How Ameren CEO Tom Voss Improves Workplace Diversity
Diversity and inclusion shaped this CEO's worldview. Here's how he turned action into innovation at Ameren.
Diversity and inclusion takes a front seat at Ameren, one of DiversityInc's Top 5 Regional Utilities in 2012. The philosophy that an organization's greatest asset is its people is one value that President, CEO and Chairman Tom Voss touts strongly—and for good reason. Employee ideas have been a primary driver of innovation and market success.
Voss visibly and proactively has sought to build an inclusive environment where workers are encouraged to share their ideas openly. His efforts at holding executives accountable for diversity and inclusion results have sparked a cultural transformation that's contributing to increased revenue and an improving stock price.
Voss shares with DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti his viewpoints on the importance of employee input, the need for accountable and proactive leadership to generate buy-in for diversity and inclusion, and why successful succession planning should go beyond if "someone gets hit by a bus."
For more on CEO commitment and best practices in diversity management, read "CEO Commitment: Why Visibility & Accountability Matter" and "KPMG's CEO Reveals How to Be a Strong Diversity Leader."
Luke Visconti: Ameren's website states: "We believe that the full utilization of all human-resources potential is critical to achieving the highest human potential and to best serve our countries and communities at large." Why do you feel that way?
Tom Voss: Our most valuable asset is our people. We're trying to do as every company is—the best job you can with the resources you have. You can't afford to be dismissing people's ideas. We found out as we invest in our diversity efforts that it's been helping our company get better.
We had a long way to go. We had areas in our company that had absolutely no diversity. We had people who weren't hearing or seeing people who were different than them.
Eight years ago, I recognized this and said this is important for our future success. We had to make that investment.
Visconti: Can you think of a day that you had an epiphany that led you to think more inclusively about people?
Voss: Back when those Clarence Thomas hearings were going on, the idea struck me that there could be people in the workforce feeling mistreated. I didn't want that to happen to my department at that time.
I made sure that the people working for me feel like they're treated fairly, that they can progress and openly express their feelings.
There was another event when I was in high school. I was going out to a restaurant after a prom. Some of our friends were African American. They couldn't go in those restaurants. I thought that was just unbelievably unfair. I couldn't conceive that there would be an issue like that.
Art & Economics
Visconti: You have in your bio one long paragraph on the different not-for-profits that you have been leader of. One that stood out was Dance St. Louis.
Voss: I have two daughters. They competitively danced. People came and said, "We're looking for a board member for this group called Dance St. Louis." This was 15 years ago, long before I was a CEO. It always has something, some nationality thing—either Spanish or Brazilian or something—tied to it besides the traditional things that you would normally see. It's been truly a community thing, something for everybody.
Visconti: You have been involved with the local St. Louis economic-developmental agency with this perspective of diversity. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Voss: About a year ago, I came on as the chairman of the Regional Chamber & Growth Association. Right after I came on, the executive director announced that he was going to retire.
This year's been about looking for someone suitable to replace him, a national search. The search committee made sure that we had a first set of candidates to choose from.
The first set of candidates wasn't diverse. It was just all white males. They interviewed, got down to five and said, "We like this group, but we want to see some non-traditional candidates—some female and minority candidates."
We regrouped and got about a group of 10, and then they interviewed back down again. It's been a process that's ensured we get a diverse candidate pool.
Visconti: Ameren's mission is a secure energy future. How do you see diversity and inclusion fitting in with that?
Voss: "Secure" has a lot of different ways you can look at it. We think our job is not to just react to things but be proactive—like getting ahead of electric cars and getting ahead of energy conservation.
To figure out those things that require an innovative workforce, you need a diverse workforce that is operating at a very high level. Diversity plays such a key role in that. We really can't afford to have people holding back good ideas or for good ideas to be dismissed.
Visconti: Can you give me some examples of where you've seen that in action within the company?
Voss: At amerensolar.com, you'll see a very sophisticated analysis of various solar technologies. I didn't come up with that idea. That was our people who figured out how to make that very attractive, easy to learn.
We just signed a contract with the local supplier, Peabody, with ultra-low sulfur coal that did not require us to install very sophisticated environmental controls for at least five years. It saves our customers 30 percent rate increases in the future.
Visconti: What do you see coming up in the future?
