there an airplane in 1920? I don’t know if there was or not. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: I don’t know.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. It’s really interesting. As a producer listening to the episodes, one of the things I wondered from a devil’s advocate perspective, it really is like, “Can I be responsive and exclusionary at the same time?” Can I say, “Okay, we’re all going to be a homogenous group of people, but we’re going to be real responsive.” It sounds like what you’re saying is the answer really is, “No.” Would that be fair to say?

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s a great point, Doug. I’m glad you asked that. The Responsive community still struggles with the same D&I issues that I see larger companies struggling with. It tends to be full of the Agile consultant world—a lot of consultants who are the version of me, but relating to Agile development and reorganizing teams and frameworks. That world still struggles with gender parity at the senior levels, coming as it does from the consulting world, and being primary in teach. It’s like a microcosm of what we see in the larger tech world.

But the neat thing is, like Adam Pisoni, who was a guest on The Will to Change

DOUG FORESTA: Yes, I was thinking about him. Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: He was one of the founders of the Responsive community. In his episode, he talks about not really being “woke” to all of these things when he was growing Yammer. He really—they just didn’t think about this. They were drinking from the fire hose, they were growing as fast as they can, obviously, the whole emphasis was just adding bodies left and right.

His second venture, which is Abl Schools, which is also VC backed. He has all sorts of funders to answer to and all that, he said, “I have to build this differently. As a straight, white guy, I have to intentionally only interview certain talent segments, because if I don’t, I’m going to end up looking like everything else around me, which is just like me. My friends tend to be white, male, in the tech space. If I let it happen organically, I’m not going to build a different-looking foundational team, which is then going to inform what kind of talent we can attract in the future.”

Incoming talent is looking at the presence of diversity and how important it is to every founder. Before they take that job, unless they’re obviously desperate for employment, and there are so many of us who are, but most of us do take a look at that and say, “Am I going to be welcome here? Does this founder get it? Am I just signing up for more alienation and feeling like I’m the token, et cetera?”

There are a lot of people watching out for that. You’ll remember this, Doug, but I loved how he said he is really going to the mat for this. He said, “I don’t want to interview any men, and I don’t want to interview any white men in particular. I want all women, I want all people of color in the funnel.” His team knows this, and he’s putting his money where his mouth is and saying, “If we get this right, then everything that happens subsequently is going to be easier.”

I have to say, I agree with that. I have to work with so many companies that are going backwards. They’re having to crawl back through a lifetime of doing nothing or the bare minimum, and then scratching their heads saying, “Why are we at the point we’re at right now? Why is it so hard to find diverse talent? I can’t find them. Even when I make them job offers, they don’t want to come here.” To me, the answers are really obvious, and the problem has taken years to create.

It’s never too late, but it’s so much harder to rewrite that whole narrative and change your whole stance. You can’t just hire your way to the fix. You can do that, but then you’re going to do it irresponsibly, and that’s not good for anyone. You may end up with a whole different set of problems when you recruit and promote people just for the sake of diversity, but you haven’t really done the work around pipeline development and creating a culture of inclusion.

I particularly loved what Adam had to say about that, and I recommend people give that episode a listen.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes, that’s Episode 8, Demanding Diversity in Silicon Valley, and that’s really what he did. He was in a position to do that after Yammer, and he demanded that we start from the very beginning.

The other thing you said that was a great take-away for me was the idea that you can’t just hire your way into diversity if it’s not part of the culture of the organization. You can’t check the boxes and say, “Okay, we’re diverse now, happy?”

JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. You’re not going to keep them. As we say, the culture really matters. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” which is one of my favorite quotes. Losing someone that you spent time recruiting, interviewing, onboarding, getting them up to speed, having them turn around and be a productive, contributing part of an entity, that takes, in some cases, several years to make that happen. To lose that person, we’ve quantified it in research as three times their annual salary. The cost to the organization is tremendous, but it’s funny, we don’t think about it that way. Those are invisible costs. We just go out and find more that we then turn around and can’t keep because of the culture of exclusion or the fact that we haven’t done our work around unconscious bias or a whole host of things.

