Book Club: Michelle Silverthorn on Changing the Workplace With Authentic Diversity

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Olivia Fuller: Hi and welcome to Book Club, a Sales Enablement PRO Podcast. I’m Olivia Fuller. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space and we’re here to help professionals stay up-to-date on the latest trends and best practices, so they can be more effective in their jobs.

As calls for diversity, equity, and inclusion are being listened to more and more in businesses today, it’s also become clear that many workplaces still have a long way to go to create real change. Michelle Silverthorn, who’s an expert on culture change discusses how business leaders can transform diversity and inclusion from lip service to authentic and people-centered allyship. And she’s here to talk to us about this topic a little bit more from her book, “Authentic Diversity”. So with that, Michelle, I would love it if you could introduce yourself to our audience.

Michelle Silverthorn: There is my book, “Authentic Diversity”, right behind me, I know you can’t see that if you’re listening, but I am Michelle Silverthorn. I am the Founder and CEO of Inclusion Nation. I am so happy to be here and really talk about what it is that we can do to build these spaces of real belonging and inclusion in the places in which we work. I have run this fantastic consulting company. I love my company; I love the people who I work with. I have clients from every possible industry you can think of, who are at various stages in their DEI journey. I do a lot of trainings and a lot of workshops about bias and authenticity, and belonging and diversity. It’s a great job to have and great people to work with, and I’m happy to do it.

OF: Fantastic. Well, we are so thrilled to have you here to talk to us a little bit more about your book. And one of the things that really stood out to me that I loved about how you told your story is you really broke down the old ways of thinking about DE&I, and then mirror that with some new approaches that business leaders can really take to change the workplace in an authentic way. So, I’d love to learn a little bit more, why is that old way insufficient to really create that real change? And how can those new ways really disrupt the status quo?

MS: I love that question. I always think about people have you read the book; it’s divided into two very distinct halves. The first half are the five old ways of thinking about diversity. And the second half are the five new ways of thinking about diversity. And I tried to parallel them as much as I can, but you can’t do everything great. But when I think about the old ways, I think about how we constantly make the business case for diversity. We constantly say, “How much money is it going to make us? What is the business generator? What is the revenue? What can we get out of diversity?” Well, you’re really just reducing people to numbers. And the challenge with that is, if it doesn’t work out, then the revenue doesn’t go up or the problem-solving skills don’t increase, or there’s a lot of conflict, then what was the reason for you doing it in the first place? That can’t be enough.

And then I talk about how we go to all of these bias trainings. And they tell you that bias is fine and everyone has it, and I wrote this actually, it was published, I literally went to the publisher the week before George Floyd’s murder, and what I’ve loved over the past year is that people in all these organizations have changed their thinking about bias, about race. I spent so much time in this book telling it’s not enough to just say that your bias and that microaggressions exist, it’s fine. You have to really think about how it affects someone’s career. At every single step in the process, those little, tiny cuts, what do they do to a person right from when they’re onboarded, right through the part where they leave your organization?

So, that’s the second thing. We talk about race and why it’s important to talk about race, I talk a lot about my experiences as an immigrant, I’m a black immigrant to America, my experiences learning about going through the experience coming from a country that is about 90% Black to a country that is not, and what that means to your self-esteem, your image, and also your ability to be able to, “Do I think if I stay here, I can succeed here?” This idea of how we all start at the same line. You onboard someone, it’s fine. Everyone has the same amount of experience and they’re just all starting at the beginning, but that’s not true. We are all starting at different starting lines.

And then the last part, which is really important to me, is this idea that you have to assimilate to succeed, that unless you follow this prescribed direction of success, which was prescribed and defined when people like me weren’t even allowed in the workplace, then that is the only way to succeed. And when you flip that away, when you flip that idea, which is what the second half of the book is about, these are new ways to succeed, how we talk about race, how we hire people, how we onboard them, how we design really useful employee resource groups, how we can actually have sponsorship programs that work, and most of all, how we can make sure that if I come into a space, I feel like I belong here and I can succeed here. And that’s really what this book is trying to talk about.

