Embracing diversity Featured

11:06pm EDT February 19, 2011
Kelly Grier, Chicago managing partner, Ernst & Young Kelly Grier, Chicago managing partner, Ernst & Young

Suddenly immersed in Switzerland to head teams from 17 different countries, Kelly Grier was understandably overwhelmed. It was late 2000, after she moved her family overseas for a position with Ernst & Young LLP.

Grier was responsible for Europe, Middle East and Africa engagement teams, and she was having trouble handling the group’s broad differences. Some advice from the chief financial officer of a client turned the challenging experience around and shifted her mindset going forward. He told her she wasn’t in the “United States of Europe.”

“Every one of these countries is very unique. Every one of its people are very distinct,” Grier remembers him saying. “They have their own culture, their own mores, their own business practices, and you can’t just come in here and impose the American way. You can’t even try to come in here and have one homogenous approach to all of the different geography, because it’s vastly different from one country to the next.”

Grier is closer to home today, as the managing partner of Ernst & Young’s Chicago office, but she remains a huge proponent of global mobility — if for no other reason than she sees her clients expanding globally all the time. To be able to serve them competitively and effectively, leaders like her need that same expansive mindset, whether or not they hone it overseas.

“That criticality of being able to operate with a global mindset and function effectively in any geography around the world — having that sort of intellectual agility is critically important for us, as a firm, to serve our global client,” she says. “Even if you are solely a domestic organization, the fact is that the global environment is influencing your success, because your competitors might be overseas and pulling your business outside of the U.S. You face domestic competition where there’s a more global mindset, and they’re offering a differentiated solution because of that advantage.”

Grier’s broadened perspective translates into everyday inclusive leadership when she leverages her team’s diversity into a common vision.

“You can’t generalize people or places or business practices,” says Grier, who oversees 1,700 employees at E&Y’s second-largest office. “You really need to understand and respect that there are vast differences — and that’s the power of it. If you aren’t able to harness the power of it, it will be an incredible impediment to your success.”

Draw out diversity

When Grier met with teams from the 17 countries she oversaw, she’d get about 17 perspectives around the issue. She grew so accustomed to that constant diversity of thought that she notices when it’s missing from her team today.

“I can just sense when I’m not getting everything,” she says. “In some cases, I’m not getting everything because people in the room aren’t contributing everything that they have to contribute, and in some cases, it’s because I don’t have the right complement of people in the room. There’s no panacea for this; it’s really a learned behavior that comes from operating in a highly diverse environment where those diverse perspectives are really valued.”

You can obtain diversity on your team by intentionally building it in, but that doesn’t mean you need to place employees just to fulfill a quota of minorities.

“When we talk about diversity of perspective, it’s not necessarily their ethnicity or even their gender — it’s their experiences that inform a more diverse perspective,” Grier says. “You could align (team members) with other activities, other projects, other teams within the organization. Even transferring them from one business to another business or from one function to another function broadens one’s perspective. You could certainly ask that they take on a leadership role in community organizations. There’s almost an infinite amount of opportunities to broaden one’s perspective and create that kind of diversity of thought and experience.”

You can also highlight diversity by grouping cross-sections of employees for projects. Grier forms task forces with representatives from various generations, service lines, genders and ethnic backgrounds. The internal communications task force, for example, represented a spectrum of communication styles, which helped develop more effective messaging that would resonate across the company.

An intentionally diverse team is crucial, but it’s moot if you don’t maximize, and later leverage, the team’s diversity. In order to do that, you have to tap into every viewpoint you can and consider its weight in the discussion.

“Diversity without inclusiveness is counterproductive if anything,” Grier says. “You’ve got to have the ability to really draw out different perspectives and then synthesize a wide variety of thoughts and perspectives. You’ve got to know when you’re not getting that broad and diverse spectrum in the dialogue. Looking for the folks who may not be fully engaging or participating and drawing them out, that sends a message that everybody matters.”

