Zach sits down with Eric Severson, EVP & Chief People & Belonging Officer at Neiman Marcus Group and Dr. Katrice Albert, Executive Vice President of Culture, Innovation and Inclusion at S2A Solutions about Neiman Marcus and their journey to be a more equitable and inclusive place to work. Check the links in the show notes to connect with them and to read Dr. Albert’s book!
Struggling with your Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) work? Kanarys—a Black-founded company—has your back. Regardless of where you are on your DEI journey, we arm you with the insights you need now to take action now. From audits to assessments to data-informed strategy, we’d love to be the partner you have been looking for. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or learn more at https://www.kanarys.com/employer
Find out more about Dr. Albert’s book “Racial Battle Fatigue in Higher Education” on Amazon.
Zach: What’s up, y’all? This is Zach with Living Corporate, and you know what we’re doing. Every single week we are centering and amplifying Black and brown voices at work. And how do we do that? We’re having authentic conversations with all types of people. As you may or may not know our tagline is real talk in a corporate world. Right, so what does that mean? That means we’re having like, you know, the discussions that you may have over drinks with someone after work or, um, you know, over a coffee before work. We’re having those conversations out loud. Um, I know for me as a first generation Black professional I really valued when people who looked like me pulled me aside and gave me that real. And so our goal is to really democratize information and flatten access to everybody by creating content that does that. And, you know, I’m giving all this intro because of the group and the people that I’m interviewing today. And I anticipate that there’s going to be folks who haven’t listened to Living Corporate before, so you want to kind of level set from time to time. And this interview is pretty unique. We actually have Dr. Katrice Albert, executive vice president of culture, innovation and inclusion at S2A Solutions and Eric Severson, EVP and chief people officer at Neiman Marcus Group. Welcome to the show. How are y’all doing?
Eric: Great, Zach.
Dr. Albert: Great. Thank you so much for having us.
Zach: You know, it’s an honor. You know, this is a unique interview, and I think what I want to do is give each of you space to introduce yourselves a little bit and the dynamic of how Neiman Marcus and Third Eye Consulting are working together and just like the context of even like this conversation.
Eric: Katrice, why don’t you start?
Dr. Albert: Sure. Thank you so much, Eric. So I’m Katrice Albert as Zach introduced. I am a principal and managing member of the Third Eye Consulting group. I have 25 years of executive higher education leadership, especially in the areas of diversity and equity and inclusion and belonging, and associated with that is how do we really help professionals thrive in their corporate setting in higher education? And how do we do this in a way where people understand that we’ve got to be able to bring diverse top talent together in order to reach all of the business and higher education needs that leaders are expecting.
Eric: I’m Eric Severson. I’m the chief people and belonging officer, as you noted, Zach, of Neiman Marcus Group. And I’ve been doing this work for close to 30 years, and we’re excited to be partnering with Katrice and Third Eye Consulting as part of our overall journey towards creating a workplace of belonging. Our purpose in doing that is really several fold. One it’s the right thing to do, to have a workplace where everyone, regardless of background, feels like they have the ability and the potential and the opportunity and the equity to reach their full potential. But secondly, it’s about competitive advantage, that people everywhere want to work somewhere where they have the same opportunity as everyone else, where there’s equity and the ability to achieve their dreams. And ultimately we want to be the employer of choice in the workplace of choice within the luxury retail space.
Zach: You know, that’s incredible. I find it curious, you know, I don’t talk to–I’m gonna be a little [?]. We’ve had the CEO of SurveyMonkey on, we’ve had, uh, the CEO of Great Place to Work on and we’ve had like, you know, different executives on Living Corporate. I don’t know how many, like, chief people officers we’ve had. And so let me ask you this, Eric, as we talk about like Neiman Marcus and, like, the decision to work with Third Eye, like, why now? Right? Like, what were the actions and intentions around this space prior to George Floyd’s murder? And like, what was it about– and again, I’m kind of making a presumption that things shifted and changed because there seemed to be kind of like a pattern across the corporate space after George Floyd’s murder, compounded by the #BlackLivesMatter protests, compounded by some of the actions of the president. Like, those things kind of came together to create this momentum and pressure to do something different and new. I’m curious to understand more about, like, how, if at all, that impacted Neiman Marcus, this decision and what was going on in Neiman Marcus before this moment.
