Ep. 178 – Jennifer Brown, Author of How to be an Inclusive Leader

Ep. 178 – Jennifer Brown, Author of How to be an Inclusive Leader

In this episode, Brian Ardinger, Inside Outside Innovation Founder, talks with Jennifer Brown, Author of How to be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive and host of the podcast The Will to Change. They discuss talent recruitment and retention, approachable diversity and inclusion, leadership practice, well-intended obstacles, case studies, and recognizing biases for AI.

Interview Transcript with Jennifer Brown, Author of How to be an Inclusive Leader

Jennifer BrownBrian Ardinger: Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast that brings you the best and the brightest in the world of startups and innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, founder of Inside Outside.IO, a provider of research, events, and consulting services that help innovators and entrepreneurs build better products, launch new ideas, and compete in a world of change and disruption.

Each week we’ll give you a front row seat to the latest thinking tools, tactics, and trends, in collaborative innovation. Let’s get started.

Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. With me today is Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is a leading diversity and inclusion expert. She’s host of her own podcast called The Will to Change, and I wanted to have her on because she’s an author of a new book called How to be an Inclusive Leader. Welcome to the show, Jennifer.

Jennifer Brown: Thanks so much, Brian, I’m happy to be here.

Brian Ardinger: The topic of talent and diverse talent, especially when you’re talking about innovation that comes up over and over again with our audience.  Let’s first talk about your background. Then we can talk about the book.

Jennifer Brown, How to be an Inclusive LeaderTalent recruitment and Retention

Jennifer Brown: My background is eclectic. A lot of people that do this work had winding roads. We like to laugh about the fact that there’s not a lot of professional degrees to study diversity, equity, and inclusion. I was an opera singer and I ended up having to leave the field because my voice kept getting injured and I found my way to the world of leadership development because as a performer it was clear I wanted to be on the stage and needed to be on the stage, and so I found my way to become a corporate trainer.

Eventually I got a second master’s in HR, change management, organizational development. I was an HR professional internally for awhile. And then I really got the itch too, worked for myself, and also be able to have the freedom and the agency to tell the truth as a sort of third party. And that was all 13 years ago.

So since then, I’ve had my own company. I’ve built my team. We have about 20 to 25 folks. Today we consult mainly large organizations. Big household name kind of companies on their diversity and inclusion strategies. And within that, there’s training services that we provide. We work on affinity groups and we do consult on talent, both the recruitment of that talent and also importantly, the retention of that talent, which honestly is in many ways where the rubber hits the road. It’s sort of, if you can get them in the door, can you keep them question, but I’m also a member of the LGBTQ community, so I have my own powerful diversity stories as a woman in business.

Approachable Diversity & Inclusion by Jennifer Brown

Brian Ardinger: I wanted to have you on the show to talk about the book, because unlike a lot of diversity books out there, it felt very approachable. It set the stage that, Hey, you’re probably gonna mess up with this stuff as you’re trying to learn it, and that’s okay. The topic of diversity and inclusion is sensitive for whatever reason, and you laid it out there like, Hey. That’s okay to feel awkward or not okay with all of this at the very beginning, as you grow your skillset and grow throughout that. Why did you try to write a book and how did you come about bringing this topic together?

Jennifer Brown: Yeah, it’s my second book. So the first one is called Inclusion. In hindsight, it was probably the book about the why, the business case for this, the personal stories. It was attempting to persuade and it was also an attempt. To comfort those of us who were doing a lot of this work and who feel relatively tired or we need new strategies, we need to be reinvigorated. The second book is really the how. So my publisher encouraged me to really make a handbook, like make something that was very practical, very useful. Very simple to understand, and he loved the idea of the model, the inclusive leader continuum, which ended up being the central premise of the book.

Leadership Practice

We have a four-stage model, but I do think it’s a learning journey. Like you said, it’s having the grace for yourself to say, there’s so much I don’t know, and let me get on this journey and let me make sure I do it right and do it safely, because I think it’s like would you jump into a marathon and run it without six months of training? Being an ally or an advocate or finding your voices, an inclusive leader is not something you can just snap your fingers and say, Oh, well, I’m a good person. You know, therefore, I can call myself this. It’s actually a journey, not a destination. It’s a process in which you probably will feel uncomfortable at various points, and by the way, you should feel uncomfortable because if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not leading.

