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Five steps for building a diverse network to benefit your business

ESG and SRI consultant Sonya Dreizler writes about steps for building a diverse network to benefit your financial services business, in support of a Financial Services Faculty webinar that happened on the 29 September. All views are the writer’s own.

S Dreizler webinarPerhaps you’ve read studies showing that diverse organizations are likely to financially outperform industry medians.

Perhaps you agree with the moral imperative of working toward equitable and inclusive workplaces.

In either case, you may find yourself in agreement in theory, but struggling for how to move from theory to action.

You might wonder whether you have time in your busy schedule to do inclusion work. Here is where we need to reframe this discussion. Equity and inclusion work are not just “nice to have,” tools; they are essential career and business development skills for 2020 and beyond. Diversity, equity, and inclusion work are integral to every area of business, so finding the time to think about should be a business imperative.

You might find it hard to imagine that you, as just one person, can be a force for change. You can! Today I want to focus on one manageable aspect - your network. Intentionally building a diverse network is a skill that benefits everyone from junior employees to the boardroom. A diverse network is a high value asset that can lead to more clients, resilient relationships, and novel business ideas.

The problem:

Finance is a field where who we know often determines who we work with. Hires, promotions, and new business relationships often come from our networks, or that of our colleagues or employees.

Using our networks is incredibly common; and it’s easy because a higher level of trust is granted to a “friend of a friend” as compared to a stranger. While the system of relying on our networks may be easy it is also limiting. And until we intentionally interrupt the pattern of networking, it can be a circular problem – our non-diverse networks stay non-diverse, and we miss out on all the benefits of diversity.

Non-diverse networks are bounded. If our networks are made up mostly of people with similar life, educational, and work backgrounds, we’ve all likely trained to tackle problems in similar fashions. We hear from the same few voices over and over, don’t get fresh ideas or recommendations, and we all target the same handful of clients. When we stay within our bounded networks, we miss out on novel approaches to problem solving, innovative business ideas, and connections to entire communities of ideas and resources.

A solution:

What if you could broaden your network? What if you could have access to all of the top talent, not just who you know and who they know? What if you could generate fresh business ideas and increase the reach of your work?

Let’s get pragmatic and outline steps you can take today, to diversify our networks.

Diversity comes in many forms- age, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, gender, race, ethnicity, pregnancy and parental status, religion, class, immigration status, and others. Here, I’ll be focusing on gender, racial, and ethnic diversity though I encourage you to expand your networks in as many ways as possible. These suggestions are primarily for white men, since they hold most of the positions of power, though some tips may be helpful for people from ethnic minorities and women.

During the ICAEW webinar on September 29, 2020, we’ll discuss these steps in more detail, and give phrases and tips you can implement. I invite you to print a copy of this list for notetaking.

Step one - Stop

Stop assuming your lived experience is the same as others. If you are white, you’ve likely seen your lived experience reflected in media, advertisements, and business. If someone tells you to picture a CEO, who do you picture? Most people likely picture a white man. Whiteness is often the assumed default and it shouldn’t be; there is no default life experience. But because we’ve seen our image reflected back to us as the media and business default, it’s easy to think of our experience as the control group, and anyone else’s as the variable. To create a diverse and inclusive network, this is a major mindset you will have to notice and control. 

Step two - Listen

Seek out women, BAME, and BAME women especially, who readily share their experiences with bias and discrimination. Listen to and/ or read their perspectives seeking to understand, not to compare or respond. Listen without discounting someone’s experience because it does not match your own. You can show you are listening, with thoughtful questions, phrases like, “go on,” “tell me more about that,”  or just “mmhmm.”

You can also listen by follow BAME leaders on social media, and by reading about the BAME experience from BAME writers. You can Google “systemic racism,” “misogyny,” “patriarchy” “BIPOC” or any other unfamiliar terms that may come up. Listen and learn from people who willingly share their knowledge, or from books, podcasts, and online resources. Please don’t ask or expect people from underrepresented groups to educate you for free about the oppression they’ve experienced.

Listen to your underrepresented coworkers. If your company has Employee Resource Groups (ERG) ask the ERG leaders if they have any events that you are welcome to attend and support.

Step three - Pause

Learn to hit the pause button on some of your immediate reactions. 

Pause the urge to respond with your input to everything you see or hear. (This helps with the listening step.) 

Pause your thoughts to review your reaction when you hear about an underrepresented person’s experience with discrimination or bias. Are you immediately comparing it to your own experience, and discounting their story if their lived experience doesn’t match yours? If so, acknowledge that bias, and incrementally train your brain to do better next time. 

Step four - Amplify

Amplify the voices of your underrepresented coworkers. In a meeting, if you are often prioritized to speak, use the opportunity to pass the microphone. You can do that, without putting people on the spot, by saying something like, “Alexandra, Isaac, Kieran, I noticed you all have been quiet and I wonder if there is anything you’d like to share on this topic?” 

Amplify the voices of women, BAME, and BAME women especially, on social media by sharing their work. Encourage your friends and colleagues to learn with you and help direct them to work by BAME women.

Step five - Advocate

Advocate for people from under represented groups, whether or not they are in the room. For example, if you’re in a group of all white people, and one of your colleagues makes a racist joke, be the person who says “we don’t do that here,” or “that’s racist,” or “that kind of joke is not funny to me.” This can be uncomfortable; do it anyway. As another example, if you are in a meeting and a man regularly interrupts women in the meeting, ask that the woman be able to finish explaining herself. Don’t leave it to the underrepresented folks to defend against the bias they face.

Advocate for adding more BAME and women voices to decision making meetings. If they are not in the meetings, be the voice in the room that advocates for their needs (you know their needs because you’ve been listening to them!), or even better, advocate for more seats at the decision making table so BAME and women can speak for themselves.

Your network will naturally expand using these empathetic techniques. Women and BAME folks will see you supporting them, advocating on their behalf, and sharing their work. As you build that trust, you’ll get to know more people whose life experiences have been different from yours. When you genuinely connect with people, they may make introducts from their network, and your network further expands.

The power of making introductions

Once you have that diverse network, put it to work for good! The next time someone you know is hiring or looking for new business relationships, consider your diverse network, and see if you know someone you could introduce. If you do, make a personal introduction to extend the trust your colleague places in you, onto the person you are introducing.

Remember, this isn’t a zero-sum game but instead is additive for all parties. Expanding your network helps our profession, our communities, and can help your own business.

Did you go to the session? Reflect on your intention and goals. Do you want to build a stronger business with less employee turnover? Have a broader referral network? Tap new (to you) communities to serve? Help make our profession more representative of our communities  because it’s the right thing to do? Come prepared to start working toward that goal.

The recording of this interactive webinar will shortly be available here.