We need to pay equal attention to not just procuring the talent, but welcoming that talent and fostering that talent when they’re finally in our organizations. That’s probably another little minisode, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes, definitely. About retaining talent. Trying to keep it to a minisode here, the last thing I want to ask you to reflect on related to the future of work, one of the things I’ve also learned from you, Jennifer, is if we think about recruiting and retaining top talent, millennial talent, tell me if I’m wrong, but one of the things I’ve learned from you is that millennials demand and expect that there will be a diverse workplace, and that it will be hard for organizations to recruit and retail top talent without a diverse workforce. Is that fair to say?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Diversity and inclusion is one of that generation’s top core values, which is a shift from generations that came before. It’s really become primary. They look for organizations that reflect that both in the organizational values, they want there to be a synergy there. Don’t we all?

DOUG FORESTA: Yes, exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: Interestingly, being a Gen-X’er, we never really had the generational heft to throw our weight around.

DOUG FORESTA: No, I think there were maybe three of us, you know? (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. We were so disaffected, too.

DOUG FORESTA: Right, the grunge.

JENNIFER BROWN: We were licking our wounds in the corner and being cynical about everything. We were quitting our corporate jobs to go out on our own.

DOUG FORESTA: And no one cared.

JENNIFER BROWN: And nobody cared, that’s true. So millennials are this interesting potentially really loyal generation, too. It’s interesting. They are less disaffected than we were. So companies have this wonderful opportunity to listen to them and finally start to try to get this right. Meaning, what kind of workplace do they want? How do they define diversity and inclusion? By the way, it’s much broader than our generation defined it. We were used to talking about it in terms of race and gender.


JENNIFER BROWN: They are that, plus, plus, plus. They’re the intersectional generation. They are multi-everything. They’re the generation that’s joining all the employee resource groups, all the diversity networks. They want to be members of everything, and they’re the generation with young, straight, white men in that generation who have had mothers that have become successful career women and navigated all of that. They are strongly feminist in many ways. They’re ushering in a whole different way also for men to be in the professional sphere as allies for women and other kinds of diversity.

I’m so excited about that. The Jack Myers episode that we did, The Future of Men.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes, The Future of Men.

JENNIFER BROWN: He brought up a provocative thing, which I hadn’t thought about. I don’t know if I agree or disagree, but it was really interesting. He’s a baby-boomer man, and he said, “I hesitate to tell the younger men to be mentored by the older men I organizations, because I don’t want that behavior to be passed down. I want millennial men, young men, to come in and bring their values.”

If anything, they should be reverse-mentoring. They should be bringing their world view in, and bringing that news to these older leaders who are basically, in my opinion, in denial about the fact that change is happening. I don’t even need to put a fine point on it, Doug, but what’s going on in the news right now? It’s November 22nd, 2017, in the news right now, the behavior that has been tolerated by senior men, it’s an overwhelming amount of information that’s coming to us right now in all the disclosures, firings, resignations.

It puts such a fine point on what Jack was saying. If parts of masculinity are really broken, it’s nobody’s fault, it’s the socialization of our culture. Unfortunately, it is in the water we drink, the air we breathe, and in the companies we work in. How can we usher in a new masculinity? How can we redefine that? Clearly, it is so much worse than a lot of people even understood. Women knew. We’ve all known this, and we’ve just lived with it. We’ve just tolerated it. We’ve worked around it, we’ve withstood it, we’ve tried to not think about it, but it’s been holding the whole system back from growing into a more humanistic life for everyone.

I would encourage folks to check out the Jack Myers episode. Read his book, too, it’s fascinating. It’s called The Future of Men. He tracks how masculinity and ideas of what being a man really means through the generations all the way up to today and the media. It’s essential reading for anyone who really wants to understand how we got here and how we evolve to the next stage.

DOUG FORESTA: So the future of work may also be very much the future of men, right?


DOUG FORESTA: Yes, it will be. I certainly hope so.

JENNIFER BROWN: In a good way. Let’s hope.

DOUG FORESTA: In a good way. (Laughter.) We’re going to get there. We’re going to get there.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, we are, with men like you, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Oh, thank you. Jennifer, thank you so much for joining me again for this minisode. I really appreciate it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.

Jennifer Brown is a leading diversity and inclusion expert, dynamic keynote speaker, best-selling author, award-winning entrepreneur and host of The Will To Change podcast, which uncovers true stories of diversity and inclusion. She will be the morning keynote speaker at the Annual NYC SHRM Conference on April 27. Visit the NYC SHRM Conference website to learn more about her session: 

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