March 2017 | Point of View

A conversation about inclusion & diversity: The tipping point

Introduction

Workplace inclusion and diversity is a priority for organizations in all sectors. West Monroe Partners is no different. Inclusion and diversity are vital to our firm’s ability to deliver differentiated services and solutions—and are embedded in our core values. As we’ve grown to more than 800 people in 11 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 in 2016 to strengthen our platform of inclusion. This article is the first of a four-part series focused on what we hope will be an open conversation about inclusion first and foremost and, ultimately, diversity.

As we’ve grown to more than 800 people in 11 offices across the United States, fostering an inclusive environment becomes more challenging. ”

Driven by a purpose greater than providing game-changing solutions and driving stronger partnerships with our clients, West Monroe’s leadership reset our mission to focus on “building the next generation of leaders”—individuals who will lead within our office walls, in our communities, and with our clients. At the center of this mission, is our ability to attract and retain the very best people. To be successful in the professional services industry, our people need to deliver the best service and the best solutions. To do that, requires exceptional talent and the ability to apply diverse perspectives to challenge our clients’ status quo and enable us to think through complex issues in different ways. 

We have a remarkable team at West Monroe. In an effort to ensure we’re continuing to grow in the best way possible, we started looking at our key challenges to attracting and retaining the best talent. More and more, we saw a growing expectation for diversity, internally and externally, and real evidence that we are not always meeting that expectation. 

We offer an appealing employee value proposition and do a good job of attracting top talent, but there are notable times when we’ve lost out. We’ve had a few candidates directly decline opportunities to join us based on a perceived lack of diversity. 

We also have had some regrettable losses of talent (women and men), particularly to industry opportunities that don’t carry some of the work-life integration challenges of a professional services career. And we have had some clients praise us for our work but express concerns about our diversity. 

A hard message to hear 

We began the journey by enlisting the nonprofit organization, Catalyst, a specialist in accelerating progress through workplace inclusion. With Catalyst’s support, we began a significant internal research effort that included focus groups with employees of diverse backgrounds. We interviewed leaders across our organization. We conducted interviews with a select group of our “regrettable losses.” Catalyst also compiled workforce data on West Monroe Partners as well as many of our competitors. Together, we looked at all of that input, along with feedback from our clients. 

There was plenty of good news in the results. From our beginning, we have strived to maintain a people-centric culture with exceptional professional opportunities. The research validated this. Our employees told us we have excelled at providing development opportunities and at partnering with our clients to solve complex challenges, and that they value our collaborative, high-energy, caring, and familial work environment. Our people believe the core values and foundation on which we built our firm 15 years ago remain equally important and prevalent throughout our organization. 

Other parts of the feedback, though, were harder to read. 

We saw that our people expect—but don’t necessarily see—broad leadership on the topic of inclusion and diversity. They see a champion here or there, but they expect all of our leaders to be more vocal in sharing their perspectives on how we can make West Monroe increasingly inclusive and how they intend to make an impact. 

We know there are work/life challenges to building a consulting career. The unique culture and requirements of this profession make it difficult to “keep up” and can lead to burn out. 

Finally, and perhaps hardest to hear, was that some employees feel that as our team has grown, we have struggled to maintain both our familial culture and our openness to truly diverse thinking. Rapid expansion of our team does create growing pains, and we can’t operate the way we did 10 years ago when we were 100 people—and when everyone knew (almost) everyone. Today, it takes more effort to help new members of our team (at all levels) feel part of a collaborative culture, navigate West Monroe, and ultimately drive value back to our clients. If we are truly going to provide clients with the best work and solutions, then we need to break down walls and promote diversity of thought. And every member of our firm needs to take personal responsibility for doing so.

Building a culture of inclusion 

For the most part, this feedback is not terribly surprising, particularly for those of us who have spent several decades in the consulting and professional services sector. Most other consulting and professional services organizations of our size (and larger) also struggle with these issues. But where there are issues, there are opportunities. 

We are fortunate to have a great foundation—a distinctive and collaborative culture among consulting organizations (market feedback confirms that) and a tremendous amount of pride in our organization. What we need to do is use that to help us drive a strong sense of inclusion. An inclusive culture is a prerequisite to having a diverse workforce—whether that means diversity of thought, race, gender, or other aspect. 

 

If we are truly going to provide clients with the best work and solutions, then we need to break down walls and promote diversity of thought ”

Action starts with open dialogue 

Embedding inclusion into our culture will take time, and I know my Seattle team is struggling with the pace of change. We have started by challenging our more than 80 directors firm-wide to take ownership for an inclusive workforce and to change the tone from the top. We engaged them in dialogue about unconscious bias and inadvertent actions in the workplace that lead people to feel “not included.” For example, what message does it send when you are looking at your phone or having a side conversation while an employee is presenting his or her idea during a meeting? How does someone feel when everyone gets up to go grab lunch and leaves him or her behind? Or, how is a group of new colleagues recently acquired in a merger supposed to feel part of our team when we refer to them by their previous company’s name? 

Our directors left our annual retreat with ideas they can take forward—starting with listening and being genuinely interested in what makes us all different and unique. Dr. Steven Robbins, a speaker who draws on the science of human behavior to help organizations understand inclusion and diversity, presented at our director retreat. He reminded us that diversity happens when you have any two people in the room. Just because we look the same doesn’t mean we think about things the same way, have the same goals (personally and professionally), or appreciate the same types of recognition. But when we look around the room and don’t see anyone who looks or acts like us, we may be less likely to feel “included.” This leads to an environment of “insiders” and “outsiders.” 

