Podcast: Jennifer Brown on diversity and inclusion


Hello and welcome to Ascent Dental Radio. A program dedicated to the balance between the clinical aspect of health care and the business of health care. And now here is your host, Dr. Kevin Coughlin.

Kevin: Jennifer, welcome to Ascent Dental Solutions. My name is Dr. Kevin Coughlin and I’ve been providing podcast information for our audience now for some time with the help of Doug Foresta. I understand you’re an expert in inclusion. Can you give me a little bit of background about yourself, please?

Jennifer: Surely. Yes, I am Jennifer Brown and I‘ve run a firm for about a decade in the inclusion and diversity space. Meaning that we do consulting and training for mostly large institutions around developing their workforce and managing their workplace towards being more inclusive and also educating themselves about how to reach diversifying world from a marketplace perspective.

So looking at clients and customers, however those businesses define their external marketplace.

Kevin: Jennifer, what motivated you to go down this pathway? Was there something that happened in your career or something in your background that triggered this area of expertise

Jennifer: Yes, actually. I had a background in leadership development and I found that that topic really resonated with me exploring what leads to human potential being realized in our workplace. This is where we spend so much of our lives.

I have a degree in that, but I was also an opera singer and I have a master’s in voice. So I spent a lot of time on the stage, as you can imagine, and I really loved speaking to people and interacting with audiences about leadership.

But the missing piece, I think, occurred to me -- I’m a member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community. I have a partner of 19 years. I always thought that that kind of had nothing to do with my work as a leadership development expert and trainer.

And as I matured and learned more about how many people that identify as LGBT, and then how many women and others who are historically less represented in some of the companies that I consult to really feel on a day-to-day basis, I really found my voice as an advocate who’d felt marginalized and really troubled by certain things that had happened to me in my professional journey, as I retooled myself and became more of a leadership development professional. And just being aware of that experience that I had had of kind of minimizing my identity and parts of who I am and how many others really experience that on a day-to-day basis.

I just felt very called to focus my work in that space and be both a role model as a woman business owner, as an out LGBT business owner, but also somebody that could shine a light into organizations of all sizes on behalf of talent that really traditionally may feel they don’t have a voice in the equation.

Kevin: If you were to say over the ten years of your experience a common theme that you see in large and medium size and even small companies when they sort of miss the boat on inclusion, is it because of ignorance, is it because of lack of understanding, is it just they don’t even know they’re doing it? Is there something particular that you could tell the audience that you’re seeing with your decade of experience?

Jennifer: Absolutely. I like to say the proactive appreciation of diversity and the building of inclusive workplace cultures, it doesn’t just happen. It’s a very, very rare organization that can take its eye off that ball or be kind of not working on it and then have a workforce that, for example, if you ask them, felt very included on all levels and really that they could bring their full self to work. It’s just one of those things I think that we hunker down and focus on business as usual, we get very, very busy, we think all of this takes time.

We also assume I give everybody opportunity. I’m very equally minded or equality minded or I’m progressive politically. So of course I believe in these things and I think if there’s an assumption there, that good intent is actually going to create workplace environment outcomes. And that is not true, at all.

There have to be certain things said and done and they need to be consistent and they need to be somewhat overt to make sure that you’re communicating a message that states in a positive way what you stand for and what your workplace and your company stands for, for diversity and inclusion and what that really means to you. So I think those are some of the things.

The other thing that is pernicious is the role of unconscious bias. And that shows up -- again, it’s unconscious, which is the problem. We raise it to consciousness and we talk about in our trainings everyone has it and we all see the world through our lenses and we filter things, not because we’re bad people, but because we need to make sense out of things and make decisions based on very little information.

That’s the world we live in. Unfortunately, some of those decisions are not always the right ones. And so unconscious bias is especially difficult with diversity, of course, because we don’t see ourselves, for example, hiring in our own image or promoting in our own image or seeking people that are similar to us and having community with them.

Therefore, we’re not being challenged to grow through how we manage difference between ourselves and others and that’s really where the richness lives. And that richness is really so good for companies too.

It creates more innovation, it creates more input, which actually can solve business problems in different ways. But we tend to be creatures of habit and the status quo and change is hard and sometimes threatening for some people.

I think there’s also a little bit of a misassumption that if I extend more opportunity proactively to others that somehow some of my opportunity is going to be lessened, but really DNI, as we call it, is a one plus one equals three scenario so it’s good for your people, it’s good for your business.