Voss: We have been a very traditional organization and done things the way they've always been done. With the challenging environment—rules, deregulation and everything that's going on in the market now—we just can't be our father's utility company anymore. We have to be better.
We went through this exercise with our senior managers, asking how much time they were being proactive/reactive. They were spending about 80 percent of their time being reactive. I said, "Where do you think that should be?" They said "80 percent should be proactive." We have to consciously set aside time to be thinking about how to make this business better.
A New Culture of Accountability
Visconti: You have a very robust diversity-management structure. You have a diversity council, resource groups, mentoring. Do you see that as being integral to this general movement of being more proactive, innovative?
Voss: We didn't push our employees into doing things they didn't want to do. We gave general diversity training and gradually introduced forums. They were pushing their management: "Get on board with this."
I was surprised at how well our employees embraced this concept of diversity through the organization. We just had to feed it. Every year incrementally we keep making it a little better—keep ratcheting it up.
Our managers have done a good job of putting accountability in performance appraisals and putting in pools of applicants and hiring standards. I think we're really getting it.
Visconti: We were talking about accountability for achieving representative results with your recruiting. I pointed to the vice president of human resources and said, "You can't expect him to solve everything. You have to be responsible." The heads of your divisions nodded together as if it had been rehearsed. How did you build that understanding?
Voss: Just a few years ago, we didn't have enough minorities in our entry-level jobs and we were blaming our HR department. We said, "Why don't we take accountability and get it fixed?"
What you're seeing now is an organization that's been really transformed from a cultural initiative. That's really what's held us back from being a truly great company. We're fixing that now.
In 2006, we had a bunch of storms that came through: We had a deregulation in Illinois and near-bankruptcy issues there; we had the governor and attorney general fighting for one thing or another.
We were sitting back saying that none of this was our fault. We were in that situation until our culture was at rock bottom and we really didn't know how to get out of it.
We got on to this idea to bring in this training to look at our culture of accountability, and it changed the way we do business. It fundamentally changed our company.
The diversity stuff started a few years before that. There were a few of us who were proponents for this. When we started working on our culture, there were a few of us who saw how this fit in and that if we embraced this, it would make us even better. The two just meshed together and got us in a good spot.
Once we accomplished it, we saw all these other things. Safety and diversity were so important that we embraced them, and we could do something about those.
We measure how we interact with our customers and have gotten dramatic improvement in those scores, both in the phone center and one-on-one contact in the field. We've been trying to tie this all together, not only improving the company's bottom line but the way we serve our community.
There was hesitation and there were things like "Is this political correctness?" When they saw it starting to take off, we started seeing that the community was noticing what we were doing nationally and thought, "This is working. If I don't get on board, I'm going to be left behind." They started embracing it more and more.
When we opened our employee-resource groups, all of our senior leaders took responsibility of being a sponsor for one of those groups, seeing that this is going to help us be better.
Visconti: Sharon Harvey Davis is your chief diversity officer. Why did you put a strong woman like her in that position?
Voss: Sharon now works for me directly and she doesn't make it easy at times. She pushes the organization sometimes into uncomfortable areas for a very conservative company. That's what we need. That's one of the contributors to making us successful in this area.
We're looking for those leaders who are pushing us to say good enough isn't going to do it. We've got to get to excellence in our operations, excellence in our culture.
We're just getting started. We got a long way to go. The ultimate is that maybe we won't need a diversity manager someday, that it's just so much into our culture that it's our way of doing business.
Visconti: Do you see it being integral to your ability to innovate?
Voss: Absolutely. You want people to feel free to express themselves, that it's safe to throw out ideas. We've pretty much hit a culture where you've got to be 100 percent sure this is going to work before you said anything about it. That just stifles creativity, innovation and growth.
Visconti: You grew up in that culture and you evolved it. What inspired you to do that?
Voss: I just didn't see it working long term. The world changed. It's gotten so much more about communications. You could not operate the way we were. We had to turn around a fundamental culture, and that takes a while.
If you looked at our past performance, some of it leveled off and could have started going into decline if we hadn't turned it around.
Getting Ahead With Succession Planning
Visconti: When you see the future of your diversity and inclusion efforts applied to the footprint of your generational community customers, is there something that you intend to help lead the region?
