S03 E11: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion – The bridge to sustainable & impactful company culture

In the eleventh episode of this season of CultureClub X, We have Kellie Wagner, Founder & CEO at Collective – A DEI Lab, who discusses how DEI acts as a bridge to sustainable and impactful company culture.

About Kellie –

Kellie is a HR influencer, leader and a “Forbes Next 1000” nominee, who launched the Collective – a DEI lab, to change the way the workplace engages with its most marginalized team members.

She believes in driving grassroots change through employee-led DEI initiatives that are human centered and backed by design thinking and data.

Kellie’s consultancy has worked with companies like Spotify, Glossier, Food52, and Taco Bell. Her thought-leading work on equity, intersectionality, and mental health has been featured in Forbes, GQ, and New York Magazine.

She is also a seasoned DEI practitioner and renowned speaker at various HR conferences.

Kellie is a graduate of NYU’s Managing Workplace Diversity & Inclusion program and holds an MFA from The New School.

Here’s a gist of what Kellie speaks about in this video:

Catch all this and more with Kellie Wagner in Episode 11 of Season 3 of CultureClub X.

Transcript –

Nicole – Hello everyone, and welcome to the latest episode of CultureClub X, powered by CultureMonkey.

I’m your host, Nicole Patrick. CultureMonkey is a coplete employee engagement platform that helps people leaders to measure and improve their workplace culture.

In the 11th episode of this season of CultureClub X we have with us Kellie Wagner, founder and CEO at The Collective, A DEI Lab, a leading diversity, equity, and inclusion consultancy.

Nicole – Motivated by her personal experiences, Kelly launched Collective to change the way the workplace engages with its most marginalized team members.

She believes in driving grassroots change through employee led DEI initiatives that are human centered and backed by design thinking and data.

Kellie’s consultancy has worked with companies like Spotify, Glossier, Food 52, and Taco Bell. Her thought leading work on equity, intersectionality and mental health has been featured in Forbes, GQ and New York Magazine.

Nicole – She is also a seasoned DEI practitioner and renowned speaker at various HR conferences.

Kellie is a graduate of NYU’s Managing Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Program and holds an MFA from The New School. Kellie, it’s great to have you here with us today.

Welcome again to CultureClub’s video cast on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the modern workplace.

Kellie – Thanks so much for having me. Before we begin, please tell us more about yourself and your organization. Yeah, well, you did such an amazing job. Thank you for intro-ing me.

I started Collective about four and a half years ago after working in the tech space for almost a decade. I really was interested when I was working in tech on how we created experiences that make customers and users feel a sense of belonging, a sense of happiness, and also created access to people to better be able to use products.

And what I realized while I was doing this work was that I was seeing the exact same issues and barriers play out for employees within the workplace. And so that really motivated me to get involved in sort of grassroots employee led efforts at the organizations that I was at, participating in, DEI councils, employee resource groups.

Kellie – And I saw a lot of power and impact that employees could create because they knew first hand the issues, because they were experiencing them directly and often knew what they needed even more than maybe the leadership team in the organization.

And so a lot of the work that Collective does is rooted in bringing leaders together with the employees who are most vulnerable, most likely to be experiencing a lot of challenges within the culture to really design solutions that are meaningful, impactful as well as feasible and sustainable so that this work doesn’t fall off the radar, but it’s something that is integrated into the company culture and organizational priorities over the long term.

Nicole – That’s great. Well, it sounds like you’re the perfect person to have for this today for this interview. So we’re very excited and lucky to have you here with us today. And let’s get started.

Kellie – Great.

Nicole – Members often overlook what’s essential while formulating policies around culture. It could be because of hurdles or because this is low on their list of priorities.

What, according to you, are the key focus areas for senior leadership to build a better culture for their organization? And how can they ensure that this is embedded in the company culture in a meaningful way?

Kellie – That’s a great question. I think I often hear, where do we start? What’s actually most important? And I think with this word, with culture, with diversity, equity and inclusion, you can really start to boil the ocean or always be in this place where you’re being reactive to the kind of problems that are popping up.

But as Collective has done research through surveying thousands of employees over the past few years, three kind of bucket areas have really emerged for us in our research around where senior leaders can have the most impact to drive a culture that creates strong sense of belonging and retains great top talent.

The first one is trust. So how is trust created, upheld, and sort of repaired when it’s broken?