OF: That’s fantastic. And you mentioned this a little bit just now, this discomfort with talking about race or talking about diversity in an authentic way, and really bringing that to the workplace, and that’s a point that really stood out to me throughout the book, also was that theme of comfort, that business leaders are really too comfortable with the way things are and unwilling to become uncomfortable to really make real progress. So, why is that discomfort necessary to make change in the workplace?

MS: I think about discomfort as what I think about when we want to try to learn. You can always feel comfortable. But at some point, when you start hearing things that you weren’t exposed to before, when you start having conversations that you weren’t aware of, when you start listening to experiences of people who hadn’t had a chance to share their experiences before, all of that’s going to increase your discomfort. And what I share with people– if you’re feeling uncomfortable, that’s good. I have a couch behind me, if you’re listening to this, I have a really comfortable couch behind me, I have taken many naps on that couch. But if I tell you, “Michelle, get up, go change the world,” I’m like, “No, y’all, I’m sitting on my couch, I’m really comfortable.”

We move from spaces of discomfort. That is the reason that we learn new language to say. We learn about why we should share our pronouns. We learn about how we can make someone feel included. We learned that the happy hour that we’ve had for so many years is exclusive, that a golf term that we use make people feel marginalized. We learned all of those things and we learned them because we are uncomfortable.

So, the thing with discomfort is once you recognize that you are feeling uncomfortable, either because of the space in which you’re in, the conversation you are having, the realization that you just had, how can you then move your space not to a point where you are going to feel comfortable, but rather to a point where you understand that you can learn from that discomfort? So, what is the language you need to use? What are the skills? What are the behaviors? What are the actions? Who are the people you need to talk to before you go talk to this person? All of those are things that we only learn when we start towards spaces of discomfort. And that’s what I really am encouraging folks to try.

OF: I also want to go back to something else that you mentioned at the start here too, which is this idea of bias. Sales enablement practitioners are often really heavily involved in developing new sales talent, all the way from the hiring process through to onboarding and then ongoing training as well. And you talk about in the book, and you mentioned this earlier, how bias can often be underestimated or even excused. Since it can heavily influence the hiring and promotions process if it’s not talked about or if it is excused, how can practitioners start reducing it without excusing it, especially in that hiring and career pathing?

MS: That’s an excellent question. What I would start with is you figuring out, as whatever your role in the talent process is, where does that bias look like. You can’t do that without data. What does your data show you? When you look at your data, whose resumes are coming across? You’ll never exactly know what are the racial and sexual orientation and ethnicity of each name that comes across, but you do know who you interview, you do know who you bring onboard. You can tell by how they answer various demographic questions, if they answer them. You can tell who’s getting promoted. So, as you look at your actual data that is in front of you, where do you see those biases occurring? If people are leaving, why are they leaving? Is there a certain demographics or an age, certain place in the office where they are sitting, that they always leave because of that, you cannot get anywhere until we start with the data. Start with the data and what is that data showing you?

Then once you look at your data, you see recurring patterns of this particular group, they’re not getting advanced through the system, or when I get their reviews or evaluations, when I get to review them, and I see here’s where they need to improve their sales techniques or their markets of their services, whatever you see on your data, I see this trend again and again, and again. It starts with looking at the data. The reason I always tell people to start with the data is that I can give you all of the advice on how to interrupt bias as an individual, and I will, I do this in the book, I talk about being aware of it, second-guessing yourself, looking at objective evidence, but at the end of the day, the way that you actually deliver change is through systems, right? So, you look at your systems and you see where are those barriers existing? What am I doing to contribute to that? Am I sending the same resumes over again? Am I recommending the same people for this particular development training program? Am I recommending them for this particular really high in-demand region? Whatever it is, what am I doing that could be improved? And you just keep checking yourself.

Checking yourself is one thing I love. I was on a call recently and there were 25 people from the HR team and every single one of the people in that HR team was a young white woman and almost all of them had blonde hair. And at the end of the call, I reached out, I was like, “Can you tell me a little bit about the diverse composition of your team?” This wasn’t the training, this was to go to the actual training. We were just trying to talk to the HR people about their training. But when we think about that, when we actually look at the facts and what they show in front of us, what does that show you about the assumptions and stereotypes you might have? And the easy answer is, “Well, that’s who we hire, that’s who comes through our doors.” Then that’s the work you need to change. You need to change who you hire and who comes through your doors. And that’s where you start.

