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In this minisode, Jennifer provides tips for leaders who are struggling with where to begin in creating positive change when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Discover the first steps that any leader needs to take and how to get buy in from key influencers and stakeholders. Jennifer also shares her thoughts about the future of work and why individual change agents will be the leaders of tomorrow.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • What you need to consider before creating positive change (2:00)
  • The first step to take in any change process  (4:30)
  • The importance of finding “truth tellers” within an organization (8:30)
  • How to identify key influencers (10:06)
  • How to deal with resistance to change  (13:44)
  • How to get beyond compliance and create lasting change (15:15)
  • Why good intentions are not enough (18:00)
  • The power of an individual change agent (19:49)
  • The skills sets that will be most valuable in the future (21:00)
  • The importance of D&I skills for future leaders (22:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome to The Will to Change. You may notice, as I’ve said before, that this is not Jennifer Brown. This Doug Foresta, producer of The Will to Change. Jennifer is with me today. In this minisode, we’re going to be discussing where to start if you want to create change. Jennifer, welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Doug. I love being in this seat.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you so much.


DOUG FORESTA: I really enjoy these episodes. Today, we’re going to talk about this idea that—let me set the scene for who we’re talking to, and tell me if I’m getting this right.

If I’m someone who is a D&I consultant, I would want to know where to create change. But beyond that, if I’m someone within an organization who wants to think about starting to create change, or maybe I’m a leadership consultant, not a D&I person, but I need to get a pulse on how to get started. Would those be the people we’re talking to today with this episode?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Yes, Doug. I get a lot of questions like, “I’m running my own business,” or “I’m leading a startup,” or even, “I’m an executive and I seem to be the only person around here who cares and is passionate about creating momentum and forward movement. How do I get other people on board? How do I know how to start in my organization? Which lever do I pull?” Those are really the questions.

DOUG FORESTA: Let’s start there. That is a big question, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: My gosh, it’s enormous. I know. I don’t want it to be intimidating. As we always say, “Just get started, that’s what matters.”

There are good ways and not-so-good ways to get started. Often, when I’m mentoring folks who are trying to learn, maybe they’re the only voice, maybe they’re someone very junior, maybe they’re somebody very senior. Maybe they’re someone who is passionate about diversity and inclusion, but has never had the role before. We’re seeing a lot more new practitioners in role. They’re coming to me off to the side saying, “Where do I start? I’ve never done this before.”

Similarly, like you said, there are leadership development professionals who are being asked to incorporate diversity and inclusion into their strategy. Whether they’re doing a reorganization or whether they’re McKinsey doing a huge multi-million-dollar job, there’s almost no one influencing organizations who doesn’t need to know something about this topic. And they will be asked by their clients, however that’s defined, to weigh in. That’s why there has been a mad scramble to get copies of my book. It does equip you with language, understanding, statistics, and some of the common questions that I get. Shameless plug for the book. (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: I was going to say. Of course, let’s let people know what the book is, right?


DOUG FORESTA: Inclusion.

JENNIFER BROWN: Inclusion, yes. It’s on Amazon and we just finished the audio book, so it’s available in three formats. It was really fun to record that.

Yes, the book is full of a lot of tips, but I can jump in, Doug, and give people some basic advice.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes. Just some things to think about when we’re getting started in terms of getting grounded. Like you said, “Just start.” But I’m sure that you have some advice for us about how to get grounded in terms of our starting process.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Any good consultant will tell you, “Let’s map the current state.” What is the current state in your situation?

If you are in a corporation, if I were helping you, I would go through and ask you a bunch of questions. What has been done around diversity and inclusiveness in the past? Has there been an initiative, which might have been a failed initiative? Has there been discussion about the topic? Who’s talking about the topic? It really matters who’s talking because the seniority and the influence of the people who have been talking about it signals who thinks it’s important and who has the power to drive change.

When we get further along in the change process, it really matters because those people are going to be your senior sponsors. There is almost nothing more important to creating a thread of diversity and inclusion throughout an organization than executive leadership and the voice of that leadership talking about it, keeping it top of mind, and holding people accountable.

I would want to know: What is the current state? What is the history? What was the dialogue in the past? How has it been received? That’s very critical. If they roll their eyes and say, “Well, we tried to do this and it didn’t work,” or, “People were really skeptical, and it got shut down,” or, “It was funded two years ago, and it’s not anymore because nobody seems to care,” or, “We’ve gone through so much organizational change, it’s become a nice-to-have.”

All of those things are really important because you always need to know what you’re walking into. That holds true for an external person—very, very important—but also an internal person. You’ve got to know the nature and the depth of the resistance that you’re going to meet—or the eagerness that you’re going to be met with. It could go either way. And sometimes it’s a blend of both, by the way. It depends which part of the organization you’re talking about. You could have very supportive parts of organization. You could have very enthusiastic employees, but a management and leadership team that doesn’t get it. You could have a management leadership team, very senior people who are gung ho, and you could be struggling because the employee base hasn’t been engaged and awakened around the topic.