And that can look like trust amongst peers, trust in the leadership team, and trust in the broader organization.

Kellie – The second one is effective working relationships. So how do your employees engage with one another, right?

When you’re working alongside other people, especially other people that are different than you, being able to be effective communicators, to know how to give and receive feedback, all of these things can create a better day to day experience in a way that’s going to serve the business and the culture because it’s going to bring out the best in people, the most creativity, the best problem solving, and ultimately allow people to feel like they are a supportive member in the community.

And then the third bucket that I always encourage senior leaders to look at is empowerment and advocacy.

Kellie – I think in past generations, we saw employees staying at companies their entire career for 20, 30, 40 years. And now as we just have so many more companies, employees have so many more options.

I think we’ve realized a paycheck isn’t enough, Right? People want to feel invested in, they want to feel empowered, they want to feel like the organization that they work for really believes in them and has their back.

And so that’s another area that we really recommend focusing on.

Kellie – Now, these three pillars are probably going to look different in different organizations in terms of what solutions look like and what that looks like in practice.

But I think the really important thing to remember is that if you want to embed it in the company culture in a meaningful way, you have to look at these pillars both at the individual skills and behavior level.

So what are the skills and behaviors that people exhibit that strengthen trust, that strengthen working relationships and lead to people feeling empowered and advocated for as well as the organizational structures.

What does transparency look like and how does that tie to trust around decision making?

Kellie – When you look at working relationships, how do you structure manager direct report relationships and growth and development?

So these things exist certainly through individual behaviors, but a lot of times it’s really also important to be looking at the organizational structures and people processes that you put into place. I love that you’re bringing trust into it. I think that’s so cool.

And I’ve spoken about this to many people and interviewed them about it. And it really is so important that as an employee, you have trust with your employers that they’re looking out for you for the long run, especially because now employees really do have so many places that they can go to.

Kellie – So you want to know, okay, I’m going to come here and I’m going to work really hard for you and give you a big piece of my life. And I need to know that there’s going to be support for me all the way around and that empowerment, like you said, but trust that we’re really going to be in this together and not just me slaving away for you just for a paycheck.

Nicole – So I think that’s a very cool way to put it. I think that’s like the biggest difference too, right, is that our parents and our grandparents, when they came home at 05:00 p.m. And they were done, and then we’re still connected to our computers and so we work longer hours.

To your point, you just spend a big portion of your life working. And so, yeah, feeling like you can trust the organization is going to make decisions that not just benefit the bottom line but benefit their people.

Nicole – It’s really important to employees. There’s no set company culture framework that can be replicated as a copy paste mechanism. Once formulated, how can people leaders ensure organizational wide, scalability and permeability of good culture practices?

What role can managers play in the process of change management?

Kellie – It’s a great question. I think a lot of people put a strategy into place or say that they’re committed to culture work or DEI work, but they don’t really think about how do you operationalize it, how do you make sure that it’s not something that is just some pretty words in the document but is really absorbed within the culture.

So I really recommend a three step process. The first one is setting really clear expectations and resurfacing them. Often a lot of organizations, when they want to signal change and let’s say they release new values, they have a big presentation and they share it with the team, but what they don’t often remember is that we have to keep it.

Kellie – You start to feel like a broken record, but it is about continually repeating and going back to those values and also moving beyond just values or cultural tenants. But naming the behaviors, the specific behaviors that support or kind of go against work against those values.

I think that’s a part in operationalizing that a lot of organizations miss is they name things like respect as a value.

Kellie – But what respect looks like to one person may look very different to another. And so people may be showing up in ways that feel disrespectful to one person, but that person that’s engaging in the behavior because it hasn’t been named that, that is a behavior that is going against the value of respect, doesn’t even realize the harm that they might be creating to the culture.

So being really specific and giving people very clear behavioral expectations is super important. And one way that managers specifically can support that part of it is really referencing values and cultural norms whenever they’re giving feedback.

Kellie – Feedback when it’s ongoing is actually a really great tool for reinforcing culture because it’s not necessarily just about sort of like a skills or work performance issue.

It’s also about how you are doing the work? So that’s a really great easy touch point

for managers to continue to reinforce those expectations. The second is giving people access to the resources and training that they need to upskill around those behaviors.

