IBM Diversity Chief: You Can’t Sustain Innovation Without Inclusion

Did you know IBM used to build sausage-making machines? It did, but saw this wasn’t the way of the future, so it made a pretty big pivot and — believe it or not — its diversity and inclusion policies were a big reason why.

“You can only see competition coming when you have people looking in many different directions,” Lindsay-Rae McIntyre, chief diversity officer with IBM, said Tuesday at a Signature Speaker event hosted by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. McIntyre reiterated IBM’s commitment to having a diverse pool of talent around the globe in an effort to step up innovation and offer a competitive advantage. She made a very compelling argument.

Here are a few highlights of her presentation, along with some tips to put them in action at your organization.

Commit to Inclusion

The forefathers who created IBM decided early on they wanted to hire the best people, regardless of race, creed, gender or any other characteristic, McIntyre said. She shared some stats to prove the company meant it then and means it now.

  • IBM hired its first black employee in 1899, 10 years before the founding of the NAACP.
  • That same year, IBM hired three women. Women have been on the board of IBM since 1956, and the current CEO is female.
  • IBM hired its first employee with a disability in 1914.
  • IBM gave employees flexible benefits in the 1980s, domestic partner benefits in the 1990s and gender identity and expression benefits in 2002.
  • IBM extended same-sex benefits in 11 countries in 2016, including two countries where it’s still illegal: India and Singapore. “We partnered with authorities in both jurisdictions to move forward on IBM’s terms,” she said. At first they thought about reimbursing private insurance purchases, so “no one would know.” But ultimately IBM decided that if people still had to hide who they were, that was not the type of inclusion practice they wanted to foster. Instead, they influenced the insurance provider to do things differently and worked with political figures in each country to make it happen. “It didn’t happen fast, but it happened,” she said.

IBM demonstrates its commitment to inclusion in its recruiting, hiring and retention practices, but also shares this commitment with the world as part of its brand. If your organization is committed to inclusion also, you need to practice it internally and share it externally.

Communicate Inclusion as a Core Value

As a way to offer insight into lessons learned about inclusion over the years, McIntyre shared some of IBM’s missteps, including one centered around the divisive 2016 presidential election. Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, IBM’s CEO wrote and publicly released a supportive letter to him. It was not well-received among IBM staffers.

One employee in particular was furious that IBM would support Trump on his initiatives, McIntyre recalled. This concerned IBM’s leadership because they said to themselves, “Doesn’t she know our values?” But then they realized, with McIntyre’s help, that with IBM working in 170 countries and through about 50 acquisitions and 30 divestitures, she might not. Maybe the values hadn’t been adequately communicated to everyone. “We have to communicate better, teach at every juncture, give people a place to be heard and embrace discomfort. We have to listen to the rawness of humanity,” McIntyre said.

Use Every Opportunity to Reinforce These Ideals

To that end, IBM then renewed its commitment to embed its values and reinforce them everywhere. You can do the same to make sure you’re taking every chance to communicate your ideals.

IBM did this in several ways, including a new recruiting campaign. “We made videos with diverse IBMers demonstrating and articulating what it’s like to work here,” McIntyre said.

IBM also renewed its commitment to LGBT equality. The company actually had employees not wanting to work in North Carolina and recruits asking to be assigned elsewhere during the state’s bathroom/gender-identity controversy, McIntyre said. IBM has the resources to make that a viable possibility, but not every company does. McIntyre reiterated the importance of creating an environment where people feel safe and respected so you don’t lose out on the best, most innovative talent.

IBM also created business resource groups — cohorts in the same country, age range, gender or some other criteria they defined for themselves. McIntyre says one of their smallest groups consists of three women in Saudi Arabia, and they have recently connected with a similarly small group of female employees in Pakistan to share their experiences as women working for IBM in those countries and offer solutions to any problems they face.

One thing the audience really loved during McIntyre’s presentation was the IBM millennial corps. IBM invites young employees without long tenure to come into some of the most senior product discussions they have. But — and here’s what got a laugh — the company doesn’t always tell them the importance of the meeting ahead of time. “They offer candor, observations and insights that make us better. They drive innovation. And then sometimes they realize what happened, after the fact, and ask, ‘Why didn’t you tell me I was in a meeting with so-and-so?’ and I say, ‘If you’d known, maybe you wouldn’t have been as creative and thoughtful,’ ” McIntyre said.

Learning materials and platforms were also reimagined. “We overhauled in every department, from sales and marketing to leadership and finance,” she said. They made things mobile-friendly and offered quick microlearning lessons on conscious and unconscious bias. This didn’t replace the traditional four-hour seminars on diversity, etc., but supplemented them, and it went over well, she said.

Start Small if You Need To

Your organization may not have the resources to create professional recruiting videos or overhaul mobile learning platforms. But you can definitely invite young people into meetings and give them safety to express opinions, even those differing from what leadership is saying. You can encourage discussions among different groups at your company, and you can include a few notes about bias in the training you already do. These are small actions you can do, and it’s fine to start small, McIntyre says.

In fact, you can ask your employees what they want you to start with. McIntyre said that in years past, to support nursing mothers who had to travel for work, IBM subsidized expenses for the nursing baby and another adult to go on the plane with mom. Not only was this expensive, but it wasn’t particularly helpful because it took another adult away from their life for the length of the trip and didn’t allow mom to focus as much on work with the baby around. IBM began to hear some dissatisfaction about this and asked employees for guidance. “We listened to our nursing moms, and since 2015 we’ve been helping them ship their breast milk instead of bringing others on their trip,” McIntyre said.

“We have to be willing to relentlessly question what we’ve got. Is it the best? Is it forward thinking? Will it help us attract and keep talent to help our clients? We ask ourselves these things all the time, and the results help us innovate all over the globe,” she said.

Success Labs is a leadership-development and management consulting firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years, our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to explore their business potential and improve their company and cultural performance. Contact us to get proactive about your people strategy.