One of Grier’s partners, for example, is an “intellectually sophisticated thinker” with plenty of valuable perspectives to share. He’ll fill an hourlong one-on-one — and then some — with his distinct ideas. But in a two-hour group session, he only makes a couple of comments.

“I’ll ask him in advance of the meeting, ‘This is what we’re going to talk about. You have such a valuable perspective; I want people to be able to benefit from that perspective. I really want you to talk specifically about this when we get everybody together,’” Grier says. “I needed to know that person well enough on a one-on-one basis to know that this is his style, that he does have this incredible broad perspective that’s very valuable. For me to draw that out and get that that very valuable perspective infused in our group discussions, I needed to approach it differently.”

Welcome all ideas

Part of inclusive leadership is soliciting opinions. But if you’re quick to brush off certain perspectives, see how quickly the feedback stops.

You need to give diverse perspectives a safe place to surface by creating an environment where all opinions are welcome.

“How, as a leader, you respond to that contrarian view will really dictate whether or not people feel safe in sharing a perspective that’s different from the norm,” Grier says. “You’ve got to be visibly both encouraging and then rewarding those folks to share a perspective that is different.”

The way you react to comments that directly challenge your stance can be the biggest revelation about your leadership style.

“As a leader, you’ve got to be able to face some criticism of how you’re seeing things, and not become defensive or dismissive,” Grier says. “That immediately shuts down that communication channel. You’ve got to express a little bit of humility — perhaps, ‘I didn’t know that,’ or, ‘I hadn’t thought about it that way.’ You really set the tone by how you behave — not only as a leader of the team but when your own perspective is challenged.”

Even if you end up going with the majority, your decision-making process only benefits from a richer variety of thought. If you want to expand the possibilities on the table, you’ll want to vet every perspective you can.

“If somebody says something that’s a little out of step with the normative thinking and you don’t give that point of view ample airtime in the discussion or if you’re dismissive, if you’re defensive, if you don’t really listen to what’s being said and understand it fully before you make an opinion of what place it has in the discussion, that will immediately shut down that candor that you want,” Grier says. “Make sure that everything that you say is grounded in the spirit of inclusiveness and encouraging that candor, because it’s very easy to just react quickly in a manner that sounds dismissive. At that point, the conversation’s over and everybody around takes a message from that; it’s not just the person who may have made the statement.”

You set the stage for an inclusive environment, but you won’t get far if you’re the only one with that mindset. Enforce an open attitude from your team members, too.

“Where you see a member of your leadership team cutting somebody off at the pass, you’ve got to call them out on that — obviously in a constructive manner and in a respectful manner — so the person who made the comment knows you insist on having that open and inclusive environment,” Grier says.

That’s sensitive territory; so many leaders prefer to privately pull the violator aside later. If you can do it constructively though, as Grier does, call the person out in the meeting to make a point for everyone.

“I would probably say, ‘Bob, I think that Jim was about to share a perspective that I would find very valuable,’” she says. “‘Before we move on to the next point that you were going to make, I want to make sure that he has an opportunity to complete that thought.’”

Unite perspectives

The more diverse viewpoints you draw out, the more perspectives you have to keep straight. Managing and synthesizing those is the key to leveraging diversity.

To keep track of what her employees think, Grier records it all.

“I take copious, copious notes,” she says. “It sounds so fundamental, but I will take notes of every one of these conversations. Very quickly, you see themes emerge. They’re not exact replications of one another but there are common threads through these conversations. It really does become apparent after having several of them and reflecting on, ‘What were the key themes and how do I then coalesce those messages into one message that will resonate with everybody?’”

Writing gives Grier something to reference and ensure everyone’s voice is represented. By synthesizing opinions inclusively, you’re setting yourself up for buy-in later on.