We have to give ourselves that grace, forgiveness, runway, patience – to develop a muscle over time because you’re working out every day in little ways. If you do that and you calibrate constantly and you practice and you choose spots where you need to do private work versus going public, you can minimize some of those awkward situations or places where you don’t say the right thing or places where you might injure or harm someone or a relationship, but you can’t do it alone.

You definitely need a feedback loops around you so that you have people in your corner, people that care about you and your success as somebody that is striving to be considered an inclusive person and that you can get there. It’s harder for some of us than others because some of us have relatively more privileges than others, and so there’s a lack of firsthand knowledge or experience that some of us actually have to overcome in order to be inclusive leaders.

Well-Intended Obstacles

Brian Ardinger: When people stumble out of the block, what are some of the biggest obstacles that they’ve got to overcome?

Jennifer Brown: Honestly, it’s that belief that, Oh, I’m well-intended. I mean, well, like I’m a good person and I believe in equality. Or the favorite we always say is if it’s a male leader, maybe saying, well, I have daughters, you know, and I have a wife who works, so like I get this, and then meanwhile you study that person’s organization or you look at their pay gap or whatever, and you show that information. Somebody who then realizes that intent isn’t enough. But the problem is that good intentions don’t build inclusive organizations if they aren’t accompanied by action, they don’t dismantle workplaces that honestly were built on premises of inequality. The workplace was survival of the fittest. I wouldn’t ever call it a meritocracy even though people like to argue about that, especially

Brian Ardinger: in the tech world, you have that. A foregone conclusion in a lot of people’s minds that that’s the way it’s set up. Exactly.

Jennifer Brown: But it’s not actually people grabbing their friends and hiring people they trust that often look like them or come from the same schools or people that we feel we can vouch for because we’re trying to fill seats and that speed with which we run our business life and fill spots, unfortunately dictates passing over a lot of details that are actually really important for inclusion. And it’s not even like we have to slow down everything dramatically. It’s like literally a pause where you decide to look at one resume over another.

And you ask yourself like, am I just less comfortable with this person’s name, for example? Or maybe I’m looking at their educational background and it’s not a school that I’ve heard of, or maybe they have a gap in their resume. There’s so much more inclusion we can practice just by slowing down for a moment, catching ourselves in a moment of unconscious bias or any kind of bias. And then endeavoring to correct for that. You know, you might have a gender gap in your organization. When you get your inclusion data back, you may find out that people don’t feel a high sense of belonging and therefore productivity and comfort in your workplace. It’s a very startling thing. The measure of a good leader is what do you do about it?

It’s not just leaving it there. It’s saying, it sounds like I need to update my leadership processes and I need to increase my sensitivity to my behavior every day, or I need to ask for feedback around how I run meetings or maybe I need to dive into who feels passed over or spoken over or not having a seat at the table and what that says about our workplace culture.

Inclusion Case Studies

Brian Ardinger: Can you talk about some case studies or organizations that have gone from that unaware to aware, to active, to now at the advocate stage, and what metrics are they looking at, how they progress through that?

Jennifer Brown: As a consultant, I look at the organization and I look for particular markers. I love organizations with strong CEO commitment. And that’s visible commitment, and it’s not just words, but it’s literally actions and it’s private actions and public actions too. You know, CEO’s for example, like Mark Benioff, I like to talk about him a lot. When he discovered they had a big pay gap at Salesforce, he first of all wrote a $3 million check to gross it up, no questions asked just to fix it. But that doesn’t fix the systemic reason why it had occurred and nobody had ever said anything. So now they do a pay audit on a regular basis, and now they have to also do pay audits regularly with all the acquired companies that Salesforce takes on, because Salesforce then inherits all of their big apps too.

That’s the more systems lens that I appreciate about. The way they’ve tackled this, and finally they talk about it. They’re very public about it. He’s very public about it. It’s not about being ashamed and sweeping something under the rug. It’s literally saying, hold on like let’s be honest about this in the hopes that not only we change it and prevent it from ever happening again. Speaking about, it normalizes this, you know, it all go first as the CEO to say like, Hey, this might be a bad reflection on me, but honestly, it’s present in every organization and I’m just going to talk about it and then I’m going to do something meaningful about it.