Eric: Yeah. Great question, Zach, because it did. I would just start in the place though of saying that our intention before those actions of the summer was to create a diversity and belonging strategy that would do what I mentioned earlier. And this is something that in each employer I’ve worked with we’ve endeavored to do, which is to create a competitive advantage through diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. In other words, to differentiate ourselves and set ourselves apart from our competitors by being a place where everyone has equity and equal opportunity. So we had decided in the spring as an outcome of our people strategy work to put together a multi-year diversity and belonging strategy. That was a few months before George Floyd’s murder. That incident and the events that followed really accelerated and catalyzed our work. It caused us to say, “This is something that we were planning to address, but we need to accelerate that work, and we need to put a special emphasis on racial equity.” And that’s where we decided to partner with Katrice and Third Eye Group who are experts in that space to really help us jump on this and accelerate the work we’re doing and accentuate it. And, you know, we’re happy to talk to you about some of the things that we’re going to be doing in partnership with Dr. Albert, because I think we’re pretty excited and proud of the agenda we have ahead of us.
Zach: Eric, I’m really excited to get there and talk about, you know, the planning of how you all are moving forward. I think what I also want to understand is kind of, again, just from a foundation setting perspective, Dr. Albert, you know, the folks I talk to in the DEI space, they all have the types of clients that they don’t actually take on–if they’re privileged enough economically that they can, you know, turn work away. I’m curious, I would imagine that, you know, you don’t say yes to everybody. And so I’m curious as to what was it about Neiman Marcus Group that encouraged you to take them on and work with them as a partner here.
Dr. Albert: Yeah, yeah. Zach, so you’re absolutely right. I’ve been 30 years in the game and I know frauds and can smell them out a mile away, right? Those sort of folks who are smoke and mirrors and they want to be able to, you know, have a D&I expert, subject matter expert to come in and to check the box. And what I, you know, felt during the entire request for proposal time and the connections with Eric and with his senior leaders, it was a few things. The first is that they had already, you know, launched into understanding their associates’ feelings of belonging, their associates’ ways of thinking about how to make Neiman Marcus a better connected, a better engaged organization, and from the leadership down that it was a corporation being transformed and transfixed on the mission of love, right? The mission of love. So I study bell hooks, uh, study, you know, um, womanness theory and, you know, bell hooks talks about, uh, you know, our commitment, especially among Blacks and brown people that we’ve got to be invested in, you know, loving ourselves and loving each other and falling in love with each other over and over and over and over again, especially, you know, how difficult times are with, you know, issues of racism, issues of otherness in the workplace and, you know, coming to reckoning on anti-Black hatred. And so taking the partnership and wanting to be linked arm-in-arm with Neiman Marcus was because I could tell from a top down leadership approach that, you know, issues of belonging and issues of engagement, both internally in the organization and for their clients and customers was just, you know, with a foundation of love and a commitment to one another.
Zach: That’s a beautiful thing. And it’s encouraging to hear, you know? I think about this space and again, Eric, like, I got a couple more questions. I’m not picking on you, I promise. Maybe I am picking on you, ’cause this is a platform we’re talking about centering and amplifying Black and brown folks at work. Help me understand something. You know, there continues to be this increased, like, pressure and challenge from folks across the board, Black and white, brown, who challenge white men, white folks in general, being in these very senior positions around, like, equity and inclusion and diversity. I’m curious, like, I’m certain that you hear those things, you hear those critiques and, like, how do you receive that? What is your position on, like, the role that white folks should be playing in the space of diversity, equity & inclusion? And what advice would you give to other white professionals or white folks seeking to work in this space?