Voss: I'd like to see us put some more emphasis on talent development—getting higher graduation rates out of high schools and colleges. That'll bring in employment because people know we have a highly educated workforce that's ready to go.
The whole idea of supplier diversity, innovative minority-owned businesses and nurturing them along, helping them out—I think that only makes the whole area prosper more.
I lived here. I want to make this a better place for everyone. Diversity efforts are going to be key.
Visconti: You have an interesting succession: You have who's going to be the next CEO.
Voss: If you look at our company history, I don't think we've done succession planning very well. We've done "If somebody gets hit by a bus, who's going to fill that spot?" That's not what you want to do. What you want is leadership development, a plan where you look at the leaders of your company, figure out who key people are and start investing in them through special or rotational assignments. We didn't do that before. Each group kind of had its own leaders who kind of kept them to themselves.
Now we're sharing them. We're sitting down every year and looking at all of our talent and saying, "We can put them anywhere in this company. Let's start doing it."
We just did an organizational change where we put one of our leaders of corporate planning into a field-operations job. The idea is that it'll help further his development. He'll bring great strategic planning to that organization.
When we have an opportunity, we're going to look for our best talent and then help them develop.
Visconti: You're factoring diversity into succession planning. How are you assessing that?
Voss: When you get down to this pool of candidates that you think are your high fliers, one thing you want to make sure of is that it's a diverse group. And if it isn't, then we've got to do something more dramatic to make sure it is.
Part of our values now is diversity. It is so well embraced by our employees. If someone was in that position who hadn't embraced the work we're doing, or isn't belonging to one of these ERG groups, or isn't sponsoring one of them, or isn't doing anything in the community in this area, I think that would take him off the list.
For more on succession planning strategies, read "Increasing Diversity in Talent Development."
Creating Experiences, Making Changes
Visconti: Can you give an example of lives that have been changed because of these experiences?
Voss: As our leadership team has gotten involved in these ERG groups, I can tell you a number of them have come to me and told me they see things a lot differently. Last year, my wife and I hosted a gala for Doorways, which helps people with AIDS. At the gala, there's a large number of same-sex couples. Our company's culture hasn't been used to dealing with that. I encouraged a bunch of my vice presidents to come—strong encouragement. When they came, they enjoyed it. In fact, they told me it was a very warm experience.
I thoroughly admit that the upper management has not been overly diverse, although we do now have a woman president who runs one of our segments. I do believe that those people truly believe in the concepts of diversity and know that we have to continue to work on those areas.
I think Sharon did a great job of laying it incrementally, nudging us a little further each day and each year. We had people at one point in time taking a personal commitment at one of our leadership meetings to the concept of diversity as we did to safety.
She's been very straightforward—never went overboard, though. She pushed at a pace that people could accept and just incrementally kept doing things. In the beginning, awards, celebrations and non-threatening things, and then she gradually moved into performance appraisals, training and setting goals and measures for us in promotions and hiring.
Visconti: How did you manage this so that the push-back from middle management didn't overwhelm the effort?
Voss: We trained all employees from the bottom and actually got them engaged, then kept them engaged through our forums. They were pushing their management too. The very visible support that I had always given to it helped people as well.
They kept the thing under control so people couldn't push back very hard because they knew that that was unacceptable to the way I was moving this organization. They knew if they did not want to be a part of it, I often told people, it doesn't mean you're a bad person; it just that you don't belong here.
Visconti: You do have some areas and some generating plants that are not very homogenous-looking. How did it work there?
Voss: We have rural linemen who are out in areas where all you do is hunt and fish and put up wire. There is this diversity of thought even among a group of same people.
Little towns, they have some of the biggest prejudices. They might not be Black and white but they might be this side and that side of town. You have to get those people saying, "It doesn't matter. When we come to work, we're going to do the best we can do." There are always those prejudices. If you break them down, you'll be a higher-performing group.
It all comes down to performance. It's not just the right thing to do—it's also good business. It's really about making the company better.
Visconti: Going back to the website, the words are essential. To describe diversity and inclusion on the homepage sends a very clear message.
Voss: We feel that way. I thoroughly believe that. Our performance has improved the last couple years. We've performed financially better; operationally, we're performing extremely well. It's starting to show on the stock market. I think it's on its way up, and I'm committed to it.