I feel energized by that case study, you know, just to stick with Salesforce for a moment, they had thousands of people in an Indiana office and because of the religious freedoms laws that were going around on a state level, there was a lot of LGBTQ discrimination being cotified into law and upward votes. He just said to the governor, like, I, you don’t want to do business in this state if this is what our employees are going to be experiencing.

Private enterprise and companies can really very much lead on these conversations. And employees are looking to their employer to lead and to be courageous and to throw their weight around. Honestly, because I don’t think we see a government throwing its weight around.

Being Proactive

Brian Ardinger: I do think that trend of corporates in the past, it’s always like, stay away from politics, stay away from being seen one way or the other. But now it seems like consumers and folks in general are pushing companies to be more proactive. Companies like Nike, or like you said, Salesforce, that are taking more political stance and whether it’s done for capital reasons or otherwise, it seems to be moving the needle a little bit.

Jennifer Brown: It’s enabling employees to feel they can bring more of their full selves to work because they’re seen and their experiences talked about and their experience, not just in the workplace, you know, nine to five or whatever it is, but outside of the workplace as well. So it’s a really big change of how much, if particularly younger generations are expecting to be able to bring, it’s not something that my generation knew anything about, honestly, and if we tried to do that, we were excluded or worse because we just weren’t ready to have that conversation and we weren’t numerous enough to really create the sea change that I think generation Y has, and they’re the now majority demographic in the workplace, the majority generation, that carries a lot of weight.

It’s very persuasive. It is with inclusion at the front. And companies that are definitely struggling to keep up with the conversation and make sure that they can retain these young and future and emerging leaders, and when they’re so awkward and sort of haven’t done their work around diversity, equity, and inclusion, it comes across as very tone deaf. It comes across as disingenuous, not authentic. Companies know this. They also know from an innovation perspective that. The diversity on any given team that’s creating products and services and sales strategies and go to markets. That group needs to reflect the world that the company does business in, and that is not mirrored today, particularly the more senior levels, right?

We just have a total lack of women and people of color and out LGBT people because they might quit before they get to senior roles, or there may not be enough of us in the pipeline to literally like have any kind of critical mass in those meetings and it really hurts the company.

Looking Outside the Bubble for Talent

Brian Ardinger: One of the things that I’ve seen in the hiring process itself and trying to help companies find and hire diverse talent outside their bubble. Have you seen any tips or hints for folks trying to expand and tap into diverse talent pools that they could recruit from?

Jennifer Brown: Because it said, Oh, well, I just can’t find them. There is so many ways to shift your outreach, your pipelining, where you sourcing the kinds of schools you’re looking to, you know, are you sort of fishing from the same ponds that everybody else is because you have a very narrow definition of what a successful criteria might look like for positions? You know, I think job descriptions are too narrow. There’s a lot of bias in the recruiting process. There’s like a million different points where bias derails diversity in the recruitment process.

We have to think about outside the box. Source talent in unconventional places. There needs to be more diversity on recruitment teams themselves. You know, so that people know people and they know that where their community gathers. And I think they’re probably more able to come up with innovative strategies about how to reach those pools of talent. And then once somebody enters the interview process, you’ve got to watch out for all those biases that happen in the interview process. It’s not just the diversity of interview candidates, slates, but also diversity of interviewers, slates. I do think candidates move through a process, and again, they’re sort of watching and listening and noticing who is this company putting in front of me? How is this company representing not just its leaders, but how does the hiring managers speak or not speak about this topic?

There’s so many invisible aspects of diversity in your candidate pool. So don’t just think about diversity in terms of what’s observable and what kind of assumptions we might make about how somebody identifies as an LGBTQ person. I can go through an entire process and never tell you who I am. So the question might be like, how would you know? And could you set up a circumstance where I would feel comfortable enough based on the cues I’m picking up through the interview process that I’m, I say to myself, you know, this is a place that really gets it, and I’m basing that on a lot of these little choices around what I see, what I hear, who I’m introduced to et cetera, and then by the way, your work doesn’t end.