Eric: Yeah. I love that question, Zach, and I have had it asked of me many times in the past, going back to my first full-time job in this space when I was head of diversity and inclusion at Gap Inc. back in 2004, 2005, and here’s my thinking about it. I think first of all, the fact of the matter is that anyone who self-identifies as a minority in any way in this country, whether that individual identifies as Black, as LGBT, as a person with a disability, whatever it is recognizes that by definition, by being in the minority of the power structure of the country, of your company or whatever organization you’re always going to need that support of those in the majority to get full justice and equity. That’s just a–it’s a fact. And so what I say to people is we need to figure out how to get people who are in positions of power, who make the rules in organizations, right? And practically every entity of power in the United States, whether it’s Congress, whether it’s a corporation like Neiman Marcus or whether it’s a nonprofit organization, the people at the top of the organization are the ones who make the rules. They’re also the ones who decide who gets hired, who doesn’t get hired, who gets how much they get paid, what the culture is like. So it’s imperative for people who are part of the majority that controls the power of organizations to be involved actively in disrupting the structure of structural inequity, whether it’s structural racism, structural homophobia, et cetera, because those things are implicit in the structures and they have to be deconstructed. So, you know, when someone asks, “Well, why do you think that you should be engaged in this work?” And like, “Why did you add belonging to your title,” chief people and belonging officer. Because I want to be held accountable for creating an environment at Neiman Marcus where every single individual, regardless of how he, she or they identify, can belong there and therefore is an environment of equity where they can reach their full potential. Like, that’s my responsibility. I want to hold myself accountable and I want to hold Neiman Marcus accountable. And that’s why also, at Neiman Marcus and at [?], my previous corporation, our diversity, equity and inclusion strategy is not about happy talk and just feel-good training, et cetera. It’s about systematically year-over-year implementing components in our infrastructure that ensure that there’s equity across the board. It’s what implementing what I would call evidence-based bias interrupters throughout all of our operating processes, whether that’s hiring, whether that’s talent management and promotion, whether that’s the infrastructure of interacting with customers, things that ensure that in a system of structural and equity, which is what we have in the United States, that we’ve implemented the right practices to make sure that everyone has equal opportunity and equal access to get ahead and get to where they need to be and to be comfortable and happy in our workplace. So that’s things like in the talent space implementing diverse candidate slates requirements, what’s outside of the corporate world known as the Rooney Rule, or requirements for diverse hiring panels or diverse sourcing, et cetera, as well as having objectives and goals around diversifying leadership over time to hold ourselves accountable for making progress. It’s real operational, tangible, concrete steps that changd the system, and that’s what I’m all about, and I think that as an experienced business person, part of where I can add value is to open the door to making structural operating changes happen so that we get the results and outcomes around diversity, equity and inclusion that we want. Because at the end of the day, the point of all of this is that everyone has equal opportunity and equal access to the success factors that allow people to strive at work.
Dr. Albert: So Zach, this is part of the reason why, you know, I did not hesitate to work directly with Neiman Marcus, because here is a white male executive being two things – number one a way-maker, right? Making ways for all to be able to thrive and succeed, you know, in the organizational structure, because of dismantling systems that have historically excluded, you know, many types of people, mainly Black and brown people, and number two being highly culturally intelligent. And so that’s where we want, you know, the white power structure as Eric talked about, those that hold the power in organizations to number one grow their cultural intelligence, where they are focused on minimizing their microaggressions that they have in the workplace every day, understanding their unconscious bias, understanding how the attitudes and beliefs that they have about others, but then also building the knowledge and the skill set necessary to change the structure so that everybody belongs. So we need everyone in this space doing the smart thing, right? We get nowhere alone. So of course we need, you know, whites in corporate America to take on the responsibility of having high levels of cultural intelligence and disrupting these structural experiences that continue to exclude Blacks and browns from, you know, achieving the success that they rightfully should have in corporate America.
Zach: No, absolutely. And I was going to say, you know, a few things, Eric, that you mentioned–and we’re going to get back 100%, Dr. Albert, to your points. I just want to address things, like, in order. So Eric, you used a lot of words there that frankly I just don’t hear a lot of other like white D&I leaders using in these spaces, which are accountability, systems, power, even belonging, data, evidence-based, deconstruct, right? And 100%, Dr. Albert, to your point, it speaks to the level of awareness and intelligence that is needed in this work. I think that I was just having this conversation offline with someone else that the way that America by and large is willing to [ignore] matters of race is in itself racist, right? Like, we don’t take certain things–’cause we don’t take it serious, but you know, you don’t take things serious that you don’t value. As an example, I’m not a big Dungeons and Dragons person, so I can’t tell you the value count of a dragon if you rolled a five on a six-sided die. Like, I don’t know. I don’t care. That doesn’t mean anything to me. And as a result, I’m going to be really, really behind the eight-ball as it pertains to that realm, that space. The sad part is that a lot of folks treat Black equity like Dungeons and Dragons, right? Like it’s like this thing that isn’t really real, but like “Whatever. If you really are enthusiastic about it, then, you know, go ahead I guess, but who cares?” And I think that’s right. I think it’s 100% right that we need to one hold ourselves to a higher point of accountability to actually be smart about these things, just like you’d be smart about your soft line sales or the planagram and the strategy behind laying it out and the shopping pattern of your Saturday customers. You need to have the same level of intentionality and intellectual rigor around your employees and lived experiences and how those things tie into burnout. But the point is that, like, there needs to be mirrored effort, intellectual and emotional effort to understand, to interrogate and to engage, and if we’re not doing that, then we’re just not operating at the top of our respective licenses within the organizations that we work. I’m curious, you know, Eric, we’re going to get to the things that Neiman Marcus is doing in a moment. I’m curious, like, [?]–y’all been working together and you’ve come on as a consultative partner for the Neiman Marcus Group. You know, what are some of the biggest–again, I recognize this is a public podcast. I’m not asking for you to air nobody out, but if you were to kind of give, like, themes, what are some of the themes that, you know, you feel like you’ve identified in terms of kind of like where Neiman Marcus and, like, opportunities to really expand and grow upon.
