101 : Climbing Higher (w/ Michelle Gadsden-Williams)
Zach sits down with Michelle Gadsden-Williams, the managing director and North American inclusion & diversity lead at Accenture, to discuss her role at work and why inclusion is placed first in her job title. They also talk about her book, Climb, and how she sees organizations shifting in the next decade to be more inclusive to trans people.
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Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and I’m really excited to share something with y’all, okay? Now, I shared this last week, but just in case you missed it last week I’ma share it again. Living Corporate has partnered with Accenture to feature some of their most experienced North American black and brown managing directors and share their journeys, okay? My hope is you check out this and you peep the links in the show notes to learn more about each of them, including our next guest, Michelle Gadsden-Williams. Michelle Gadsden-Williams is the managing director [and] inclusion and diversity lead for North America at Accenture. Previously, she was the co-founder and chief operating officer of women’s empowerment initiatives and diverse entertainment investments, based in New York City. Michelle Gadsden-Williams has acquired a number of community service awards and accolades for her work as a diversity practitioner. More recently, she has been recognized as a 2015 Ebony Magazine Power 100 Honoree. Over the span of her career, Gadsden-Williams has been profiled in Black Enterprise Magazine, Diversity Inc., Diversity Executive, Ebony, Essence, Fortune, History Makers, Heart & Soul, Jet, New Vision—listen, y’all. Y’all get it, right? Okay, I’ma put the whole bio in the show notes. The point is Michelle has it going on. She’s killing it, okay? Beast. Straight up. And you know what? Also put one of those “owww”. Like, this is crazy. I’m just so, so impressed. Her other notable tributes include being named the 2010 recipient of the Maya Way Award for Diversity Leadership by the incomparable Dr. Maya Angelou, receiving the 2008 recipient of the Harvard Black Men’s Forum Businesswoman of the Year Award, accepting the Rainbow Push Coalition’s Bridge Builder Award by the honorable Rev Jesse L. Jackson, and being recognized with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters Degree from Kean University for her outstanding personal and professional accomplishments in the field of diversity and inclusion. In 2013, Gadsden-Williams was appointed as a member of the Global Advisory Council on Gender Parity for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Y’all… do y’all understand—like, come on. Give me the air horns right here. Like, this is incredible. I am just impressed. I mean, look, man, I’m over here—we grindin’. Like, like, like… [what more do you want from me?] Look, with that being said, the next thing you’re gonna hear is my interview with Michelle Gadsden-Williams. Check it out.
Zach: Michelle, welcome to the show. How are you doing?
Michelle: I am doing very well. How are you?
Zach: [applause sfx] Doing really well, really excited to have you on the show. For those of us who don't know you, would you mind sharing a little bit about yourself?
Michelle: Sure. My name is Michelle Gadsden-Williams, and I am the managing director and lead for inclusion and diversity in North America with Accenture and the author of the award-winning book "Climb."
Zach: Come on, now. [both laugh] Now--I love it. I love it from the jump. We'll be talking about Climb--we're gonna get there a little bit later in this conversation. Let's talk a little bit about the first thing you said, about the fact that you're the North American lead for I&D. And your title is I&D and not D&I. Can we talk a little bit about why inclusion has been placed first
Michelle: And this is a phenomena that's been happening, I'd say, over the past few years, where a lot of organization and diversity practitioners are starting to think of this notion of diversity as being--being a standalone entity is no longer enough, that inclusion is extremely paramount as having a culture of inclusion. So diversity is the invitation to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance, as we say. So in my view, I&D is an essential component of everything that Accenture does, and we aim to be the most inclusive organization in the world, and so we recognize that inclusion and diversity foster greater creativity and innovation. So that's one of the reasons why we've decided to reverse it and have big I and big D.
Zach: I love it, I love it. You know, and it's interesting, because a piece from Take the Lead, where you were featured, starts like this. It says, quote, "When Michelle Gadsden-Williams started working in human resources in 1990, the mission in her field was called affirmative action." And, I mean, that's really interesting, right? 'Cause we talked a little bit before we started the show--we talked a little bit about your tenure, right, and the breadth and depth of your experience, and, you know--so you started in 1990. Despite it being almost 2020, there are still folks who believe I&D efforts are some version of affirmative action. So, like, how do you, as an executive leader, navigate the fears and frustrations of those who look at I&D as a zero-sum game?