For example, Grier spent the first 90 days as managing partner of the Chicago office on a listening tour, meeting one-on-one with partners, senior managers and various staff members as well as with groups of employees. All she did was ask questions about moving the company forward — and listen. Then she melded several perspectives into the vision she conveyed to employees later.

Sure, you won’t satisfy every person’s wishes every time, but weaving every perspective through your thought process will show employees you listened.

“People are more inclined to buy in if they’ve got some skin in the game and they’ve been a part of crafting that vision,” Grier says. “Having that upfront engagement — my 90-day listening tour — people could hear the words that they had said to me in the messages that I then conveyed in a more synthesized fashion afterward. They knew that I had listened to them and they know that their perspective was part of the strategy, and they were on board in driving toward that strategy.”

Another benefit of drawing diverse opinions out during your meetings is exposing members of your team to them. Those discussions can build buy-in by enhancing understanding of the issue, potentially turning employees on to ideas they initially shoot down.

“For example, when a company launches a new internal development program, members of its team may jump to conclusions about what that program means to them,” Grier says. “Team members could make assumptions based on their previous experiences with similar development programs, which impacts their engagement. To maximize results, leaders should elicit a diversity of perspectives right away, debunk misconceptions and incorporate relevant suggestions. Those steps should greatly improve the participation of your teams and the program’s success.”

If you make those steps habitual, you’ll extend the power of diversity into the fabric of your organization. When Grier compares the business world that she witnessed overseas a decade ago with today’s environment and then projects another 10 years into the future, she realizes the importance of continually harnessing all perspectives in an ever-expanding global paradigm.

“You can’t rely on just saying the right things; you’ve really got to experience a mind shift,” Grier says. “Most companies have a stated objective of having an inclusive culture and really celebrating diversity. But first of all, it needs to be grounded in the fundamental imperative, which is that the world is different today than it was a decade ago, and it will be profoundly different a decade from now. We need an entire paradigm shift to be able to not only survive but really thrive in that changed global environment.”

How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (312) 879-2000 or www.ey.com

The Grier fileKelly Grier

Chicago Managing Partner

Ernst & Young

Born: St. Cloud, Minn.

Education: B.A. in accounting from St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana

Favorite travel destination: Italy or France

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

My very first job was as a babysitter. I certainly learned the importance of being responsible and communicating well. I actually had a wide set of experiences when I was young: I worked at this Dairy Queen-type shop. I also worked at a machine shop, if you can believe that, for a period of time as I was putting myself through college. I’d say you can probably take all of those experiences together and one of the key lessons learned is just respect — respecting everybody for what they bring to the table, having a bit of humility to how you approach the people that you work with at all spectrums of the work environment. I have a great deal of empathy and support for the people who come in and empty my trash bins because that’s very much aligned with a job that I would have been doing to put myself through college.

Your workday is off to a bad start. How do you turn it around?

I truly don’t have many days that start off on a bad note. I actually just love what I do. There’s array of challenges or issues that I’ve got to deal with, but rarely does that actually cause me to perceive that as a bad start. My workday is also very dynamic. What I do from 7 to 8 and then what I do from 8 to 9 and thereafter is very different. So it would be difficult for me to get mired in any particular issue because I’m so quickly on to the next.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

It’s got to be being able to clone myself to be a multitude of places at the same time. I feel like I’m trying to do that on any given day, anyway.

If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be and why?

I would say Martin Luther King. He was such a dignified leader and was so committed to his values and faced such incredible adversity. He could have gone down a path of conflict and destruction and he didn’t. He was so committed to his values of what’s right and what’s wrong that he was able to really galvanize this whole sweeping nation of change in a way that was still aligned with his values. That’s difficult to do. It would be easy to become frustrated and angry and try to force change in a way that is perhaps not aligned with your core values. Somehow, in the face of adversity we can’t even imagine, he was able to do it. As a leader, that’s a quality that I greatly admire, that ability to galvanize and inspire others to do good and to carry out the mission without losing your way from a core value perspective.