These are all things which I discover in an intake process. I gather all of that. I’m measuring what exists, what forms or groups are also meeting on a regular basis? Are there informal groups? Formal groups? Is there training going on? What is the sentiment about the training?

In this conversation, unfortunately, we have to deal with a lot of resistance, negativity, and fear. I could also say driving technology change, for example, comes with a lot of fear, right?

DOUG FORESTA: I was going to say that, exactly. People have fear and resistance, different kinds, but they have fear and resistance to technology change. No question.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. It’s true. It’s not dissimilar to driving that kind of change. I would say, though, that we are asking people to be way more vulnerable to their own—I don’t know if I’d say weaknesses—maybe it’s blind spots, assumptions, perceptions of themselves as a person who is a champion of equality. I cannot tell you how many people will say, “We don’t have a gender problem, look at this representation. We did this last year, and we’re winning all these awards.”

As a consultant and change agent, your job is to question the story that the organization tells itself. The organization and its leaders want to see themselves in a positive light. There’s always a truth-teller, though, somewhere, who is shaking the cage and saying, “Actually, I don’t think that’s true. I think we need to look at the numbers. I think we need to collect data we haven’t been collecting.” We need to ask certain people how they feel, and not just assume that we’ve done this well.

Your role as a change agent is to hold the mirror up, but you’ve got to do it in a delicate way. You’re messing with people’s conceptions of themselves. That’s some delicate stuff.

DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer, how do I do that? Maybe I should ask you, how do you do that? Let’s say in an organization they say, “By the way, we’re doing a great job. We’re really doing fantastic.” Which I’m sure you hear quite a bit.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yes. (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: How do you get underneath to really find out what’s happening? I guess maybe on a practical level, is it a matter of just talking to other people in the organization? I’m curious about that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. It is a question of who has been included in the conversation traditionally. I always look around the room. Once I’m cataloging or diagnosing the current state, I’m noticing whose opinion matters, who has the voice on it. If there’s a group that’s been meeting or a conversation going on, who is in that conversation? Who’s leading it? Who started it? Going back forensically and understanding, where did this originate? And what did it originate to solve? Those are the fundamental questions, consulting 101. What was the impetus for this effort? Even informal conversations, everything starts somewhere. Somebody usually is not happy or there’s improvement that can be made and there’s frustration.

There may be a big market opportunity, for example. We talk about diversity from a retention perspective and an employee engagement perspective, but we should always ask, “What market are we not capitalizing on?” Any business leader worth their salt knows that their marketplace is shifting, and it’s typically shifting towards more diverse customers. We can basically say that as a massive, sweeping statement.

DOUG FORESTA: Unless you’re selling white robes. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. Exactly. There is not a business leader out there who is not aware of this stuff. Whether you want to look at it and solve for it is a different question.

Your consumers are becoming more non-white, they are becoming more female, if they’re not already majority female. There are more individuals on the abilities spectrum—who have always been there, by the way, in the consumer mix—but are just getting a more powerful voice these days.

Doug, you and I just had a wonderful podcast episode with Kathy Martinez, if I can mention it.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes, absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: She’s leading Wells Fargo’s disabilities and accessibility strategy. She’s a wealth and font of information as a Latina, as a woman, as an LGBTQ leader, and as somebody who identifies as blind as well. Talk about an interesting viewpoint for Wells Fargo’s customers with varying abilities and how to serve them.

Back to when I walk in, I’m noticing who is in the conversation, who has the share of voice or the bandwidth, who is being listened to. Are they being effective in terms of generating interest? That is another interesting thing to watch because sometimes you can have a lot of really passionate, enthusiastic people who have absolutely no organizational influence. They have half of the equation, but they don’t have the other half. They’re full of passion, want change, and they have tons of energy, but they may be peripheral to those who have power.

DOUG FORESTA: I was just going to say that. What you’re really speaking to is power, right?


DOUG FORESTA: I might be a passionate person in the organization, but do I actually have power and influence?

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s it—passion and power. Ooh! That’s a really interesting book title for me.

Yes, we need to have equal measures of both. We need to know how to use our passion, and in some cases, frankly, mitigate it. Too much passion can be too much of a good thing. Passion, when it’s not seen through a strategic lens, can be harmful in organizations.

You’re going to have people who resist and write you off and say, “Well, they’re angry or wear their heart on their sleeve too much. They’re not playing politics well.” That is code for, “You haven’t gotten the right people with power into the conversation in a way that engages them and gets them to care.” A lot of us feel like we have an abundance of caring and passion, but we’ve got to be smart about change.

I’m trying to assess the current state. Who is involved? How powerful are they? How much influence do they have? Have they involved people with influence and power, if they don’t have it? Why are we talking about this, why now? That’s getting me to the business pain point. I’m looking to discover what organizational leaders and those with power are really going to care about. What is the angle?

