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Resource Groups & Business Results

DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti moderated a senior leader panel featuring Ken Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express, and Ron Williams, former chairman and CEO of Aetna, examining the critical role resource groups  can play a role in supporting business strategy.

The panel was the kickoff event at an inaugural Affinity Group Leadership Development Summit sponsored and organized by American Express, Aetna and Johnson & Johnson. The panel also featured Michel Paul, company group chairman of the Diabetes Care Franchise at Johnson & Johnson.

More than 230 diversity managers and employee-resource-group leaders and members from across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Spain, the Netherlands, India, the United Kingdom and Dubai attended the summit at 3 World Financial Center in New York.

Kerrie Peraino, former chief diversity officer and current senior vice president of international human resources and global employee relations at American Express, told the audience that the idea for the ERG summit was sparked after she and fellow chief diversity officers from Aetna and Johnson & Johnson attended a DiversityInc event.

“Anthony [Carter, chief diversity officer, Johnson & Johnson] and Raymond [Arroyo, chief diversity officer, Aetna] and I were invited by Luke to sit on a panel where chief diversity officers shared best practices, and as we had our conversation, it became very apparent that we were all on the same page as it related to our [resource groups] and there was an opportunity to do something,” she said. “Today is the realization of that something.”

To frame the panel discussion, Visconti shared some statistics about resource groups culled from The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity.

Among them:

  • From 2005 to 2010, the number of CEOs who meet directly with their resource groups climbed from 44 percent to 88 percent
  • The number of resource groups meeting during the workday went from 74 percent in 2005 to 100 percent in 2010

Visconti said the reason for the astronomical growth is simple: More and more companies are recognizing the value of using their resource groups for multicultural marketing, talent development and recruitment.

Below are excerpts from the panel discussion:

Visconti, DiversityInc: How do you feel resource groups can play a role in supporting your business strategy?

Chenault, American Express: I think what is very, very important in the development of business strategy is you want different perspectives. Not only different perspectives, but you want engaged, passionate perspectives. If you want to succeed in the marketing of products and services, you want to have people who are personally engaged and really care about the customer segments they are going after and who want to win and feel proud about what they are doing. In our case, I can give you three recent examples. With our [Latino resource group], we were able to create a holiday card that had a major impact. It was a terrific business success and the ERG helped not only with marketing but with the structure of the product and how we positioned the product. The second example involves our Pride network [for LGBT employees]. In Brighton in the United Kingdom, there is something called the Stonewall Equality Walk, and Pride worked with merchants in the Brighton area to create a decal. It allowed us to expand our merchant acceptance in Brighton and got them involved and engaged in a personal way. And the third example is … our Asian resource group just came up with a Happy Diwali card that celebrates the Indian New Year, and it’s off to a great start in the U.S. What is important about all of these examples is we saw resource groups trying to have an impact broadly on society and, in fact, it had a very positive impact on business results. That, to me, is a winning business combination.

Williams, Aetna: For us, it all starts with the values of the company, and the values of the company really start with putting the people who use our services at the center of what we do. One of the core values of the company is employee engagement. The research is very clear that employees who are engaged feel better about the organization. They do a better job. They produce better results. They stay longer. They’re more productive and do a better job taking care of our customers. From a business perspective, it’s really critical to have insight into the different customer cohorts. The different resource groups have given us very substantial insights into ways we can build our products and services. Angle (Aetna’s LGBT network) really helped us build physician networks so those members could go to member physicians who really understood their issues and wanted to build a practice around that. For us, that turned out to be an extremely important marketing initiative that led to substantial growth in our membership and was an example of the business impact. From my personal point of view, it’s really about giving those employees an opportunity to be engaged, to make a contribution, to share with us the insights they have about the special needs of those communities in a way that we actually do a better job of achieving the fundamental values we have as an organization.

Paul, J&J: Diabetes is a global epidemic. On any given day, there are 150 million to 300 million people around the world affected by this disease and there is no end in sight. This is a disease that progresses at a rate of 5-6 percent a year and there is not a region in the world that is not affected by this disease, for which there is no cure. When we talk about resource groups, I see them as strategic business units that are truly aligned with the strategic vision of my organization. This is a volunteer army that comes together with specific intent and we have a huge opportunity for education as well as promoting good habits.

Visconti, DiversityInc: What are the barriers you see to maximizing the effectives of your resource groups and how can senior leaders help break through those barriers?

Williams, Aetna: One of the things senior leaders can do on a continuous basis is sanction the activities of these resource groups and be very clear that they are operating within the cultural context of the company’s values. I chair our diversity council and we assign our senior most staff as executive sponsors and we tend to cross fertilize. So someone might sponsor the Hispanic resource group who is from a different culture. The other thing we do is make them central to the business. If you think about the products we develop, (resource groups)…are a great source of insight and focus groups and ways to make certain that what we think we are doing in the way of meeting a particular customer’s needs is really being responsive to the customer’s needs.