OF: I love that advice of starting with the data and looking at it through that lens to really figure out where the problems actually lie. That’s fantastic advice. So, digging a little bit deeper into onboarding, another point that you talk about is that not everyone starts from the same starting line. So, how can sales enablement professionals, who are often leading this sales onboarding, how can they start to remove barriers and build more equitable programs with that in mind?

MS: I think it goes back to what I just said about the data. When we know that everyone is not starting from the same starting line, you’re doing a great job, your HR team is doing a really great job of recruiting a diverse pool of candidates, a diverse pool of employees who start out. What questions are you asking them on the onboarding process? We don’t just make assumptions about how they speak the same language; they understand the same terminology, they know who to talk to when they need access to certain places. There are a lot of assumptions made about people when they start out the job. I want you to do the work of really understanding from individual perspectives, where is it that this particular person is starting from.

And what can really help that is when you look at the data, and you say, “Okay, when I have black team members who are at this position, at this job, or they have this exact same position, a common thread in their evaluations is this, or a common response they have in their self-evaluations is this, or when I look at this inclusion survey that my company just had when black professionals, they list this as their main point of contention or their main point of challenge at this company, or when we look at exit interviews, here’s something that comes up.” Use all of that, to inform what are you going to onboard people in. Are you going to onboard them with understanding the market that they are serving, the product that they are delivering? Do they need more access?

A lot of the challenge happens with the social networks that exist inside a company, do they need access to those social networks? Do they need a guise? Do they need a sponsor? Do they need a champion? All of those questions you’re going to ask yourself, but you need to look at what is it that the black professionals who you have seen their data from or their surveys from or their evaluations from, what is it that they are also looking for three, four years down the line because in year zero, then you can start delivering it on the onboarding process.

We do a ton of survey work at Inclusion Nation. And part of the reason we have to do so much of that survey work is so you use those responses to that data to then inform the questions that you ask, the resources that you offer, and the assistance that you deliver.

OF: That is wonderful. And you mentioned something there that I want to dig a little bit more into, which is sponsors. You talk in the book about how that can really be a powerful resource to help create equity and bring people into that social network that they might not have otherwise in the organization. So, how can a sponsor really help create that equity? And then how can professionals embed sponsorship into the culture of a company in an authentic way to make that a normal thing?

MS: That is a great question. And what I love about that question is, when I wrote this book, it was April 2020 and it was May when it went to the publisher, sponsorship is very different now than it was in May, because so many of us are working remote. And we have spent two years working remote. And I talk to women’s groups very, very often. A lot of women have taken a huge brunt of labor when it comes to remote working, whether it is women who live alone, women who take care of elderly family members, women who have children. There are just a lot of burdens that we have taken on. So, what does sponsorship look like, not just in a workplace where we are in person? What does it also look like in a workplace that is remote?

What I encourage people to do is a lot of male success in the workplace, and I mean, most of our workplace leaders around the world, around this country are white men. Most of white male success is because there’s a guy who takes another guy under his wing and says here, “Come let me show you the way it’s done,” or “I want you to take me to this client,” or “Hey, I like you and I want to hang out with you some more, let’s go play golf.” There’s are all those little things. So, when people talk to me about how they never had a sponsor, they never did it that way, I’m like, “You didn’t have to, because those informal connections were already for you.” What I’m trying to do is to formalize something that has existed for so long in the workplace, but has existed, has excluded women, people of color, BIPOC professionals, people who are of marginalized identities, from that access.

