October 23, 2017 | Point of View

Breaking down barriers

Introduction

Inclusion and diversity are vital to our firm’s ability to understand client issues and deliver differentiated solutions—and are embedded in our core values. As we’ve grown to more than 900 people in 10 offices across the United States, fostering an inclusive environment becomes more challenging. 

Understanding that you cannot have diversity of thought, experience, and approach without inclusion, we began a journey to strengthen our culture of inclusion. This article is the third of a four-part series on what we hope to be an open conversation about inclusion and diversity. Our first letter, A conversation about inclusion and diversity, part 1: The tipping point, published in March 2017, discusses observations that led us to begin this journey. The second letter, published in July 2017, reflects on inclusion as a foundation for building a unified team in a merger or acquisition. In this letter, we offer some thoughts on ways we can break down the barriers to inclusion —using our goal of developing more female leaders as an example.

As we’ve grown to more than 900 people in 10 offices across the United States, fostering an inclusive environment becomes more challenging. ”

When you mention “inclusion and diversity” in the context of the workplace, a lot of people immediately think of gender and race. Therefore, we see a lot of companies spin up new programs to engage and retain certain groups of individuals.  I want to start this letter by making it abundantly clear that I (along with my leadership colleagues at West Monroe) do not view inclusion and diversity as an issue focused on a specific group or groups. Inclusion and diversity is about building a workplace with the best representation of ideas and experiences necessary to create great solutions for our clients. And to accomplish that, we must have an inclusive environment – for everyone. 

That said, for the purposes of framing a productive discussion around how we can break down barriers to inclusion, I do think it is helpful to hone in on a particular example. The professional services industry has long been a challenging place for women to build careers. Firms in our profession often see more attrition among women as they reach management levels – when an environment that requires people to spend nights away from home and continually go above and beyond to deliver begins to clash with family or other interests. Left with a higher percentage of men in director and leadership levels, we sometimes hear that it can feel like a “boys’ club” – a feeling that will lead to greater disparity over time if the consulting space can’t find a way to grow and retain female leaders. 

This isn’t an easy challenge to address. Most consulting firms, from the smallest to the largest, grapple with this and have grappled with this for years. But it is an important one for us, and one that is central to our commitment to building an inclusive environment. 

In my view, there are a number of things we can and should be doing to foster an environment where all people feel they can thrive and fulfill both personal and professional aspirations, regardless of what group they fall into. I’ve outlined four ideas below. These are not new concepts, and they don’t just apply to women. In fact, they are ways that we can respond better to changing expectations and needs across our entire team. But for the purposes of this particular discussion, they provide a way to think about some of the concrete actions we can take to break down barriers that can make a workplace feel less inclusive for women.

Make it okay to need and ask for some flexibility 

We all need some flexibility at some point in our career, for any number of reasons. In fact, flexibility is becoming as much an expectation as it is a need for both men and women. Various research studies point to the country’s largest workforce segment, millennials, as a driving force for change. According to new research by Qualtrics and Accel Partners1, 76 percent of millennials said they would be willing to take a pay cut of at least 3 percent in order to work for a company that offers flexible hours. Consulting is a demanding business and we compensate our employees for going above and beyond, but  we also recognize everyone has different needs for different schedules, and require different support and coaching during the course of their career. 

Though we typically embrace a policy-light philosophy, we felt it was necessary to document our position on this topic. Thus, we have taken recent steps to formalize our policies around flexible work arrangements, parental leave, flexible time off, and other areas. But policies only work if people feel comfortable asking to use them. So when we introduced formal flexible work policies, we also included processes that encourage open communication. 

Today, we consistently make a point of talking about the topic of flexibility so our people not only know that we encourage them to “start the conversation,” but also that we won’t see it a sign of weakness or the end of a consulting career. While our new policies aren’t targeted just to women, we have already seen how this change in dialogue has empowered several of our new mothers to rethink how they return to work. It has also encouraged both men and women to ask for local client engagement roles so they can spend less time traveling and more time with significant others, children, elderly parents, or on other personal passions. It’s why we focus on building our local client base in the cities where our people work. 

