The week that some big-name corporate executives decided they had heard enough of the president’s rhetoric about white supremacists and neo-Nazis and publicly broke ties with him, Minneapolis-based Thrivent Financial didn’t put out an announcement about the importance of including everyone in a diverse society. Yet its leaders sure had a lot to say about that.
Thrivent may not come to mind as a particularly cosmopolitan company. The financial services firm is long associated with one of the whitest institutions in America, the Lutheran church. But that’s why what Thrivent is doing to be more inclusive of people of color and women is so worth exploring. It turns out that it’s not elitist or corporatist to believe that businesses will do better if they find a way to include everybody here. It’s common sense.
The events last weekend in Charlottesville, Va., didn’t prompt the meeting I had with Thrivent’s leaders. We have been working on getting together since May, when Thrivent executive Bill McKinney got my attention at a nonprofit organization’s event by telling the crowd of hundreds that he was working hard to make new friends among women and people of color.
McKinney, Thrivent’s vice president of strategy and long-term development, is a white male, like most executives at Fortune 500 companies. At the May event, he spoke candidly about how it was important — for him, his company and our region — that he develop friendships with people who were not white men. He wasn’t talking about Facebook friends, either. He meant people who will come to know him well enough to ask a favor.
The reason people in his network had once looked mostly like him is because he hadn’t really thought carefully about it. Last week he described how he used to come home from a business conference and then invite people he had just met to connect on the social media site LinkedIn. Then one day it occurred to him he hadn’t been inviting the women. He couldn’t think of a good reason why.
Thrivent CEO Brad Hewitt told me he has been working on his network, too. It took Hewitt, a self-described introvert, months to “work up the courage” to place a phone call to Amano Dube, an East African immigrant and nonprofit executive. Now, after regular meetings at Mapps Coffee in Minneapolis, both seem to consider the other a mentor.
Of course, rounding out a LinkedIn network is just a detail in a much broader effort by the two executives and the company.
Teams of people with diverse backgrounds, McKinney said, simply outperform homogenous teams, the studies are clear on that. But diversity of personnel won’t be enough to get good results without a leader who can get contributions from everyone. That’s a skill that needs practice.
Lots of big companies have leadership teams that are not nearly as diverse as the American people. Thrivent had a problem other big companies did not: a narrow scope of customers. Just four years ago, the company, which is organized as a fraternal benefit society, moved from serving only Lutherans to a more broadly defined group of Christians.
Even before that change, Thrivent wrestled with the perception that it wasn’t for all Lutherans, Hewitt said, but just Upper Midwestern Lutherans. He laughed even as he described that, in living memory, staffers with a German Lutheran heritage wouldn’t even bother trying to cross a vast cultural chasm and sell insurance to neighbors with a Norwegian Lutheran heritage.
Its membership base of the future won’t look anything like it once did, which is one reason why Thrivent people in the field have shown interest in learning how to build relationships with people of any cultural background.
The company takes pains in the training it does to explain that a lack of diversity on your work team or in your neighborhood is not some sort of moral failing to overcome. Rather, it’s an opportunity.
“I said at one point that a measure of success would be fewer eye rolls when we said we’re going to do diversity training,” Hewitt explained. What’s begun to happen, he added, is that staffers “see it as a leadership skill that they want to develop.”
A good example for Hewitt is how extroverts left on their own will come to dominate a meeting. So one good leadership practice is giving the introverts an opportunity to write right down a couple of ideas, then create time so they can later be shared.
As we talked last week, Hewitt and McKinney didn’t shy away from an uncomfortable truth, either. They said that, with so many positions of leadership in Minnesota institutions held by white men, it will take a lot of white men changing their behavior to make a lot of progress.
That was the topic about a month ago of another in a regular series of informal gatherings at the company, as about 200 people responded to a meeting invitation that said “The White Male Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion.”
One of the skills men in positions like his could sharpen is observation, McKinney said, like noticing how differently immigrants might experience a trip through a big airport when people who look like him sail right through.
Hewitt and McKinney also described what they learned from playing an internet simulation called the “Parable of the Polygons.”
First presented as an interactive blog post a few years ago, this is a game where users can change the assumptions and then watch how cute little blue squares and yellow triangles rearrange themselves. These polygons are only “slightly shapist” — or biased — in their views, so the triangles might be happy to accept some squares nearby.
Yet what happens with acceptance is a big sort. A few too many squares and the triangles might move. Eventually they all end up aligned next to others of their own kind. What’s required to actually end the segregation is enough squares and triangles making the conscious choice to move next to shapes that are not like theirs. The passive default setting only leads to segregation.
Thinking like this, needing to switch off the passive default setting and instead really try to include someone of a different background, is a habit that takes consistent cultivation, Hewitt said. Happily, he said, that hard work is becoming easier.
“People ask me all the time how we will know when we’ve succeeded,” McKinney said. “I don’t know if we will know, but we will know if we are making progress. And we ought to keep making progress. We ought to have more diversity … higher levels of inclusion.”
“We ought to have more leaders leading.”