So, when I think of how you sponsor someone, what are the projects they have access to? Are you speaking up their names in rooms where their names are not being spoken? Are you sharing with them, “Here are the insights to how to work with this customer or how to work with this manager, how to be successful.?” Those are the kinds of things I want a sponsor to do, in addition to, “I want to be your mentor, I’m going to guide and show you the path. I’m also going to say that say, you mess up on this deal or whatever it is, you are going to get my support and say you should give this person a second chance, because I know they do good work.” Or say, no one’s thinking about you for that stretch project, that superstar assignment that can get you to the next level, you as a sponsor or your sponsor is going to look and say, “I think she’s ready. I know she’s ready. And I know she’s ready because of this, because I have had experience with her doing this.” They look at your evaluations, and they say, “Okay, here are your evaluations. X, X, and X are good. But you know why I need you to work on Y and here’s why.” That’s the kind of thing I think a really good sponsor is going to be able to do.

OF: I love that advice. Just being able to have someone to advocate for you, to challenge you, definitely can help. As we were also talking about with not having the same starting line, it can really help get people to a more equitable starting line as well. I love that. My final question for you, you talk also in the book about how the business case for diversity is insufficient. And instead, businesses need to think about people-centered inclusion. So, what does people-centric inclusion look like in the business world? And how can leaders ensure that their initiatives, their programs, and the systems that they have in place are working for their people?

MS: I love people-centric diversity. The reason I call this book “Authentic Diversity” is because it’s about people. People who have different values and identities who come from different cultures and have different religions, it shouldn’t matter who you love or where you worship. You come into an organization, that organization says, “Because you are part of this organization, I will make sure that you have no barriers to your success.” That’s what I want. That is what equity is, it’s removing those barriers, removing the barriers, because you are a parent or because you don’t have same-sex partner benefits, or because you don’t have paternity leave benefits, or because you aren’t getting the equal salary that you deserve, even though you work the exact same amount as the other person, who by the way was named a director when you got named a manager, and you’re doing the same amount of work.

All of those barriers, that is what people-centric diversity is all about. It is not about only about how we can make more money. I would like to say this. The business case is a necessary thing to talk about. But if the business case was enough, we would have solved diversity 50 years ago, because we make the business case all the time, endlessly, nonstop, and we are still having conversations on how we can improve diversity.

When I think about people-centric diversity, go back to who you are as an individual, take yourself out of the system itself. When you look at someone who is on when you’re a team who you’re onboarding, who you’re training, when you are looking at the sales enablement work that you were doing, do you respect that person who you’re speaking with? Are you listening to them? Are you listening to their challenges? I go through a whole list of the questions I want people to ask in my book. Are you not gaslighting them? Do you agree that there are biases that they have experienced? Are you willing to be open to the fact that their experiences, their perspectives are very different from yours? Are you willing to learn, “I’m going to engage with this person, I’m going to engage with difference? I live in silos and I could talk about race a lot, segregation, our communities, our neighborhoods, but I’m willing to get uncomfortable, get out and commit to this. I’m willing to speak up when it comes to diversity. I’m willing to talk about our diversity goal and why this matters to our company. I am willing to say when someone interrupts when a woman already said in the meeting, I believe Sariah was making a point, or when someone sends around a joke mocking a new transgender hire that you stand up and say, ‘No, we do not do that here,” and you make that person feel welcome and comfortable as well.

That’s all part of people-centered diversity. And I would love if we could start there. Instead of starting with, “Well, here’s how much money businesses can make from diversity.” You can always talk about that, but that’s not going to be the reason that you are going to succeed in this work. It’s just not. And that’s why I love people-centric diversity.

OF: That is fantastic advice. Michelle, I’ve so enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, sharing all of this expertise with us. I know our audience is going to find so much value in everything that you shared. So, thank you so much.

MS: I love it. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you for inviting me. You can always find me. For everyone listening, I’m on Instagram, I’m on Twitter. I think we’ll have the handle somewhere. But I love talking to people. So, reach out to me if you need anything else at all. And I love talking with you. Those were some fantastic conversations and questions. And we got to do this. The work of diversity includes all of us. And that’s the work that we’re going to do together. So, thank you for having me.

OF: Fantastic. And to our audience, we definitely recommend picking up “Authentic Diversity”. We’ll include a link of where to buy that in the episode description. And thanks for listening. For more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders, visit salesenablement.pro. And if there’s something you’d like to share or a topic you’d like to learn more about, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

You can find “Authentic Diversity” available for purchase here

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