Irrational Exuberance!

Opportunity & Membership.

July 17, 2018. Filed under managementinclusion

For a long time, I've found the idea of fostering an inclusion organization to be somewhat intimidating. For most tasks, I've been able to plan out a roadmap, identify some reasonable metrics, and get to work, but for inclusion I was apt to stare at the blank page, filled with uncertainty.

Since then, I've found a framework for thinking about inclusion efforts that is simple but which has allowed me to think about the problem broadly, identify useful programs, and move from anxiety to implementation: an inclusive organization is one where folks have access to opportunity and membership. Opportunity is having access to professional success and development. Membership is participating as version of themselves they feel comfortable with.

I've found this framework powerful for reflecting on what is going well and where we can improve, and I hope you'll find it useful as well. For both themes, I've written notes on investment and measurement.

Opportunity

There are workplaces where everyone around you is delightful, where the customers are friendly, you feel respected, but you still return home each night dissatisfied. Occasionally an interesting project will come up, but those typically go to more tenured folks. When I think about having access to opportunity, I think about ensuring that folks can go home most days feeling fulfilled by challenge and growth.

The most effective way to provide opportunity to the members of your organization is through structured application of good process. Good process is as lightweight as possible, while being rigorous enough to consistently work. Structure application allows folks to learn how the processes work, and build trust by watching the consistent, repeated application of those processes.

As the saying goes, this is simple to do but far from easy. The key question is whether you'll continue to respect your processes when it's inconvenient to do so. If one of your best folks want a specific opportunity, are you willing to run an open application process? What if they plan to leave your company otherwise, would you be willing to bypass your processes to keep them?

There are infinite ways to create and distribute opportunity! Some of the programs which I have found more helpful are:

  1. Rubrics everywhere. Every important people decision should have a rubric around how folks are evaluated. This is true for promotions, performance designations, hiring, transitioning into management, and pretty much everything else!
  2. Selecting project leaders. Having a structured approach to select project leads allows you to learn from previous selections, and ensure that you're not concentrating opportunity on a small set of folks.
  3. Explicit budgets. Many companies take a "spend it like your own money" approach to budgets, which often leads to large inconsistencies across folks. Instead of saying you'll pay for folks to attend a reasonable number of conferences per year, specific a fixed number. Instead of a general ongoing education budget, make it explicit.
  4. Nudge involvement. Many folks are uncomfortable applying to opportunities, using education budgets, asking for mentorship, etc. It's very effective to reach out to those folks directly and recommend they apply. Even more powerful is showing folks where they fall on a distribution, it's one thing to know that you've never used your education budget, and something else entirely to know you're the only person who isn't using it.
  5. Education programs. Creating ongoing training and learning programs which are available for everyone, or for example all managers,

I'm pretty confident that these will significantly improve the distribution of and access to opportunity, but we can do better, we can measure. I've found measurability of opportunity to be surprisingly high, which is one of the reasons I think it's an effective pillar in thinking about inclusion.

The metrics which have been useful for me are:

  1. Retention is the most important measure of availability of opportunity, although also a very lagging indicator. This should be the first thing you're paying attention to, but recognize that it's slow to show change.
  2. Usage rate, which is how often folks get picked in project selection. Particularly the number of distinct folks picked to lead critical projects is an interesting measure.
  3. Level distribution and in particular comparing cohorts of folks with different backgrounds. Folks want role models for themselves in senior roles at the company they work at, which is why looking at representation of underrepresented minorities and women is only a start, you also want to look in each role and level of seniority.
  4. Time at level is how long folks wait between promotions. How does this compare across cohorts? Something to watch for is that this number is also greatly influenced by initial level at hiring, for example time at level might look equivalent because some cohorts are being underleveled at time of hire.

Getting access to some of this data will require partnering with your human resources team, but I've found that friendly persistence, along with sharing your thinking behind the asks, works well to get folks working with you.

Membership

Membership is a bit harder to measure, but equally important. I can remember once having coffee with a coworker where they described their daily calculus of trying to find someone to eat lunch with. Their work was generally going well, but each day as noon approached, what they thought about most was feeling lonely.

If you're spending so much energy wondering who you'll eat lunch with, that's energy you can't spend being creative. If the idea of going to work gives you anxiety, at some point you're going to decide to stop coming. Membership is the precondition to belonging.

The programs I've found most impactful here are:

  1. Recurring weekly events that allow folks to interact socially, are during working hours, are open to folks from many different teams to attend, and are optional. One of my personal favorites is hosting a paper reading group.
  2. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) create opportunities for folks with similar backgrounds to build community.
  3. Team offsites once a quarter or so are a good chance to pause, reflect, and work together differently. Spending a day together learning and discussing is surprisingly effective at making folks feel like a team. This is particularly true for teams of managers, whose daily cadence is typically are more in tune with their teams than their peers.
  4. Coffee chats, perhaps randomly assigned by Donut, get folks from different teams interacting when they don't need something from each other.
  5. Team lunches give folks time to relax a bit and interact socially. Done once a week or so, they can become a pleasant ritual. These can be a bit risky, as for folks who feel uncomfortable in their team, maybe they are early hires, navigating the social mores of an entire team can be much more difficult than one on one.

These programs are all simple, and their simplicity can hide the degree of thoughtful care necessary to do them well. Depending on where a team or organization is, you'll have to adjust your approach to make them effective. Always take the extra day to test your implementation proposal with a variety of folks.

As you roll these out, measuring remains extremely important, although I've found membership rather harder to measure than opportunity. Some of the potential measures are:

  1. Retention is once again the golden measure, and once again a long-trailing indicator.
  2. Referral rate by cohort provides insight into which folks feel comfortable asking their friends and previous coworkers to join the company.
  3. Attendance rates for recurring events and team lunches provides some insight into whether folks feel comfortable with those groups.
  4. Coffee chats quantity and completion rate are automatically measured with Donut.

Similarly to collecting the data to measure opportunity, this will require some partnership with human resources, but it's well worth the effort.

A second similarity between the two is that balancing opportunities for membership across a large population is pretty tricky. Many activities and events don't work well for everyone--meals can be difficult for folks with complex dietary restrictions, physical activities make some uncomfortable, activities after working hours can exclude parents--and success here requires a broad portfolio of options and willingness to balance concerns across events and time.

Keep going

Combine efforts on opportunity and membership, and you will find yourself solidly on the path to an inclusive organization. Not much flash, but results are louder than proclamations. The most important thing is continue your investment over the long term. Pick a few things that you are able to sustainably continue, get started, and layer in more as you build steam.