Visconti, DiversityInc: The environment you set as a leader, the empowerment people feel and their ability to bring their ideas and suggestions to the table comes from the top-down. It’s definitely an atmosphere the CEO sets.

Chenault, American Express: Certainly, everything starts and ends with leadership. So, from the top to the bottom, what people have to see is aligned support, not just coming from one segment or level. They have to see it throughout the company if you want sustainable progress. Secondly, what is absolutely essential is for people to see concrete evidence that their ideas and recommendations are being acted upon. (It’s also important) to give examples of where the feedback has been constructive, direct and critical and what were changes in policy as a result of that feedback. I think getting that message out really empowers people. People say, “Boy, I can really raise an issue that I thought was going to be controversial for me and my group and I was listened to and not only was it not hidden, but the company talked about it.”

Paul, J&J: One of the key barriers that resource groups ought to be aware of are the ones that are self-imposed. It’s really how you define your group and what strategic intent you choose to play or not play. There are external barriers, environmental barriers, economic barriers, but I think … the barriers you choose to put on yourselves in terms of what role you choose to play are probably the most detrimental ones. I think these groups should be limitless and they should also be proactive in driving the conversation and causing the conversation with business leaders.

Visconti, DiversityInc: What are business leaders looking for from resource groups?

Williams, Aetna: I think the No. 1 thing is engagement and commitment and passion about what they are doing. This is a huge opportunity to make an investment in something that can have a transformative effect on our business and our customers. I think about the number of initiatives that have resulted in very solid, profitable growth, great leadership opportunities, and often, some difficult conversations where the senior leadership team has really had to sit down and ask, ‘Are we doing what we need to be doing in regard to this cohort?’ and the answer is no and we have to sit down and figure out what we need to do.

Chenault, American Express: I would reaffirm the criticality of getting insights and honest feedback and what I call “constructive confrontation.” Whether it’s issues about the culture of the company or the business issues, the willingness to confront and to know that you will be respected—that type of confrontation is constructive and helpful.

Williams, Aetna: I think many of us can recall in our own work lives where we have been in a meeting and an idea or a topic is raised where you have some unique insight or someone on your team has unique insight. The meeting is held. It’s adjourned and then people go out into the corridor and somebody says, “Well, that was the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” But, they didn’t speak up in the meeting or have the courage in the moment to bring that unique insight they had or to understand how it really impacts a part of the organization. It’s a lost opportunity to really help the organization do better, based on your unique understanding and perspective.

Chenault, American Express: In the world we live in today, the sense of urgency is critical. We can’t afford to miss these opportunities. When we had market-growth rates of 5 to 10 percent, it was a different story … but the reality is, in the world we live in today, [things can] change just like that. And if you fail to raise those issues, you are really hurting your company, big time.

Visconti, DiversityInc: What leadership skills are you looking for out of your resource-group leaders?

Paul, J&J: I think it’s a great environment for leadership development and for also driving specific outcomes. No matter how often I travel to India, to China, to Latin America, to the Middle East, I will never know these markets as well as the people who have either experienced it or are connected to that culture. I believe leaders of resource groups have an obligation to bring forth those very deep insights that a traditional brand manager just doesn’t have or you have to pay a whole lot of money to get.

Williams, Aetna: One of the examples I like to use with audiences is we process 450 million claims a year. So, if we get it right 99.7 percent of the time, it means we have only upset 1.2 million people. So the standard for tolerance is quite narrow when 99.7 percent doesn’t get you there. But, I think one of the things we talked about is courage. One of the most important things people in resource groups can have is the courage to articulate their point of view and the courage to recognize that we need ideas. We need suggestions. A lot of times, people don’t have that self-confidence. That is part of being a leader and I would encourage everyone in these kinds of groups to make that personal commitment to articulate their point of view to help the organization. Those insights are critical to growth and profitability, and when you are in the zone we are in, with fairly thin margins and a low tolerance for error, we need to have a very rapid cycle of feedback.

Chenault, American Express: One of the greatest sins of modern society is being unconscious. At the end of the day, you have access to information everywhere, and part of what you have to do as a leader is understand how you get access to that information and have people in your organization that have the courage to talk to you about what the real issues are. The worst thing as a leader—the worst thing—is when someone says to me I did not realize the impact. I didn’t realize what I said really caused this problem or I didn’t realize if I didn’t say anything it would have an impact. It has a big impact. What we need is for people to be really conscious of their actions, of their words, of their non-actions. Silence doesn’t work.

Paul, J&J: I think it works both ways. Resource groups have an obligation to cause the conversation, but similarly, business leaders also have to be inviting, right? No one wants to hit their heads against a brick wall constantly and not be heard. We as leaders have the responsibility to create the environment so that these resource groups can be successful and their voices can be heard.

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