So once you say, hey, these are the expectations of this culture and this is how we want you to show up, it’s really important to really be able to identify where in our teams or across different levels for our managers might they be missing the skills to really be able to meet those expectations or awareness to be able to meet those expectations and then to invest in them, Right?

Kellie – Because it’s not enough to say, hey, I want you to do this if the person genuinely doesn’t know how, Right? I want you to give feedback in a specific way. But they don’t know how to do that and they need practice and they need frameworks.

It’s really hard to hold someone accountable when they’re saying, hey, I don’t know how to do that. And so managers certainly can advocate for that, be aware where they’re seeing skills gaps in their team, and even invest in themselves to continue to develop themselves.

The third one is creating structures of accountability. So once you’ve named the expectations, once you’ve given people access to the skills and resources to be able to follow through on those behavioral expectations, it’s really important then to hold them to those things, Right?

Kellie – That really goes back to trust in your organization.When a value is stated and behaviors are clarified and then people see that, hey, there are folks who aren’t engaging in those behaviors or maybe are even engaging in behaviors that go explicitly against our values and they’re allowed to stay at the organization or the issue isn’t addressed that can really erode trust and it sort of makes the values or the cultural norms that you’re trying to say are important seem like, actually they’re not that important at all.

And I found that organizations actually, this is probably the hardest part because sometimes you have folks who are what we call rainmakers, they’re really good at their job, they’re really effective in things that contribute to the bottom line, but they’re not showing up in a way that’s strengthening the culture.

That’s that moment, Right? when you can tell and when employees see how important are these cultural norms and these values that you’re saying you want to drive if you’re not addressing it in the hard moments when it’s really important to do so.

Nicole – Totally. And it’s really when a company then can kind of put their money where their mouth is, okay, we’re here for you. And even though maybe the bottom line isn’t being if you’ve got a rainmaker and they’re really helping with the bottom line, but they’re not helping with the company culture, that’s when you can show, now this has to change, or employees aren’t going to be having that trust with them if you just look away.

So I think that’s a very interesting way that you put it. I like the rainmaker analogy with it.

Recently, many big companies known to have a good company culture have reported a lack of proper DEI initiatives. How do you think the lack of proper DEI initiatives in an organization can affect the company culture? And why is just conducting a seminar or workshop on DEI not enough?

Kellie – That there are a lot of companies that get to a certain place in their development, in their growth, and have a really great organic culture, and that’s almost always a testament to great leadership.

That being said, as an organization grows and leaders, especially senior leaders, who may have shaped the culture initially, aren’t having as much direct access with employees, I think that’s when things start to slip through the cracks, when again the cultural norms become less scalable, you start to see teams start to have different microcosms and micro cultures that go against sort of what the culture has historically been.

And so having that sort of more formalized dei structure and I always call it sort of a lens or A layer on top of the work allows you to just, again, operationalize make sure that what you are trying to create is able to be sustained and is able to be present throughout all layers of the organization.

I also think that we go into companies when they might have a great culture, right, but when they start to grow and they look around, they realize, hey, we’re also pretty homogeneous.

Kellie – And so a great culture can be really great for one type of person or a few different types of people.

But as you get bigger, and especially if you’re growing with a lens for increasing the representation of different identities and lived experiences on your team,what often happens is that the culture no longer is great for everyone, Right?

It was designed sort of with certain types of people at the center of it. And so having those DEI initiatives just allows you to continue to just make sure that you’re bringing people into the fold and making sure that you don’t look five years down the line and there are certain people who are saying, hey, I actually don’t feel a part of this culture.

I don’t feel like it serves me. My trust in the organization looks very different from those folks. So I think that’s important. And then why doesn’t just conducting a seminar or workshop on DEI sort of solve for the issue?

Again, it’s just a single touch point. And also it’s really important to think about what workshops are designed to do, which is they’re designed to address behavioral issues.

And like we said, it’s so important that with DEI work, with culture work, that you’re looking at it both at the systemic and organizational level as well as at the behavioral interpersonal individual level.

And so workshops are really only designed to tackle one part of that equation. So having a more formal program and strategy in place allows you to make sure you’re hitting the challenges from all directions.

Nicole – Absolutely. Do you agree that HR are the custodians of employee engagement and the subsequent culture practices, not just the owners? If so, what are your thoughts on this?