Michelle: Yeah, that's an interesting question, and I'm going to go back to a piece of research that Accenture conducted a short time ago. And one of the things that we've done, earlier this year, is to take a step back and think about, you know, what is this impact of I&D in the workplace, and so we conducted a survey of about 18,000 employees of companies around the world, and we asked two very important questions, one of which was "How inclusive is your culture?" The other was "How willing are you to innovate?" And so while diversity factors very much into--and has a significant impact on--the innovation mindset, a culture of equality is the multiplier, and that's what's really going to help companies maximize innovation. So when I started doing this work many years ago, and actually it was just before 1990--yes, it was called affirmative action, and the strategy was really more about "So how many individuals of difference do you have?" So it was basically a headcount exercise. It had nothing to do with culture. It had nothing to do with inclusion. It had nothing to do about what we're talking about today. So fast forward to current day. This notion of inclusion and diversity has evolved, and now many organizations are really starting to see the true power of what this work represents, that it's not just about counting heads. It's about making those heads count and ensuring that every single individual, regardless of their difference, has an opportunity to realize their potential, realize their ambition, have a seat at the table, and to reach their career aspiration, whatever that may be.
Zach: That's a really powerful point, because--it's interesting. I've been having conversations with folks who talk about inclusion, and I've asked individuals and leaders of organizations, like, "Look, how do you actually define inclusion?" And people will say, "Well, making sure everybody feels included." And I was like, "Okay..." [both laugh]
Michelle: Well, that's interesting.
Zach: And I'm like, "Okay..." But what I think is paramount when we talk about inclusion is the fact that inclusion from my perspective--and this may sound--maybe I'm framing it radically, but there's some type of distribution of power, right, to individuals so that they actually have a true voice. Like, I don't--I don't see a voice at the table absent some level of authority or power. And so when you talk about, like, career development and making sure that they're growing and that folks are progressing and things of that nature, what I'm hearing is--and I'm not trying to put words in your mouth, so help me, keep me honest--what I'm hearing is is that part of that inclusion definition also comes with some level of--if it's, like, promotion or positioning them, positioning folks, so their voice can actually be heard in ways that make sense, right? It's not just about, you know, nodding and smiling, but making sure that they're actually empowered.
Michelle: That's exactly right. We all--like, we're all sitting around a table, that it's allowing individuals the place and the space to allow their perspective or their point of view to be voiced. So we all have a responsibility to ensure that that happens, whether or not people recognize that or not. I believe that's what true inclusion is all about, ensuring that people who have a seat at that table, they believe that they matter, that their perspectives and opinions and points of view--that they matter.
Zach: No, I love that. I love that, and it's so--I really do believe--and I recognize your point in that where Accenture is in their journey, in their I&D journey, but I would challenge that--as I've had multiple conversations with other leaders, HR practitioners, other folks who ascribe themselves as I&D leaders or D&I leaders--that definition of inclusion, it always falls a little bit short to me. And maybe my bar is a little too high, but I'm like, "Okay, at what point are we actually empowering these folks who have been historically disenfranchised and under-represented in these spaces with actual power and, like, authority, so that they can actually, to your point, have the space and the breadth at the table to speak and actually actualize something?"
Michelle: Exactly. And I think to your point, organizations are just simply not seeing inclusion as the right thing to do anymore. It just makes all the sense in the world, especially when you're talking about creating a culture of equity and empowerment where every voice counts and all of those kinds of things. This is the action that's behind all of that.
Zach: Absolutely. And speaking of action, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Pride, and our workplaces are increasingly diverse, and in that diversity, trans individuals are working in the corporate space at larger numbers than ever before, along with black and brown professionals and, of course, intersect--we can't ignore the reality of intersectionality, that we have black and brown trans professionals also in the workplace. And so how do you see organizations shifting in the next decade to be more inclusive to trans individuals, particularly trans women of color?