Dr. Albert: So we’re early in the emphasis stages of the relationship and, um, it’s really exciting that they’ve done some of the work already, doing some focus groups around the things that associates are thinking and feeling and, you know, launching a major all associates survey, right? Because as Eric talked about, we want to have the baseline data to be able to know exactly how to make the move so that the associates can see that their voices are being heard. Um, I really think it’s important to also appreciate and recognize that we’ll be working directly with the senior leadership and then all the leaders cascading down with levels of cultural intelligence and a team dynamics experience so that the leadership all across the U.S. is able to, you know, really hold others accountable in the entire organization, and so this sort of five-part series we’ll really tackle issues related to fearless and brave conversations. How do you understand microaggressions in the workplace and help to mitigate those unconscious biases? How do you really think through a plan of action such that hiring patterns are realized so that everyone has an equitable opportunity to not only be attracted and recruited to Neiman Marcus, but to be hired and then to be supported and succession planned to higher levels in the organization, and then really a call to courage for everyone, right? So Eric talked about this sense of belonging being woven through the entire organization of Neiman Marcus. And we utilize this HR guru, Dave Olrick, who is really known for “How do you really do this work well?” And it means that you have to have a focus on internal engagement in real time and in real ways, and invest for the long haul and internal engagement. You have to do that externally too with your external partners and customers, because that shapes the culture that you want, and it leads to the transformational change that you expect. And so I think that Eric and his colleagues understand that this is a long haul work, right? I always say exclusion didn’t start yesterday, so inclusive excellence won’t happen tomorrow. It’s put your one foot in front of the other every day. And so I think that I’m in this infancy of the relationship, and we’re seeing that all voices that are a part of Neiman Marcus really matter from the earlier focus groups now to the large scale associate wide survey, and then a commitment to growing not only emotional intelligence, but the competencies, the leadership competencies around cultural intelligence as well.
Zach: And to that point around it being a journey, Eric, like, can we talk a little bit about the things that Neiman Marcus is mobilizing that you’re really excited about in the spirit of dismantling or engaging the systems as they are today, and re-engaging them in the name of racial equity?
Eric: Sure. Part of doing that involves, as Dr. Albert said, taking the long view. So we’re implementing a three year strategy, and it has three distinct pillars. The first is workforce. The second is workplace, and the third is marketplace. And the idea behind the pillars is that if you want to create an organization of diversity, equity, inclusion, and ultimately belonging, you have to address all dimensions of your ecosystem that affect people. So I’ve talked a lot already about the workplace, but the workplace at Neiman Marcus is also a marketplace in which customers, brands, suppliers all interact as well as members of the community who may not be any of those. So the workforce dimension is about talent fundamentally. So it’s about the parts of our business that affect attracting, retaining and developing people. So the bias interrupters, if you will, that we’re implementing in that pillar of our strategy have to do with putting in place those evidence-based practices that ensure that when we’re sourcing talent to work at Neiman Marcus that we’re casting the net wide and equitably. So it’s about changing our sourcing strategies to ensure that we are sourcing qualified talent from many diverse talent pools, so that when you’re actually then making the talent selection decisions, you’re making those from a broad, diverse, qualified pool of candidates. Then also implementing evidence-based practices in selection and development of talent to ensure that bias doesn’t come into play and that there’s equity for all qualified candidates for roles. So that involves things like I talked about earlier, implementing a practice requiring diverse candidate slates for key roles or diverse hiring panels, where you ensure that the people who are making the hiring decisions are representative of the diversity of the workforce. And then ultimately in processes like succession management, like talent reviews that you have bias interrupters there as well. So that includes, for example, having a lens when you’re reviewing talent to ensure that you are including talent of color, talent of all abilities, LGBTQ talent, et cetera. And that’s just in the workforce bucket. And that’s what people usually think about when they think about D&I. The second pillar is workplace, and that’s about the actual work environment for employees. That includes all of the things that affect whether someone feels like they belong here, they’re included. So that’s how you communicate with people. And is that equitable? Is it inclusive? What does it look like and feel like with all of your associates, and it includes how you train people. And in all of these pillars, the approach that we’re taking, which is the one that we took at Gap and at DaVita, is not to create a proliferation of new DEI programs, but rather to integrate into our core operating practices, whether that’s hiring or training or serving customers, inclusive practices that ensure that everyone is included and treated equitably and equally whether they’re an associate, a customer or a brand or a supplier. And that’s a breakthrough idea because a lot of people think of DEI as a lot of new programs that are just about diversity, equity, inclusion, and there’s nothing wrong with those things. But the problem is that it’s basic operating practices in a company or organization like hiring, serving, ringing people up, buying things that affect the day-to-day life experience of the people in that system more than anything else you do. You can train your associates a hundred hours a year. And if you don’t change the way that you hire people, if you don’t ensure that there are