Kellie – That’s such a good question. And it’s interesting, like, over the past four and a half years that I’ve been running collective, this question of HR and the people function and how it’s shifting has been so front and center. And in a lot of companies, HR are kind of put in charge of being the ones to sort of lead and own, whether it’s company culture, whether it’s diversity, equity, and inclusion.

More specifically, it sort of falls on their plate. And I think that we’re starting to see that shift in the sense that we’re recognizing that HR can’t be the sole owners. Because this work, again, it’s not a siloed practice. It’s something that you layer on top of all the ways in which you work. Right?

Kellie – It’s how you work. And it’s not just specific to some of the functions that HR has historically been in charge of in terms of being custodians.

In many ways, I think that’s actually more of an apt way to look at what HR can do than simply the owners. Right? Because I think it’s shared ownership. I think especially it’s shared ownership with leaders and with managers.

But I was looking at HR as being a really strong resource, especially if they are again evolving with the ways in which the people function is sort of needing to evolve and educating themselves on poor DEI functions, on placing themselves not just as a risk mitigator, but as an innovative partner to think proactively about how to engage, grow, retain employees.

Kellie – And so in that sense, they play a really impactful role or can play a really impactful role in being a resource and a partner to the broader senior leadership team, to the broader team as a whole.

And I think with the lens of not just being asked to solve these problems, but being able to help up skills, employees and managers to be able to better navigate conflict that arises and again, to encourage other people to also be custodians of this work.

Nicole – Exactly. I think that sometimes if you just lay everything on to HR and, oh, that’s their problem, they’ll deal with it, then no one really takes the responsibility for the company culture.

When in reality, that’s something that everyone needs to take responsibility for. And so when they’re the custodian, then maybe they’re the people that you go to if you need a little bit of guidance or to make sure everything’s kind of going in the right way and oversee everything.

But it really is important that everyone is responsible for the company culture and it’s not just kind of brushed under the rug for HR to deal with.

Kellie – Yeah. One of the ideas I like to use with my clients, I talk a lot about this idea of specific engagement. Right?

So as a citizen of a country, you have sort of things that are expected of you. You’re expected to pay taxes or you’re expected you’re encouraged to vote. Right?

Things like that. And I think of it similarly in a company, right, which is at a company, you are benefiting in certain ways, whether it’s financially, through paycheck, but even, especially if there’s a good culture, you’re benefiting from the culture and the resources that are invested in you.

Kellie – And in return, what is your duty to continue to drive and shape that culture in a positive way. And so when we’re building strategies with our clients, one of the things we often talk about is creating very clear expectations with all employees of how they can contribute to the culture and not necessarily mandating specific things like you have to be on a DEI committee, but rather giving them options. Right?

Here are ways that you can support the culture. Here are ways that you can drive.

You can take training to build more awareness so that you can better engage with your colleagues around a particular background.

Kellie – You can be a part of a DEI task force and put on an event or participate in sitting on a recruiting panel.

So giving people options of ways that they can participate, but then holding them again accountable to some form of participation, I think also in this day and age, that’s so important because like we said, you take your work home with you and that really is a huge part of your life.

Kellie – And people want to be a part of a good company culture generally. So I’m sure that you find that people really do want to go and say, hey, you know what, maybe I will do this little program of learning how I might be doing something wrong or I might be able to learn how to engage in a better way or be on a committee.

Nicole – I’m sure that people really are positive around that and want to be a part of that, which is a cool thing to have.

How do you think people, leaders can leverage technology to implement DEI&B initiatives in their organization? And what part does listening to employees frequently play in that?

Kellie – Yeah, it’s a great question, and I think especially for organizations that are growing or that are larger, technology can play a really big part. The areas that I found to be most helpful is certainly surveying.

I think there are lots of tools now to gather feedback from your employees.

And again, Collective. At the root of how we build strategies with our clients is through listening to employees to first understand what is your experience, but also listening to their ideas for how things could be better and better serve them.

Kellie – And there are just such a plethora. Now, HR tech has sort of exploded in the past several years, and there are so many tools and platforms out there to gather feedback, both anonymously, both as well as ways that are attributed in more of an annual frequency, as well as using sort of pulse surveying to be constantly keeping the polls on how your employees are feeling right, so that you’re not waiting for a whole year to go by to hear from them.