Michelle: I believe it all goes back to culture first and for organizations to look at building cultures where every single individual feels included and where they can bring their whole selves to work. Things like the Pride celebration--we had a week-long celebration here in New York, which was amazing, and I'm still recovering from all of the celebrations--
Zach: Yeah! I had some friends out there.
Michelle: Exactly. I just think that it's really about focusing on the individual, their needs and wants and desires, and a lot of us have very different lived experiences outside of the workplace, and a lot of societal burdens, we bring those things into the workplace unfortunately. And so when we talk about inclusion, when we talk about intersectionality and all of those things, none of this works unless the culture is such that it encourages and fosters an environment where authenticity, where being your true, authentic self in ways that invites others to be curious about your lived experience, all of this helps an individual to be a lot more innovative, productive. They will, by nature, feel included. I just think that all of this resonates, and all of this will ensure that, you know, individuals, they will feel truly valued for their differences and to be--and feel free to be exactly who they are, that they're not just there to check a box and that they're empowered to contribute in many ways. So I just think that the underpin of all of this is around culture. It's around innovation mindset. It's about the appreciation of the differences that we all bring to the table and the understanding and awareness that we all don't experience the world, our workplaces, in the same way, and that's what intersectionality is all about.
Zach: 100%. You're spot on, Michelle. It's interesting, because what your point reminds me of--we just had a conversation with Tamara, the MD out of Austin--
Michelle: Oh, Tamara Fields? Yes.
Zach: That's right, Tamara Fields.
Michelle: [?] a friend of mine, yes.
Zach: Yes, and we were talking to Tamara about the reality of emotional labor. Like, there's a level of emotional labor involved in just existing as a non-white person in a majority-white space, right? So, you know, you see something in the news--like, because we were talking about seeing whatever atrocity you want to choose from--and not to sound flippant or dismissive, but if you're looking at the border crisis or you're looking at a police shooting or whatever the case may be, absorbing that type of content and then coming into a space that is uniquely alien to you can be exhausting. And to your whole point around, like, culture, what I'm reading--and I'm not saying you're saying this. What I read that as is that organizations will--organizational culture will change as the majority allows it to change, right? Meaning that if the majority of a space are adaptive to a particular culture, then the organization will shift, but if there is collective push-back against whatever the initiative may be, then things will slow down, right? And I think we see that, not just at a macro level--or at a micro level in our working perspective, but we also see it, like--we've seen it in the history of America, and so I think that really leads me to ask, like, when you think about--when you talk about culture and culture shifting, what advice or--what are things that you've seen executives do, organizational executives do, to facilitate cultural change for more inclusive workplaces?
Michelle: Well, I think there are several things that leaders must do, the first of which is they have to make I&D, inclusion and diversity, a priority. There needs to be established diversity objectives and priorities, equal pay, advancement goals. Like, all of that needs to be established in order to shift the culture to the desired state. The second thing I would say is making leaders accountable, holding individuals' feet to the fire, and we have to track progress and really have some tangible consequences where if a leader does not--is not on board, then there needs to be some sort of--and maybe it's not a consequence. Maybe that is a strong word, but there needs to be some accountability in terms of ensuring that diversity and inclusion is priority #1 if we are to create the ideal culture that we're talking about here. I also think encouraging risk taking and ensuring that employees know that they have the freedom to experiment, to ideate, to innovate, and that's what helps us all learn and grow as professionals. So I just think all of these things will help us get to that ideal state and also create a culture--you talked about the freedom to fail. I think all of this helps in that regard.
Zach: No, you're absolutely right, you're absolutely right. So, you know, earlier this season we had Chris Moreland. Chris Moreland is the chief inclusion officer at Vizient, and he was on the show. He talked a bit about covering and the actions that non-majority folks in the corporate space participate in to feel safe. I think the concept of covering--I know that you're fairly, if not deeply, familiar with it, as it's been--it's a fairly established concept. We see it in a lot of whitepapers from McKinsey to Deloitte. I believe Accenture's even talked about the concept of covering within the topic of D*I or I&D. What are some of the key covering activities you believe non-majority members commit in the workplace?
Michelle: Let's see--okay, so say that again. So what are some of the--
Zach: What are some of the key covering activities--what are some of the key ways that you see black and brown folks covering themselves in the workplace?