practices in place to ensure that customers are treated equitably and equally, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t change the material life of the people in the system. And then the marketplace dimension is about non-employees. This is about the other people in the ecosystem and what we have to change about the interactions with those people. So, for example, what’s included in that for Neiman Marcus is our marketing practices, how we market, what the casting looks like for the models who appear in our marketing, whom we’re marketing to, through what vehicles. It includes customer interactions in stores and online. So what practices we have to ensure that every customer has the same exceptional experience, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, et cetera. So the objective of this strategy then is that over the next three years, we will make marketable and quantifiable improvements on key metrics. So all of these I’ve mentioned practices. How do you know if they’re getting anywhere? Well, you have to identify key metrics to measure in each one of those three dimensions, of workforce, workplace, and marketplace, to be able to track whether you’re making a difference. So for example, in the workforce dimension, that means identifying targets in leadership diversity, for example, that that we can track ourselves against. So if in today’s world, perhaps the percent of African-American leaders in the organization is 6% and we look out at the peer group for ourselves and see that it’s a 10%, then we want to at least first get to 10% and be at that place, if that makes sense. And you do that through the evidence-based practices of making sure that the pool of qualified candidates from which we’re drawing leaders and developing leaders represents the diversity of our workforce, so that when we make those selections they’re equitable selections, and everyone has both equal opportunity and equal access to those promotion opportunities.
Zach: My goodness gracious. And I’m like, I don’t typically we have a soundboard, right? So like we try to kind of keep everything kinda light, cause we don’t want everything to be too heavy and boring. I don’t know if you’ve listened to Living Corporate, but you’ll hear that we’ll have a little background music on, in the background, but I got to drop this right here ’cause you over here just going crazy. [Flex bomb sfx] That’s a Flex bomb. So here’s a little cultural education. Um, Eric, I don’t know if you listened to New York radio in the 2000s, but there was a DJ, his name was Funkmaster Flex, right, and every now and then, like, you’ll say something really crazy or you’ll be going to drop some bars and he drops the Flex bomb. So like, yo, that was like, that’s a Flex bomb. Okay. That’s something to add emphasis. Okay. Uh, no, but absolutely I’m right there with you. Um, I think it’s incredible that one, not only that you outlined some things that you’re doing, but then like gave some practical examples because a lot of folks, they listen to Living Corporate or they just engage the space and they’re trying to figure out just what to do. A lot of folks are ignorant to what to do and they want to do something. They just don’t know what those things are. Let’s continue forward. Like, I recognize that Neiman Marcus Group is working with a variety of different partners and vendors, of course, including Dr. Albert and Third Eye. I’m curious, like, Eric, are there any other groups or partners that you’re working with to help as y’all continue in this journey?
Eric: Yes. We’re also partnering with Kanarys. It’s a fascinating organization, a Black-owned and founded organization that is a combination of a tech company–so it’s a data company that focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion, and their sweet spot, which is a perfect compliment to Dr. Albert, is that they help organizations measure progress. So it’s the Kanarys survey that we are leveraging this fall to assess our organizational needs. So we’ve already built a strategy which I described, which is based on all of our years of experience with what it takes in any company in order to make progress. So there are certain things you don’t have to survey people to know that you need to make. You need to ensure like equal employment opportunity and equity, then if you’re doing this work the right way you need to understand the lived experience of your associates, and Kanarys is the best on the market, in my opinion, at leveraging big data analytics in order to help companies in a very complex and sophisticated way understand the experience of your associates across a whole bunch of intersectional dimensions. So not just to try to understand monolithically, “What is the experience of a Black associate in your organization?” Because of course there isn’t one. There are many. But it allows associates to talk about their experience interdimensionally through the sophistication of the survey tool. So we’re going to take that data, and it’s going to help us build out and further refine our strategy so that we can figure out what do our associates want us to focus on first, second or third as the most impactful parts of their experience. So I think that it’s the combination of what they’re going to bring to us in terms of measuring, quantifying, and holding ourselves accountable. And then what Dr. Albert’s bringing to us in terms of capability building–because Dr. Albert and I are really kindred spirits, is that in addition to measuring and quantifying in a very operational way system changes, you have to bring about capability building. So diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t about conferring facts on people about other groups, which is how some of this work has been done in the past. It’s about building people’s and especially leaders’ capability and cultural competency in inquiry and using evidence-based techniques in order to connect with other people and understand other people and have conversations with other people. That’s all that ever changes people’s connections with one another ever. And so it’s this great combination of the data and the capabilities that’s really supporting us in our journey, and our job is to do the work of putting in place these practices, changing the system and continuing to grow as leaders and as people. And it’s a journey that’s never over. To be culturally competent, you have to work on this ’til the day you die.