Once you can get people in the door, then your work shifts to what kind of culture and community can that person be connected into so that they feel they have a community at work. Particularly when you’re underrepresented, it’s critical that people feel, particularly in a workplace that doesn’t look like them and leadership that doesn’t look like them it’s critical that. Companies have things like employee resource groups and affinity groups and opportunities to find that community because community has been shown to be a huge factor in retention.

Recognizing Biases of the Past in AI

Brian Ardinger: You know, you mentioned the biases in that, and it’s interesting from a technology perspective and some of the things that we’re seeing, we’re almost at this inflection point where not only are we waking up to some of this stuff to be more inclusive and to build that into the operating system of the organization, but we also are an inflection point of making sure that we don’t bake in these algorithms with the biases of the past. And as we go to more automated hiring systems, or I see a lot of companies trying to shortcut that or try to figure out ways to improve that particular process, but we’ve got to be cognizant of the biases that have been in the system. And then we don’t bake that into the new automation of the future.

Jennifer Brown: The bias will literally get magnified exponentially, which is terrifying. And the classic example is you look up beauty or beautiful or whatever, and you see a lot of like white faces, you know, you’ll see algorithms that don’t recognize dark skin. It’s just goes on and on. I really encourage you to Google bias in AI and just educate yourself about all the ways we can hard code this and why it matters so much. Who’s around that table designing. Our tech because you’re right, it’s a tremendous blind spot and so harmful. One of the interesting though, positives is tech can also help.

I’ve been learning a lot about  having criminal backgrounds in resumes and how that literally automatically screens out so many candidates. It’s like massive talent pool and we have this huge number of open positions in companies. Then we have this huge talent pool with some kind of criminal background and we’re not matching these two, this supply and demand. And a company called checker, which is a background check company, literally uses AI to screen out criminal background from that initial cut and then they have a process whereby then can do a deeper dive into somebody’s background and history, and there’s so many mitigating factors, but just utilizing technology to get past that initial hurdle, knowing that that bias exists, and then knowing that people deserve a fair chance.

Many of those folks are actually great potential hires. It’s just a really interesting, positive example of how we can use tech to nudge us and to protect us against biases that may be spinning off our nose to spite our face. The other interesting thing is Textio. I love that tool. It spots biased words in job descriptions and performance reviews. And so there’s like gendered words like rock star and Ninja, and we’re looking for this kind of team.

That language repels female candidates from technical roles. These tech tools can really help us de-bias ourselves because it’s very difficult to catch ourselves in the act and often it is unconscious that’s why we don’t see it. As it’s happening. So anytime you can also experiment with some of these tools in the diversity tech space, the more you can help yourself learn your own behaviors through the assistance of tech. And then hopefully someday we won’t need tech because we’ll see our bias cells in the moment and we’ll be able to correct for it and we’ll know. What the correction looks like, but until then we need a little help.

For More Information on Jennifer Brown

Brian Ardinger: Jennifer, I really did enjoy the book. If people want to find out more about yourself or the book, what’s the best way to do that?

Jennifer Brown: I’m on social media at Jennifer Brown on Twitter at Jennifer Brown speaks on Instagram. We’re also on Facebook, LinkedIn, Jennifer Brown consulting. If you’re much more curious about following me and where I am. Speaking and getting that early view of our thought leadership. Please do join our newsletter at jenniferbrownspeaks.com and that way you can stay up to date on everything I’m doing because I’m always on planes, trains, and automobiles. I’d love to meet any of your listeners and make a personal connection.

Brian Ardinger: I’m looking forward to our paths crossing. Again, Jennifer, thank you very much for being on the Inside Outside Innovation and look forward to continuing the conversation.

Jennifer Brown: Thanks so much Brian.

Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

For similar podcasts to Jennifer Brown, check out: 

Ep. 159 – UM Worldwide’s Oscar Allain on Brand Innovation Through Cultural Conversations

Ep. 130 – Canopy Insight’s Victoria Gerstman on Culture’s Influence on Brands & Semiotics

Ep. 115 – Doug Branson, Author of The Future of Tech is Female



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Ep. 178 – Jennifer Brown...