We asked our directors to create a personal list of little things they will do to begin making others around them feel more included—such as calling an employee they don’t know well and inviting him/her to lunch. From a central perspective, given both the research feedback we’ve received and our genuine interest in creating meaningful change, we also are preparing to introduce some new policies and procedures, as well as new ways for our people to explore what is available to them. We’ve created some great momentum related to inclusion and diversity in the past few months, and I believe this combination of steps will enable us to capitalize and build upon it. 

The title of this article is, “A conversation about inclusion and diversity.” That is deliberate. This topic requires open and honest dialogue, which hopefully we have started through the process of listening. And more importantly, it requires ongoing dialogue—not a once-per-year review and response. This article is the start of our open conversation around inclusion and diversity. Each quarter, I will partner with another member of our executive team to report back on some of   the things we are doing and what we continue to learn. 

Finally, because “conversation” inherently means two-way dialogue, I encourage you to join in this discussion and to share your feedback and ideas for rebuilding West Monroe’s culture of inclusion.

Acknowledgments 

Last year, we enlisted two key partners to help us understand where we are starting and evolve the way we think about inclusion and diversity: Catalyst and Dr. Steven Robbins. Our ideas are undoubtedly influenced by our partners, and we are grateful for their guidance on this journey. 

Building a culture of inclusion and diversity is a team effort. Each member of our executive 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.

Susan Stelter, Chief People Officer 

How has the approach to inclusion and diversity changed since you co-founded West Monroe Partners? 

Diversity was one of the words we wrote on the napkin in Miller’s Pub back in 2002 as we sketched out ideals for West Monroe Partners. From the broadest perspective, having a diverse workforce is simply the right thing to do–but more importantly, it’s critical to ensuring we have diversity of thoughts and perspectives to create the best solutions for our clients. In consulting, we need people who will challenge one another and the status quo to create the best solutions. 

The intent has always been there, and that is to our advantage. The larger we get, the more intentional we need to be about inclusion and diversity—and that also applies to any aspect of our workforce and culture. We are also increasing our focus on inclusion first – if our people feel included, no matter their background, experience or identity, diversity will follow. As we’ve seen with our strategy, when we are intentional about something, it happens. I am heartened and excited to see the enthusiasm stemming from our discussions on this topic late last year. As we began the new year, people were asking for more details about our execution plans. As an organization, we are hungry for this, and I know we can produce a different—and positive—result. 

Some feedback from the Catalyst study was hard to hear. What struck you the most? 

As proud as I am of our firm and the awards we’ve won for culture, it was clear that our actions don’t always reflect our intentions. For example, we’ve acquired other firms over the past several years, bringing in new skills and perspectives that are good for our business. Through the study, we heard about instances of people being met with, “But that’s not how we do things here.” In some cases, there may be good reasons for responding that way, but we are not doing a good job of articulating why. In other cases, we may just not be acting as open to new perspectives as we should be. 

Either way, that makes people, or groups of people, feel like outsiders. This feedback was humbling, and    it illustrates the importance of being conscious of our actions. Just because we have a great culture doesn’t mean we get it right every time or every day. 

How do work-life initiatives fit in? 

For many people in our organization, being inclusive spans both work and life, and how to have a successful consulting career while having the personal life we want as well. 

Of course, our definition is much broader and focused foremost on having the best minds and talent, as I said above. But this does illuminate one opportunity to be different than we are today. I’ve navigated an interesting career from line consultant to operational leader and now to chief people officer. Along the way, I’ve had two children and have had to establish the flexibility I needed to be successful in both areas. But I know there are many who don’t feel they have the same opportunities and are uncomfortable to ask. We also need to remember balance is a people issue – men, particularly in the millennial generation, are also looking for flexibility in ways previous generations may not have. We need to be clearer and more open about work- life balance and work together to come up with creative solutions to support all our employees who want to build long-term careers here. 

If inclusion is everyone’s responsibility, what would you advise people to do? 

Certainly our executive team needs to set the right tone, raise awareness, and create supportive policies and programs—and we are very conscious of that. But a truly inclusive environment is as much or more a function of people’s actions than it is of policies and programs. At the speed with which we work, it’s easy to miss opportunities to take the time to listen to and express genuine interest in each other. We need to reset those opportunities. At our director retreat, Dr. Robbins guided us to think about times we felt like an “outsider.” Everyone has had that experience—whether it has happened in school or at work or in a family setting. 

That feeling can even change in a day—you can feel like an insider in your 9am meeting and an outsider during the 11am meeting. When we feel left out, we are less productive and less likely to bring our best selves to the table. That impacts our work. I hope Dr. Robbins’s message resonated and encouraged people to reflect on what they are or aren’t doing to make those around them feel included. If we all do that, I believe we will see a big impact. 

How will we measure progress? 

Our focus is not on chasing numbers, but on building a more inclusive culture where diverse opinions and skills can flourish. For us, diversity and inclusion isn’t about “meeting the numbers,” it is about meeting the expectations of our leaders, our people, our clients, and our communities. Our philosophy, just as it is with corporate strategy, is that if we do the right things, the right outcomes will occur. That said, we are looking at creating qualitative measures that helps us take the pulse at relevant times and provides transparency to our people. This aspect of measuring a feeling is more complex than measuring numbers, but we think it is more valuable and worth the effort.

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