It isn't just about doing it for diversity's sake. This is all about making our business better. I think employees feel better with this effort going on. I think they're proud of the company.
Many times, people have come up and told me that they are glad the company has this kind of attitude about diversity that is accepting people's differences. You can't do a lot about things that happen off the job, but we can make this a better atmosphere here.
How can you adopt a vocabulary that's inclusive and respectful of everyone? This EY exec, an advocate for people with disabilities, shares her insights.
"The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." —Mark Twain
As diversity leaders, we understand that disability is just another kind of difference, like culture, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. We recognize that diversity is a valuable source of insight and adaptability, generating better business ideas and high-quality service. Differing abilities are a part of that healthy diversity. It's our business to promote inclusiveness throughout our organizations and to advocate for policies and programs that support it.
In building an inclusive culture, we're on the front lines and need to be visibly living our organizations' values every day. It's important that we set the tone not only in what we do and say, but how we say it—in formal messaging as well as everyday conversation. This is where even diversity leaders can get stuck.
Sometimes inclusive language can seem a bit cumbersome, but with a few simple changes each of us can make a significant difference—helping to promote an inclusive culture while setting an example both inside and outside our organizations.
Here are six ways never to talk about disabilities:
1. Never say "a disabled person" or "the disabled." Say a person or people "with disabilities."
Put the person first. A disability is what someone has, not what someone is. For instance, "mentally ill" is less respectful than "person with mental-health issues." "Retarded" is never an appropriate term. Say "intellectual disabilities" or "cognitive disabilities."
2. Never use the term "handicapped parking." Use "accessible parking" instead.
Handicapped parking is still in use (e.g., when referring to parking placards), though the word "handicapped" is offensive and has been virtually eliminated in most other contexts. Remove it from your organization's vocabulary completely by using the term "accessible parking." (It's also more accurate, as accessible describes the parking and handicapped does not.)
3. Never use the term "impaired." Use terms such as "low vision," "hard of hearing" or "uses a wheelchair" instead.
Though it may be used in legal contexts, the word "impaired" can be offensive, as it implies damage. Many people with disabilities do not see themselves as damaged, but simply as different.
4. Never say "hidden" disabilities. Say "non-visible" or "non-apparent."Many disabilities are not apparent, such as serious illnesses or chronic health conditions, sensory limitations, or mental-health and learning disabilities. When referring to these disabilities, avoid using hidden, as it has negative connotations, implying purposeful concealment or shame.
5. Whenever possible, don't say "accommodations." Say "adjustments" or "modifications."This can be tricky, as accommodation has a specific legal meaning and must be used in certain contexts, like policy or government communications. However, accommodation suggests doing a favor for the person who has a disability. An accommodation is a workplace or work-process modification made to enable an employee to be more productive. It is necessary and not a preference or privilege. The terms adjustment and modification capture this idea without suggesting a favor or special treatment, so are preferable whenever specific legal terminology is not required.
6. Never use victim or hero language; describe situations in a straightforward way.
Don't use language that portrays people with disabilities as victims, such as "suffers from," "challenged by," or "struggles with." Say "someone who uses a wheelchair" or "wheelchair user," not "wheelchair-bound" or "confined to a wheelchair." On the flip side, don't use heroic language when people with disabilities complete everyday tasks and responsibilities. People with disabilities don't see themselves as inspiring simply because they're going about their daily lives. We all have challenges—working around those challenges is not heroic, it's just human.
What Terminology Should I Use?
It's worth noting that even in the disability community (yes, that is how advocates for inclusion of people with disabilities refer to ourselves), different people are comfortable with different terminology. Some are fine with the descriptor "disabled," which is in common use in the United Kingdom. Others may freely use "impaired." However, as diversity leaders, it is our job to promote behaviors that make all people feel valued and included. Knowing that some people are offended by these terms, I feel strongly that the most inclusive course is to avoid them and adopt a vocabulary that feels respectful to everyone.
As champions of diversity, we have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to set standards for how our people, organizations and society speak and think about people with disabilities. By shifting our language, we can help shift perceptions and promote the culture of inclusion that is the backbone of healthy diversity in all aspects of life.
— Lori Golden, EY, Abilities Strategy Leader
Golden leads EY's internal initiatives in the Americas to create an enabling environment and inclusive culture for people working with disabilities.
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