Zach: So Dr. Albert, I’m curious to get your perspective on a couple of things. One, what advice would you have for executive leadership groups who are doing the work, who are trying to take on the journey and–you made a mention earlier that it takes time, right? Like, these things don’t happen overnight. What does it look like to make sure that they have the resilience to deal with their marginalized employees and their employees who are aspirational allies, who will critique them along the journey, right, and not to take those things personally or to heart to the point where they consciously or subconsciously end up kind of curtailing effort to the point where that they end up losing momentum. Like, what does it look like to build that muscle?
Dr. Albert: Yeah, no, that’s a great question. And you know, it is a long haul approach. You know, Eric talked about a three year experience related to having the data and then having the pulse across the three years. And you’re absolutely right. You’re going to be critiqued along the way because a DEI and belonging strategy will have fits and starts. You’re going to take three steps forward and one step back, and you just have to be able to keep going, because you’re going to hear the critique. And then people get personalized when they’re saying, “Well, gosh, I’m working so hard here and you’re not seeing me work hard and you’re not complimenting enough.” Right? Or “You’re not seeing the success that we’re having. You’re only mentioning to us that things that aren’t working.” And so I think a couple of things, you, first of all, have to keep going. You’ve got to know that a DEI and belonging strategy is a messy proposition, but you would not just stop gap on technology that might have issues. And you would not just put a stop gap on other smart growth opportunities that you have. So you’ve got to keep going. I think that you build muscle when you understand that–one of my colleagues that that’s from the arts world, she suggests that you build the muscle in three pound weights so that if everyone sees that they are a part of this process, and Eric talked about it, building capacity, so that everyone picks up a three pound weight related to the D&I strategy that everyone is doing a part of the role. Everyone is carrying some of the water. It doesn’t seem like it’s an arduous task. And I think that partnering with folks like Kanarys that will help you pulse along the way, so that you can see where you have made success, where things need to be sort of tweaked and then things where you need to course correct. I think–here’s the deal. You’re going to have places where you thought, “Wow, this workplace experience or work function is what we really thought was gonna take off because we’re really focused in on culture,” and then it sort of falls flat, right? It’s about course correcting, saying, “Okay, this didn’t work in the way in which we thought. Let’s get together and put our minds together and have some intellectual brain trust and be curious as to number one, why it didn’t work and what else might we try?” So I think it’s about really having that full throttle communication across the board with sort of, like, the pulse surveys along the way, building the muscle memory with the three pound weights, because everyone has a responsibility to do this work, and then course correcting when it doesn’t actually go in the ways in which you’re expecting. And then I have to also add, Zach, you gotta celebrate, right? ‘Cause when you do have success, people want to be with winners, right? That comes from the sports world. People want to be with winners. And even if you get continuous base hits, at some point you’re going to slide into home, so you gotta celebrate.
Zach: No, you’re absolutely right. To the last thing that you said, yo, if you’re a baseball player and you get base hits every time you’re at bat, you’re a Hall of Famer.
Dr. Albert: That’s right. [laughs]
Zach: So there’s something to be said about that. You know, what does it look like, Dr. Albert, in terms of not just the Neiman Marcus Group, but executive organizations, and you think through 2021–and before we get to 2021 we got to talk about November. In a few short weeks, we’re going to have the most consequential election of our–I’ll speak for myself and say my lifetime ’cause I don’t want to be arrogant. You know, I’m 31 years old. Y’all told me y’all been working as long as I’ve been around. So I don’t want to act like this is–history is cyclical, things happen. Like, I’m not trying to be whatever, but I’m gonna just speak for myself and say it’s definitely one of the most consequential elections of my lifetime. What does it look like in your mind for how organizations need to pivot and shift, if at all, depending on the outcome of the election?