Michelle: Oh. I would say things like not being active or involved in workplace activities like employee resource groups and things that can be perceived as polarizing. Sometimes people of color tend to opt out of things that might look or--at least from their perception--might look [like it's] nonsensical. So for example, I'm sure you're familiar with the employee resource groups or business resource groups depending upon which company you work for, and I've had individuals not engaged because they're like, "I don't need to be a part of that. I would much rather spend my time being part of the majority population." So that's a form of covering. I've worked with Hispanic colleagues who will change their name so that it's more Anglo-Saxon-sounding versus Latino-sounding. So for example, I worked with a gentleman named Juan Guzman, and he changed his name to John Guzman, because in his view it sounded less ethnic. That's a form of covering. So, you know, the list can go on and on, but I just think that when people cover--I don't think it serves anyone well. I don't believe in pretending. I don't believe in being something that you're not. You are who you are. Be proud of who you are. We are all individuals that have a gift and talent to bring to the table, regardless of what youre last name is, regardless of if you're wearing natural hair, regardless of if you are--if you have a thick accent and you're trying to get rid of that. I just think that the more in which these environments that we're working in are receptive and appreciative of the differences that we all bring, the better off we all are and the more productive we will be.
Zach: No, absolutely. I love it, I love it. And it's interesting too because I think--so I was having a conversation with--I was having a conversation, just about some strategy pieces, with a colleague, and we were talking about "How do you determine, like, the members of your D&I space?" And the conversation was around "Well, we've got to make sure they actually go to events, right? They need to go to events." And I was like--and I was trying to explain to them. I said, "Look, I would not boot people out of a group, of an ERG or whatever you call it, right, in your respective organization--I would not boot them out of something because they don't physically attend an event." I said, "Some folks genuinely don't feel safe," right?
Michelle: Right. That's true. And sometimes we just have to meet people where they are, right? Because everyone is not going to be on the I&D train, majority or not. So I just think sometimes you have to meet people where they are, explain to them what the benefits are of being part of these what I think are extremely beneficial infrastructures and organizations. It's support systems. It's infrastructures. It's, you know, an informal network of individuals who look like you, and you can talk about things that are unique and specific to your lived experience. So I think the more of which we can educate the non-majority members who don't feel safe being a part of these infrastructures--we just need to continue to work on them, but some people are not gonna get on board. I mean, at the end of the day, everyone is not going to be on the I&D train.
Zach: No, 100%, and, like, I think the thing is--like, my point is I've been to some--so even when I worked at Accenture, right, like, there were happy hours and things, and the events--the events were great and people showed up and things like that, but I didn't always just--maybe I had a long day, maybe I felt like it was gonna be something else I was gonna have to kind of perform at. Maybe I was just nervous. Who knows whatever reason? That doesn't mean that I didn't want to be included in the group. It's just that that is not, at that point in time, something I felt like I had the emotional bandwidth to engage in. That doesn't mean that I might still not want to talk to somebody in that group or read whatever emails y'all send out. I just--it's different, and I think it's that--I think it's really considering that--especially when you have folks who are not black or brown or whatever that, you know, depending on that diversity dimension, overseeing the group. Like, sometimes there can just be some gaps because you just have genuine blind spots, right? And just understanding, like, "Hey, this is a different space," right? You know, this is not a technology implementation where you're coming to learn about the project or coming to learn about how this software, this SAP implementation, impacts your job. This is a space that's really meant to foster empathy, authenticity, and trust, and that's a different--to me a different level of measurement, right? And you can't just be so, you know, binary with it.
Michelle: Yep, fully agree.
Zach: [laughs] Okay, so let's do this. Now, you already kinda--you already kinda let a little bit of the dip on the chip, but can we talk about your book Climb? I'd love to hear about the inspiration behind it and why it should be something that professionals of color--and just really anybody, frankly--should have on their reading list.