And if you are a leader that feels that way, you have to kind of think about it differently and think about what will be unleashed in your company if you were to prioritize it. And I don’t think we can really know that until you try.

Kevin: I’ll share with you a personal story. I’ve been practicing dentistry in western Massachusetts, a very small isolated area of the state and I’ve been doing that for about 35 years.

In the early 80s, I did a quality assessment, quality assessed form to see if patients were getting a positive feedback. And an African American young man named Jeff wrote down his comments, “I love your office but it’s a lollipop white land.” And I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. So I called him up and he goes, “Doc, I just want you to know that everything around here is lollipop white.”

And I said, “I don’t get it.” I went to a high school where there were no African Americans. I went to a college with not a lot of diversity in my opinion so I didn’t even realize what was going on.

The sum and substance of it is I actively sought out in the community African American and Hispanic employees because quite honestly, one of the practices that I had was in the inner city. Now I’m happy to say I have 150 plus employees, I have employees from 20 different countries, I have six different languages in my personal practice.

Although you shouldn’t do it for the monetary value, but quite honestly, there was a whole vast array of individuals that I wasn’t aware of, didn’t associate, didn’t even know they existed in the community because I was living in my own little box. That one gentleman who I consider a personal friend really opened the doors back in the early 80s.

And for some of our listeners, sometimes I think just as you said, you forget your surroundings and those surroundings I think can pay off in numerous ways, not just monetarily, but I feel pretty good. I always say to myself my office is like the United Nations. We have everything that you can imagine and we get along very well. We have our problems like any business, but not because of race or nationality, I’m happy to say.

Jennifer: Congratulations! That’s incredible. We often say in the corporate world, which is where I specialize, you’ve got to see it to be it. And that translates I think to customers in terms of who do they see when they enter your business, however you define that.

Do they feel they see someone that looks like them, that speaks their language either literally or figuratively, maybe it’s their cultural language? People really do make decisions based on that.

In my world, I’m always asking my clients who did you bring to that sales meeting? Who did you put in front of that prospect? And when they get the feedback, they’re shocked, “Oh, we didn’t get that piece of work and one of the reasons was that we sent five white guys from our sales team.”

They didn’t even think about it. Meanwhile, they’re selling to someone who represents a really diverse audience base or a diverse customer base. So more and more when business deals are made, the buyer I’d say, side is actually evaluating the seller in this scenario for even things as simple as who are you putting in front of me to speak to me. Do our values match? Do I want to do business with you? And it’s becoming increasingly important to have that reflection and that mirroring happen.

And you can’t just have one person in the corporate world that’s like there’s one person of color or there’s one LGBT person that’s sort of invited to every single meeting. And that scenario repeats itself and it’s very exhausting for the person who’s being tokenized, if you will.

So I often say too the whole game, like your practice, you’ve grown a critical mass to the point where you have lots of different people, of different communities and you’re not overly relying on one to be a spokesperson for an entire community, which is never accurate, but you’re also no unduly burdening somebody with that.

It’s really exciting to feel that there’s pressure being applied in the business world in that way, other than it is the right thing to do, of course. Diversity, inclusion is, but there is such a tangible market scenario going on that really impacts the bottom line and that tends to really convince people that need convicting on this topic.

Kevin: Let me ask you this, in your business, how do you use measurements or metrics to find out the success or failure of your business? I know you’ve gone into very large Fortune 500 companies. Is this something that you do month to month, every other month, week to week? What would be a typical program that you would suggest?

Jennifer: For sure, metrics are really important. The hard thing with diversity and inclusion, especially inclusion, is that it is a world of soft metrics. It’s a world that can kind of be measured best with qualitative feedback and information. My favorite saying is “culture eats strategy for breakfast” -- it’s a Peter Drucker quote -- and culture in that case means workplace culture. It’s this lightning in a bottle, it’s an intangible, it’s difficult to pin down, everyone has a different definition of it and so the way we capture the diversity side and the inclusion side is kind of different.

Diversity side is your metrics around representation in your workforce. It is literally looking by ethnicity, race, gender and sexual orientation, although that’s very difficult to measure as is disabilities, very difficult because those are often invisible aspects of diversity and yet they’re very important to be able to capture. Corporate America specifically has a really hard time getting people to disclose and self-identify in their HR systems, especially for sexual orientation and disabilities.