Dr. Albert: Yeah. So can I talk a little bit about how people are feeling through a global pandemic, a racial pandemic, and that I think it’s in my lifetime as well, one of the consequences or what I think that people are exhausted, right? So I wrote a book on racial battle fatigue and the fatigue that our colleagues of color especially have right now having to do with challenges of racism and anti-black hatred. And we can see that woven through all of the conversations, all of the debates, the things that people are saying as it relates to the election, it is so divisive. Right? As of right now, and you could tell that it’s been in a very divisive along the way. So I do think that we’ve got to be mindful as executives, that our associates throughout the entire organization at every level, they’re very fatigued, and I think that they’re very worried about what the outcome is going to be, so that impacts their productivity, right? So I think that compassionate leadership where grace and aplomb and levels of assuming positive intent for everyone in the organization is going to be vital, necessary and required, especially as we hit into November. There is levels of exhaustion and there are levels of fear that I think that people just–it manifests in all sorts of ways in the household, in civic organizations, in our places of worship and at work. So I think that executives have to have levels of compassionate leadership to understand just how people are feeling.
Zach: A hundred percent. I think, let me ask again for–your answer was phenomenal, so thank you Dr. Albert, and shout out to Racial Battle Fatigue. You know what, Dr. Albert? That was real humble of you that you did not mention that in your introduction, talk about the fact that you wrote Racial Battle Fatigue, because it’s one of the most critical pieces of of literature in this space, um, I’m going to say in my lifetime, so incredible, we’ll link that book in the show notes. Just as a pure aside, like, that’s great. And one of my mentors talks about Racial Battle Fatigue and has shared several pieces of research that you have contributed to or that you have been cited in. Um, and so they just–in real time, “I’m like, Oh, wait, this is Dr. Albert.” That’s why I cannot believe I’m talking to you on the spot. Okay. Let me follow up though, because I appreciate your answer. And Eric, feel free to chime in here. The election is happening. We got somebody who has been complicit, if not downright supportive of white supremacists tactics and groups. He uses language that is directly targeted and leveraged to wage war on Black and brown people. He’s also signed an executive order that people are enforcing to not teach diversity and inclusion groups. That’s creating some of the lines in the sand as it pertains to federal engagement and training. So my point is that I’m curious what does it look like–and maybe I’m being overly simplistic. I’m anxious about how real these intentions and efforts are going to be if Trump gets back in the White House. And so what I’m curious to get perspective on from y’all is is that a real concern? And if so, like, how as leaders and DEI and belonging consultants are you navigating it?
Dr. Albert: Well, so I want to echo–the election is gonna happen, right? The election is happening in November, you’re absolutely right. There’s been executive orders that we are unable, you know, some federal agencies are unable to lead efforts around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, but I would think that corporations would not follow that lead, right? I think that it’s important that, you know, executives in every industry, right, for-profit, non-profit, higher education, sports, everywhere where you actually want to have levels of higher connectivity, higher engagement. We don’t have a choice. There’s no choice in the matter. But to be executives with a full focus on enhancing DE&I because of all of this swirl in American history right now. You don’t have a choice. And I think, you know, back to the earlier point. In these workplaces you don’t get to the levels of productivity that you want to have unless there are diverse teams that are being hired, that are being cultivated and supported, that are being succession planned. So I would say you shouldn’t follow the lead of doing away with or disengaging in efforts around DE&I. In fact, I think you should do re-double efforts at this moment in time.
Zach: No, 100%. And I agree with you, to be clear. I think I do get anxiety about–you know, there seems to be this deference to power, irrespective of who wields it or the manner in which they do wield it, right? And so I think I speak for–not every Black person, ’cause I mean, there’s two of us here. I’ll speak for one half, you speak for the other half. But–[both laugh] but it’s the idea that, you know, the whitelash is coming, right? That the retreatment is coming. I think we could probably look at this year and we kind of see it, like, an upside-down V, right, of things were kind of getting [?], and it peaked at the murder of George Floyd, and then things have started to kind of retreat back, and I’m cautious about that, you know? We had Nikole Hannah-Jones on earlier this year, and it was literally right before the White House administration decided to wage a war and do a white clapback. So not on the one and the three but on the two and the four, you know? Not really appreciating the historicity of it and looking to kind of undermine it, and so I get nervous about that, and I think I speak for a good number of folks who kind of are–if not nervous, at least probably just pessimistic about kind of the future. Now, look, I don’t want to end it on that note, so Eric, look, I’m tapping you back in here. Let’s talk about Neiman Marcus and what you’re excited about, and also I know that you’ve been dropping gems, so let’s talk about what you’re excited about over the 18 months and then also what points of insider advice would you give to mid-level and senior-level leaders looking to create a similar momentum or impact within their organizations?