Michelle: Absolutely. So the inspiration behind the book was--I've always had the intention at some point in time in my career to write a book, and it wasn't until I was at Newark Airport in the United Airlines club lounge and a young woman walked up to me and she said, "Are you Michelle Gadsden-Williams?" And I said yes, and she said, "We used to work together many years ago at Novartis, and I've followed your career and all of the wonderful things that you've done. You know, have you ever thought about writing a book like Sheryl Sandberg or Carly Fiorina or Carla Harris at Morgan Stanley?" And I said, "Yes, but I just didn't have the time to do it." And she said, "You know, you should really make the time to do it, because you have an exceptional story to tell." So it wasn't until that young woman gave me that nugget, that idea to really take the time to do it, that's when I really thought seriously about putting pen to paper and telling my story. And so the act of climbing has been defined as the act of rising, to ascend, to go upward with gradual or continuous progress, and it's a term that I've used to describe my career over the years as a woman, as a woman of color, and as a diversity practitioner, and as you and I were talking about earlier, there's some individuals who have an easy go of it and can take the proverbial elevator up to the C-Suite, and then others not so much. They have to take the stairs with a backpack and no air conditioning. There's no smooth ride to the top for any of us, and so no matter how you ascend there is a journey that we each experience which, you know, ebbs and flows and it twists and turns, but with every step you get that much closer to achieving your highest aspiration, your North Star, whatever that might be. So my book Climb speaks volumes about my professional journey, and one of the things that I'm extremely passionate about--and this hasn't changed over the years--is helping people of color to maximize their full potential in corporate America, no matter where they are, no matter what profession or industry they're in or wherever they're employed. I've used myself as the subject, the protagonist, to candidly describe my jorney, and that would be the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything else in-between. And what I wanted to do was to focus on tackling some of today's most pressing workplace issues that people of color typically run into, but more importantly I wanted to offer some pragmatic solutions. So that's why I decided to write the book. It's my version of "Lean In" through my lens, the lens of a woman of color.
Zach: I love that. So you talked about some of the challenges--and again, I'm not asking you to give the sauce away for free, right, but when you talk about some of the most common challenges that you're seeing black and brown folks face in the workplace, like, can you give us an example of one of those challenges?
Michelle: Oh, sure. You know, working twice--being twice as smart, twice as good, but getting half as far. You know, that's the old adage that most of us, at least those of us of color, we've heard that growing up in our households. You know, this is not, you know, just jargon that we hear on television. It's our lived reality. And so, you know, the bar is simply at a higher level for those of us of color, and most of us know that.
[straight up sfx]
Zach: No, you're absolutely right.
Michelle: Exactly, and most people of color are over-mentored and under-sponsored.
Zach: Hold on. Wait a minute, wait a minute. Whoa, whoa, whoa. [record scratch sfx] Say that again.
Michelle: Most people of color are over-mentored and under-sponsored.
Zach: We gotta break that down. Unpack that.
Michelle: We can have mentors all day long, people to show us the lay of the land and how to navigate and all of those things. We don't need that. We have a lot of that. We have plenty of that. We need individuals who are going to have a seat at the table, who are gonna be our advocates and champions and our, you know, sports agents sitting at that table, negotiating for us, putting our names up for promotion and for those stretch assignments where it counts. That's what we need.
Zach: That is--that is so true. I've never heard it framed that way, but you're 100% right, because frankly I do believe--and in my work experience this has been the case, right? So this was the case when I was at Accenture. It was the case when I went to Capgemini as well and as I've progressed onto my current firm. There are black and brown folks around me--there are minorities around me who would show me how to do something, right, or give me the real from time to time. I was blessed with that, but what I didn't always have--and I had it more than others, to be clear. ['Cause] I have gotten promoted. Like, I've been able to progress in my career a few times, but the people fighting for me, right, the people who are really advocating for me in the same way or just even in a percentage of the way that they may advocate for someone who doesn't look like me who's doing half as much as I'm doing, right? And that's just a really good point. And it's so interesting, because when I talk to--when I talk to black and brown folks, particularly black women, the conversation often comes with a point of like, "Look, I'm working this hard, and I'm doing--I'm going above and beyond every day, and the response when I'm doing all this work is "Well, that's what you're supposed to do," but then if someone who doesn't look like me is doing, like, half of that--" To the point you talked about earlier, the old adage, which is based on history and reality. They do half of what I'm doing. They're getting their praises sung from the highest rafters, right?