Anyway, so measuring diversity tends to be around workforce demographics mainly and historically. And that’s still important, but I think that demographics are a lagging indicator of what does the culture feel like for people who have been hired into this company and who are endeavoring to stay and build their careers and are deciding do I feel comfortable here. And that’s really on inclusion side and that can be measured through employee engagement surveys that ask very pointed questions about do you feel welcomed and heard in this environment, do you feel your input is considered and honored, do you feel you have access to decision makers, do you feel you have a voice.

You can ask all those questions and if you also ask demographic questions, you can actually cut the data and look at who is answering the same question very differently by diversity dimensions. And to me that’s where it gets really interesting. If you ask women if they feel they have equal opportunity for promotion and career opportunities and you ask men the same question, you are almost always going to see a difference in their answers. But you have leaders meantime who say, “Oh, everybody has equal opportunity here.” So you’ve got this understanding gap.

And it’s interesting, if you ask the men if the women have equal opportunity, the men will say in higher numbers, yes they do have equal opportunity. The women will answer that question differently. So there’s even a perception gap between the genders and there’s an assumption I think that I find mostly among men and also among white people, frankly, that we work in meritocracies and that hard work is rewarded. And that if we just operate under that principle that everything is going to just work out fine. That’s unfortunately not true.

Kevin: Typically, Jennifer, when you go into a company large or small, do you start with the leaders, the CEOs, do you start with the employees or do you start with the HR department? How is that strategy in your company spelled out?

Jennifer: If it’s a larger company, there often is an office of diversity or maybe there’s one brave soul who has that newly added to their title, bless them. They got the blessing to go forward and kind of lead the effort but they need to corral various senior level leaders and also sort of bottoms-up employee voices and they also typically will found a diversity council of some kind. Which means a diversity council is best with more senior people on it who are passionate about driving the process for an organization.

Sometimes in a smaller company that diversity council may be the CEO and the executive team. Sometimes CEOs and executive teams are better kept in kind of an advisory role but not necessarily rolling up their sleeves and doing the work like a diversity council really should be.

In smaller companies or even companies of all size, actually, you have to think about the bottoms-up and the tops-down imperative of the conversation. The bottoms-up is really the voice of the employee and the mobilization and engagement of the bottom half of the organization say in the conversation.

So how we achieve that dialogue is we do focus groups, we might do interviews, we might do a survey and we’ll ask them those questions that we talked about earlier. And at the top of the house, simultaneously, you’re trying to figure out is the CEO onboard, are the executives onboard or not. Is there a lot of resistance to this idea? How might we educate about why this is good for business?

And that’s where your business case is really helpful because you have to speak that language sometimes with executives who just aren’t very familiar with this topic or assume, again, like I said earlier, they’re going to, I don’t know, resist because they have a bad associate with it or stereotypes about the topic. They might think it’s affirmative action, they might think they’re going to be forced to abide by quarters.

There’s a lot of assumptions about this conversation out there when really the bottom line about it is actually that we need diversity in our workforces and we need to lead that diversity in an inclusive manner in order to get the best contribution from people and I don’t know a leader alive that doesn’t want that.

Kevin: Jennifer, if our listeners wanted to get in touch with you, what would be the best way for them to reach out to you and your company?

Jennifer: Yes, I would love to hear from everyone. We’re Twitter, really active on Twitter @jenniferbrown. I’m also on LinkedIn, Jennifer Brown Consulting, which is the name of my company. And we have a new book that you mentioned I think earlier it’s called Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will to Change. If you want to pick up a copy, we’re requesting that people go and buy it on November 22nd, which is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, because we’d like to get a diversity and inclusion book into the bestseller category. So we’re really pushing everyone towards purchasing on November 22nd.

And then if you have some consulting needs and you need some guidance for your organization, send us an email at info@jenniferbrownconsulting.com and we’d love to hear from you. If you’re interested in me as a keynoter, we actually have set up a personal brand page for me with some videos on it and a speaker kit and that site is www.jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Sorry that was a lot of places to go.

Kevin: I can’t tell you how insightful the interview was. I found it engaging and as always, I always learn much more each time I do one of these interviews. I wish you the very best with your book, Inclusion. And for our listeners, November 22nd is the date to get that book in as a bestseller. Jennifer, thank you so much for taking the time today and congratulations on your outstanding career and keep up the good work.

Jennifer: Wow, thank you so much. Thanks for this opportunity.

Kevin: You’re quite welcome. You’ve been listening to Ascent Dental Solutions where its focus is on knowledge, information, education and training. I want to thank our guest today, Jennifer Brown, and her outstanding information and let’s all try to do a little better. Thank you again for listening and I look forward to talking to you very soon. Thank you.