Eric: Right. So Zach, could I start by maybe offering an optimistic perspective to the question of the post-election? And it would be this – despite the pain and anguish and trauma that’s been inflicted on the country in the last several years, what I would offer is that in some ways this administration has given us a gift in that it has unwittingly unmasked the white supremacy that’s been denied for many years that infuses all aspects of the culture, and the genie can’t be put back in the bottle, and what I would say is that the gift in that is that you can solve and fix what’s visible, and the role that employers like Neiman Marcus can play regardless of the election outcome is to be the antidote to call of this, because at the end of the day organizations have incredible power in our culture, and they have the power to make change happen, and I’ll just relate a quick story from about 20 years ago when I was the director of employee relations at Gap, which is, like, an equal opportunity officer. So my job was to oversee investigations of discrimination, harassment, et cetera, and I remember one call that I had with a sales associate somewhere in rural south Texas, and the upshot of it was he had been, like, severely abused because of his sexual orientation, sexual identity in his community and was being harassed by a customer actually in the store, and just one of the things that stuck with me as he related it to me was that his store manager created the only sanctuary in his life–this is a 17-year-old kid–in his life in this small town that he had known. She coached him. She counseled him when he was feeling suicidal, and she created, like, a parent role for him, and I thought, “Okay, that illustrates the power of anyone anywhere to be able to create change in the life of someone else,” and so to me what we hope to do at Neiman Marcus Group is to be able to leverage the power and zeitgeist of this moment to be able to turbocharge our efforts to make our company, our workplace, our shopping environment, one of true belonging, one that stands out, one that’s a model. It was one of the things that was very important in the same work that we did at Gap. We recognized that, as a majority female employer that had female leadership from top to bottom and had proven pay equity and equal employment opportunity for women, that we had an opportunity to not only do the right thing and be that kind of employer where there was no glass ceiling for women but to actually go out and advocate and be a role model for change and use the power that we had as a Fortune 200 company with huge brand equity to make change happen. So for example, we went out every year and championed pay equality and on Pay Equality Day went out and used our leaders to go out and advocate, and we one year had all of our associates on Equal Pay Day wear t-shirts that said, “Every day is Equal Pay Day at Gap, Inc. Ask me about it.” And they were all prepared to talk about our published research on how you can achieve pay equity. So that’s what I strive to do here at Neiman Marcus, figure out how we do the same thing across multiple dimensions of diversity, and that’s just part of being a good corporate citizen and a good citizen of a democracy in general.
Zach: You know what? That’s the type of note we’re gonna end this whole episode on. That was great. Shout-out to Eric and Dr. Albert and Neiman Marcus and Third Eye and Kanarys for the work that they’re doing. Y’all, this has been a really cool conversation. I hope that you check it out. Make sure y’all look at the show notes, okay? There’s a bunch of stuff in there. Learn more about what Neiman Marcus is doing. Learn more about Third Eye and learn more about Kanarys. Until next time, this has been Zach. You know what we’re doing. Every single week we’re having conversations that amplify and center Black and brown people at work. Don’t be afraid if you see a white person on the podcast, y’all. We have white folks. We have aspirational allies on here too. It’s okay. It’s normal, okay? We need ’em. What’d Eric say earlier? “You gotta have the people who have the power.” Look, we don’t have the power as a people, right? We gotta coordinate and create power with those who have a little bit of it, then we can build it together, okay? That’s just how this thing works. We’ve got to practice group economics, and then we also gotta partner with other people. That’s another conversation for another time. Point is check it out. Don’t be afraid, okay? I want to make sure y’all actually understand we do have aspirational allies. I’ma say shout-out to Dr. Albert again, because really, y’all really need to check out her work. It’s incredible. She said 30 years in the game one time, and I’m gonna say it again. 30 years in the game. Like, she really knows what she’s talking about. She’s not out here writing spicy LinkedIn posts and getting a bunch of likes. She actually does the work in real life, you know what I mean? What else? We’re on all the social medias. I’m not about to say all the domains. You know we own all these things, got the SEO popping like that. Just type in Living Corporate. We’re all over Beyonce’s internet. Just type in Living Corporate. Living Corporate, okay? ‘Til next time, y’all. This has been Zach, and you’ve been listening to Eric Severson, EVP and CPO at Neiman Marcus Group, and Dr. Albert, EVP of culture, innovation and inclusion at S2A Solutions. Peace.