This is the marketer in me, but I’m always thinking about how to make people care. What is the angle that will ignite involvement and engagement with resources? How can they become an asset to the effort? How can they use their social capital willingly, not just through compliance because I told you to do it? This sometimes happens, by the way. You’ve got an enthusiastic CEO, he’s running around yelling at everybody, holding everybody’s feet to the fire saying, “You will hire more women, you will fix this, and you will do it by bonus time next year, or I’m not going to pay your bonus.” These are the conversations that are going on, and everybody’s being forced to do it. That is a short-term strategy that does not have staying power, isn’t sustainable, and doesn’t build capability and capacity in the organization.

We’ve got to get creative about how we line up our champions. Good for you if you’re the CEO and you’re listening to this, then you do have the power. Let’s say you have all the power and all the passion, it’s not going to be enough. You can drive change through force, but even better, what do they say? If you want to go further, go together. If you want to go fast, go alone.

Even from the top, we need to be strategic about how we create change around this. You want people to feel it’s their idea, you want them to feel they are connected in the conversation, they have a voice in the conversation, that they have a role in the change. I’ve seen CEOs get into trouble, too.

Wherever you’re driving this change from, be aware that these are all the things you’re trying to line up. Play it strategically. How do you know you’re doing a good job of this? You’re looking for “stickiness,” as we call it in the marketing world. You should be looking for where your efforts are taking root. How many people can I get talking about this in an informal way? Not through compliance and not through force, but because people have an actual organic interest in it. Who is showing up? Who is in the room?

This takes time, by the way. It’s an engagement strategy. You have to be aware that every move you make has consequences. Everything from how you write about it to how you communicate your strategy to how you invite people to what kinds of feedback you give to what sorts of data you use about the organization or the marketplace. These are all tools. I’ve seen junior people be incredibly effective using all these tools. You’re never without the tools, the question comes down to how you use them and how strategic you are.

DOUG FORESTA: What I hear you saying is that good intentions are not enough. There’s a lot here that’s entrepreneurship, too. Like you said, there’s such a parallel to marketing. If I say, “Boy, I want to do this thing,” but nobody else wants to do it with me, it’s going to be really lonely. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: Audience of one.

DOUG FORESTA: I have an audience of one. What I hear talking about assessing the organization, where are they now? Figure out who the people are with influence. Am I wrong in saying that power in an organization isn’t a one-on-one direct correlation, necessarily, to the org chart? There is more than just looking at the org chart and who’s a manger when I look at power. Would that be fair to say?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. There’s also the “unofficial” org chart.


JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, there are a lot of people who have influence and pull, and there are a lot of senior people who don’t have influence. In the book, we talk about the future of management structures. We talk about flat structures like Holacracy—self-managed teams. Someday, when we have the courage and the ability to truly change the org structure and make it much more flat, condensed, with more of a circular hierarchy—and I know it feels like that day will never come—I can tell you, that’s what a lot of employees would resonate with. It’s that ability to swim around and author their own experience which would spark employee engagement for a lot of those who are laboring in this structured system. It is true that the individual change agent will be the most powerful voice. I look forward to that day.

Often, where I enter organizations, I’ve got not only the executives around the table, but the individual change agents as well. In the diversity world, they have credibility and a voice because this is their experience. Often, the individual change agent in an organization is a diverse person—someone who’s speaking to their everyday experience. They are incredibly valuable wing men and women with me. I can bring the organizational expertise from the outside and say, “Here’s how ten organizations have done this,” but then paired with somebody on the inside who can speak passionately, with credibility, and as an insider in the company, it becomes a dynamic duo that organizational leadership can’t take issue with. There is a truth that emerges, if you play your cards right, that executives find compelling. It’s a world an experience that they don’t really know, and many of them are not diverse in ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender.

The individual leader has a tremendous voice. My prediction for the future is that we’re heading towards flatter organizations where this hierarchy is going to be less and less meaningful. What’s going to be more and more meaningful is social capital, and the ability to team and collaborate without a lot of guidance or structure.

The people who are successful in that world are not necessarily the big-title people. They are the marketers, to make your point. Marketing is the number-one skill set. We market ourselves; we market our ideas; we get our team on board; we launch a campaign. This is exactly diversity and inclusion. I love that you’ve likened it to that, because we suffer in the diversity and inclusion conversation from effective marketing techniques.

You should absolutely think about putting half of your energy—at least—towards the way in which we create change, the way we communicate it, how we run our campaign, how we engage our stakeholders, and how we think about our market, quote/unquote, even if you want to define market as five people on your team and you’re in a tiny company. Your employees are your customers, your recruits are your customers, and it’s all part of your ecosystem.

More and more, with the transparent world that we’re in, the way we do business, the way that technology allows us to see what everyone’s doing all the time, we vote on each other in how we lead ourselves.

D&I provides an amazing canvas on which to develop these stakeholder management skills, change management skills, and marketing skills which can be applied to any change initiative. If I had to choose, that’s the number-one leadership competency of the future.

DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer, thank you. Every time we do these, there are great take-aways. I always think of the prize in the Cracker Jack box. You always leave us with this great prize.


DOUG FORESTA: Thank you so much for joining me today and sharing.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yum! You’ve made me hungry. (Laughter.) I’m going to go get a snack.

DOUG FORESTA: There you go. Thank you very much.


DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.