Michelle: Exactly. And so I think most of us who have been working in corporate spaces and places, we just understand that there's just more scrutiny on our performance, and a lot of this can lead to, you know, just lower performance, you know? Our self-esteem goes down. You know, lower ratings, lower wages, and sometimes job loss, because you're just not happy. So I just say all of this to say that yeah, the bar is simply at a different level for mostly women, but moreover [more] people of color.
Zach: And you know what? So that last little point of distinction you made--and I promise I'm not trying to keep you forever, but it reminds me about the fact that you also--in the book you talk about intersectionality, and I feel like that point you just made just now was kind of an example of that. Could you unpack why you broke that out and you said "women," then you paused and you said, "Well, people of color."? Like, what was the--what caused that pause?
Michelle: Well, that was just in my research for the book. Women and/or people of color, we do have similar challenges. Not quite the same, and this intersectionality that we're talking about--and this is such a topic that I have a lot of passion around, you know? I was just having a conversation with a majority female colleague of mine yesterday who just happens to be a peer, and she said to me, you know, "Michelle, we as women, we have the same challenges and we have the same barriers, don't you think?" And I had to pause for a second, and I looked at her--and I can't play poker, so I probably gave her, you know, a "Are you crazy?" kind of look. You know, as a woman and as a woman of color, my lived experience is vastly different than yours. So basically [what I said] to her is that, you know, "When I stand in my drive-way in Somerset County, New Jersey--that's not diverse at all and one of the most affluent counties in the state--but I'm standing in my drive-way and I'm holding my neighbor's child, who happens to be of the majority population, and the FedEx guy pulls up and wants to deliver a package to my home, that he automatically assumes that I'm the help and that she owns the house." You know, how often does that happen to you, colleague? How often is it when I walk into an elevator that the purse clutch scenario happens? And it happens to men of color too. So I could break it down for you in a lot of different ways, but, you know, my lived experience as a woman and as a woman of color, there's the double bind. So it's an interesting dichotomy, but it's real.
Zach: [Flex bomb sfx] It is an interesting dichotomy, but it is real. Absolutely, and that's why I had to give you the Flex bomb, 'cause you're dropping straight facts. [both laugh] Okay. So look, this has been a great conversation. I'm honored and just very excited about the fact that you're here and that you joined us today. Before we go, any parting words or shout-outs?
Michelle: Oh. This has been a terrific conversation, so I thank you for inviting me to be a guest on your podcast. Any parting words? You know, one of the things that my father would say to my two sisters and I growing up is, you know, "You are not here on this earth to take up space. You're here to make a difference, and it's up to you to determine what that difference is. All that I've given you is the tools, the education, and the rest is up to you." So all I will say to your listeners is you have to figure out what your passion is, what your purpose is, and determining how you plan to exert your power. You know, what are some of the kinds of things that give you fulfillment? You know, what feels natural to you? What qualities or attributes do you enjoy expressing to the world? And then just go for it. Anything is possible. Anything is. We just need sponsors, mentors, and others, other allies, who are gonna help us get to that next level. And if there's anyone out there who thinks that they can do it alone, I believe that they're sadly mistaken.
Zach: And that's absolutely right, 'cause if you think--if you really think that in this space, as a black or brown person, that you're gonna navigate these historically-white spaces by yourself? Hey, I'm looking at you--
Michelle: Exactly. I mean, we're working in institutions that weren't historically built for us.
Michelle: We were not welcome, so therefore we have to be twice as good, twice as smart, Ivy League-educated or whatever the case is. We know that we need to do alllll the extras in order to get to where we want to be.
Zach: No doubt. And I was just trying to say that if you really think you can do it by yourself, I'm looking at you like [haha sfx].
Michelle: Exactly. Exactly.
Zach: Well, Michelle, I just want to thank you again, you know? At some point in the episode we typically drop some Jamaican air horns, because--[Michelle laughs, Zach laughs] Out of thanks or out of exuberance, and I'm just gonna say I'm gonna drop these out of thankful exuberance right here... [air horns sfx] because this has been a dope, dope episode, and I look forward to having you back. Thank you so much.
Michelle: Absolutely. I look forward to coming back and wishing you all of the success in the world.
Zach: Thank you. Peace.