Be an effective ally, mentor, and coach

In our profession, mentoring and coaching is critical for everyone as they progress through their careers. But in an environment where there are fewer female leaders, it can be particularly hard for women to find comfortable mentoring and coaching relationships. For example, in my office, there are no women directors. Although we hope to see that change very soon, that is not an excuse for not providing strong mentoring for our women. Just because I’m a man doesn’t mean I can’t be a good mentor and coach to a woman – or help a woman find good mentors within or even outside our firm. 

The Harvard Business Review article, “The Men Who Mentor Women2,” provides some interesting insight on the behaviors of effective male mentors to women – including practicing “other-focused” leadership, which promotes an ally mentality. This article is valuable reading for women and men, alike. 

In Seattle, we recently introduced a program that supports our firm’s mission to build the next generation of leaders by investing in the development of several high-performing senior managers (men and women). Over a nine-month period, our leaders and I work with participants to do three things: 

  • Find an opportunity to connect with a passion outside of day-to-day career responsibilities— for example, one participant with an interest in teaching and education was given an opportunity to participate in our boot camp for new hires 
  • Engage the support of the office to tackle a challenging work situation or inflection point, such as a new role or changing family situation
  • Gain exposure to office and firm leaders with whom the individual wouldn’t normally interact. 

We have found this approach takes the concept of mentoring a step further – toward the role of sponsor and ally – and the response of leaders and participants has been very positive. These types of involvement don’t have to be part of a formal program to have a positive effect on those around us. 

Model the right behaviors 

To have an environment that inspires trust and confidence, which is central to a feeling of inclusion, we have to be conscious of the behaviors we exhibit. I feel that one of the most critical is vulnerability. Some women and men have told me they are reticent to open up about their needs and concerns because they fear appearing vulnerable. Will my manager lose confidence in me? Will this derail my career? Will my team feel like I am the “weak link?” 

My answer to this is that we have all been through tough situations of one kind or another – situations where we sought and valued mentoring. We need to tell these stories of professional or personal adversity when in front of our teams. This shows heart and authenticity and that it takes more than a tough persona to succeed in our business. 

Encourage networking and mentoring opportunities, both in and outside of our organization 

Like many of our consulting peers, we have a women’s interest group. In addition to offering a forum for networking, this group focuses on broad educational topics that engage both women and men in dialogue – for example, a session on introverts and extroverts in the office environment. 

We have taken this a step further by encouraging our women to network externally – in particular, by investing in an Ellevate membership for every woman at the senior consultant level and above. Ellevate is a global professional women’s organization dedicated to networking and life- long learning and to the economic engagement of women. Among the many benefits is exposure to additional women mentors and peers outside of our organization who are at similar or other points in their career. 

We will continue to look at other opportunities to improve, such as introducing the concept of “transition coaches” who can help people navigate life transitions while succeeding in their careers, and making sure that our staffing procedures provide ample opportunity for women to take on high-profile projects. But if we do the things outlined above well and thoughtfully, I believe we can make strides toward our goal of retaining more women and advancing them into fulfilling leadership positions. 

Again, none of the ideas above are things that benefit or apply only to women. They are steps that foster a more inclusive work environment. When our work environment feels “inclusive,” then anyone–women included – can excel, use their talent and experience to deliver great service to our clients, and continue to pursue their career goals with West Monroe. And we can continue to move the needle of inclusion as an organization.

Strengthening our culture of inclusion is a team effort. Each member of our leadership team is passionate about inclusion and personally committed to raising our game. And each brings unique perspectives of and experiences with inclusion and diversity from his or her career. These perspectives are an important part of this conversion; so every quarter, one of our leaders will add some thoughts on this topic.

Casey Foss, Director of Marketing 

In professional services, how do we get beyond the perception that “inclusion and diversity” is primarily about particular groups, such as women? 

I think it’s all about perspective. We all have experienced moments when we felt like an outsider, no matter our demographics or tenure. Conversely, most of us can likely cite examples when differences in working styles, expertise, and personalities made for a stronger project or functional team. 