And so I think that’s a really wonderful use of technology to be able to, again, especially in a remote environment where people aren’t just walking through the offices, you can’t happen to the HR office to share feedback. The other piece that I’m hoping and seeing more technology evolve in, and I think is super important, is using technology to track data.

Kellie – I think one of the things that has made DEI and culture sometimes feel like this intangible thing and something that a lot of folks in organizations have to work really hard to advocate to get budget for, is that unlike a lot of other areas of the business, we don’t always track data to show if the strategies that we’re putting into place, the initiatives that we’re investing in, are actually having the impact that we want them to have.

And I see a lot of folks even put initiatives into place without even having any clear idea of what it is that they want the initiative to accomplish.

Right? So let’s say we launched employee resource groups. Great.

Kellie – What are you hoping that the employee resource groups are going to do? I don’t know. I just thought that we’re supposed to have employee resource groups.

Well, that’s great. I mean, I think they’re a great tool, but knowing what the tool is meant to do and then seeing if it’s actually doing that, it’s really important.

And it’s akin to how you would run any other department or function within the business.

Kellie – So I think there’s some great technology out there to gather data, whether it’s representation and seeing if you’re saying we want more diversity in these particular parts of the business, being able to see and track if that is happening, and also being able to see where you might be losing folks in the funnel and being able to then use that to make better decisions and improve your processes for the results that you want.

Nicole – Absolutely. And that’s where we at CultureMonkey jump into things and we make sure that by allowing people leaders to constantly check the pulse of their employees, that they are able to use that feedback and actually take actions on that.

And like you said, not just wait once a year to speak with people, but check in with them every few days, every few weeks and make  sure that they’re actually keeping people happy, but taking that feedback and using it for the future and to make sure that everyone feels included and heard.

It’s a very exciting time for tech in that way. According to you, should top business leaders focus on DEI&B policies to avoid attrition due to DEI related issues within an organization?

Kellie – I think having really strong feedback loops like you just mentioned and setting really clear expectations and processes around how that feedback is utilized, I do think that I see a lot more organizations these days surveying their employees. I think it’s a pretty common practice now to gather feedback, but I also see a lot of companies that then don’t do anything with the feedback.

And when you go back to trust and you think about what keeps people at an organization even through the hard times, it is that trust that we may not be where we want to be, but we believe that the organization is going to address these issues.

Kellie – I think one of the biggest things that I’ve seen that keeps people in an organization, even when things aren’t maybe where they want them to be, Right?

They don’t necessarily see leaders that look like them or they’re having interpersonal issues, it is when they see their feedback taken and used to influence decisions forward for how to fix those and address those challenges.

Kellie – I now think about it in so many different contexts, which is that people can tolerate adversity much better than they can tolerate uncertainty. And so I think when you can paint a clear path forward and you have shown that your word matters, that what you say you’re going to do, you’re doing.

People are willing to kind of weather that storm a lot longer than when they feel like they’re not sure where their feedback goes, if it matters, or even worse, if they feel like, oh, my feedback actually does not matter. I’ve seen evidence to say that the feedback goes nowhere. I think that’s when you start to see people leave because they don’t have hope at that point. They don’t have hope and they don’t have trust in the organization, that things are going to improve.

Nicole – I completely agree, and that’s very interesting, what they said in that conference. I like that. I loved your views on all the things we discussed, Kellie.

Your answer is truly reflective of the human focused approach you take in your consultancy as well. Your unique perspective definitely adds a lot of value to this space and is a major learning for all of us.

In my opinion. To make any policy human centered, people, leaders need to pay a lot of attention to their employee sentiment. Only when they put people first can they achieve the result they expect.

Nicole – CultureMonkey actually solves this for people leaders so effectively. Its employee feedback platform enables leaders to constantly listen to their employee sentiments in real-time, provides them with real-time analytics, and lets them take decisive action.

So if you want a super swift tool and to improve your company culture, visit www.culturemonkey.io today

With that said, thank you so much for your time, Kellie. This was a very interesting and engaging discussion.

I’m sure our audience will agree, too. Please let our viewers know how they can connect with you and share their thoughts on this topic.

Kellie – We always love meeting new people over at Collective. You can check out more about us at www.hello-collective.com, and you can also follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn at Collective DEI.

Nicole – Well, that’s all we have for you in this episode of CultureClub X powered by CultureMonkey.

Until next time, this is your host Nicole, signing off.