For example, when I think about the importance of diversity of thought – it brings me back to our firm’s implementation of Salesforce. While on the surface the team was diverse, there were also less obvious differences in work styles, approaches, and backgrounds that proved diversity is not only about the color of someone’s skin, their religious beliefs, or gender. We needed to find a way to combine our internal marketing function, line resources, and performance services functions to effectively work toward  a common  goal, and the output was better because  instead  of working in siloes we brought those different perspectives together, broke down barriers, and drove  toward  a single goal. 

In that same vein, when I think about new marketing talent, I am looking for diversity in backgrounds and specialties even within my own function to develop a high-performing, well-rounded team. 

I would challenge leadership teams to think about diversity across the firm and speak about it in broader terms. It’s not just who sits in a given practice, but how collectively we are bringing together individuals, who are unique by definition, to contribute their point of view. 

How can women find mentors in a firm with a high percentage of male leaders? 

I think all of us – women and men – should have mentors who reflect diverse perspectives about career and life. At West Monroe, we call this our “career board”—a group of advisors with different perspectives we consult for feedback on our career path, development opportunities, and overcoming challenges. 

For women, that includes having men as mentors. In fact, most of my mentors have been men – and three in particular have played key roles in shaping my career here at West Monroe. All of them have children and have been open with me in talking about my career aspirations, my challenges, and my passions. I also think it is valuable to look outside the organization for mentors – or at least peers with whom you can share advice on career and personal matters. That is one reason we invested in memberships for many of our women in the Ellevate Network. I have found Ellevate a particularly valuable forum for connecting with other women leaders who may work in other industries, but who have very relevant insights from which I can learn. 

Furthermore, mentorship should come from people who have walked, or still, walk in your shoes. For example, I have also found a group of like-minded chief marketing officers across a variety of professional services firms. Participation in this group offers the chance to pick each other’s brains, discuss market trends, and drive change in our respective organizations. Each mentor group serves a different purpose and  all are equally important! 

What can firm leaders do to build a more inclusive environment for women? 

I think we are doing many of the right things through   our renewed focus on inclusion and diversity. The one area I would emphasize is being aware of surroundings.  It is no secret that there are many situations with mostly men in the room. I’ve been to many business dinners where I was the only woman. That’s okay – I learned early in my career not to be fazed by that. But we need to be sensitive to the signals we send and the potential for unconscious bias. And, as leaders, we need to hold each other accountable for this. I take that role seriously. If I see something happen that might make the women in the room uncomfortable, I speak up.

What other advice do you have for women who want to build successful careers in professional services? 

Whether you are a woman or a man, or you work within or outside of professional services, I would tell you to make sure you have a sponsor within your organization–someone who has your back, is “in the boat” with you as you make career decisions, and who represents you the way you would represent yourself to leadership. 

This person is not meant to help you make decision or direct you down the path you should take, but instead they are equally invested in your success--based upon how you have defined it. 

How have you navigated the conversation about flexible work arrangements? 

The first time I had to think about flexible work arrangements was when my mother became seriously ill, and I made the choice to spend more time with her. I was not in a leadership role at the time, had joined the firm only 15 months earlier, and was concerned about how to start “the conversation.” I developed a 10-page “business plan” to support my request to work remotely one day per week and to take a day off each week to spend time with my mom while continuing to handle  the responsibilities of my role on the marketing team. 

I went in to present that plan to my manager at the time. Without getting into the details, I can say that the conversation was painless, the results were exactly what I had hoped for, and the support was beyond any I had seen in the workplace during my career. While it was prudent to have been through that thought process, the biggest hurdle was just getting over the fear about how such a request would be received. 

I have since had two children and have gone from full time to part time back to full time again – while continuing to grow my role. My advice is simple: start the conversation, and ask for what you need. More importantly, understand that what you need will likely change, and that is okay too. We spend so much of our time working. If you find yourself in a situation where you are not supported or cannot have the conversation, then you need to think about whether you are in the right place to start with. 

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