A Conversation With KPMG and Celie Niehaus: Making Space To Ask, Learn and Support Equity

Originally published at home.kpmg. Celie Niehaus is the Senior Vice President and Chief Compliance Officer for USAA and USAA Federal Savings Bank. Laura Hay is the Global Head of Insurance at KPMG. KPMG ranked No. 11 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2022.

 

I often hear in my Mind the Gap conversations how women first encountered gender-based obstacles when they began their careers, and how they had to learn tactics to handle unequal treatment in a male-dominated workplace.

However, I realize that many individuals from marginalized communities face discrimination right from childhood and hone their coping skills long before they enter the workforce. For that reason, I was so eager to chat with Celie Niehaus, Senior Vice President and Chief Compliance Officer for USAA and USAA Federal Savings Bank. The Texas-based organization serves the military community as one of the nation’s leading financial services and insurance companies.

Celie is an openly gay senior executive who speaks frankly about the challenges they met from a young age and continue to face, especially since coming out again as non-binary. Celie, who uses they/them/her pronouns, has invaluable advice for anyone facing inequity. What surprised me, though, was how, in addition to Celie’s practical suggestions on managing the risks, they focus on understanding and helping others overcome biases and creating spaces for everyone to grow together. It’s persuasion through awareness and empathy, rather than misunderstanding and confrontation over entrenched views.

Learn early to manage risks and make allies

Upon meeting Celie, you quickly realize that being a chief compliance officer comes naturally to them because it’s in their nature to look for risk, troubleshoot and translate sometimes complex compliance requirements. “People have their opinions of compliance because it’s another language that many may find difficult to learn. And that can create misunderstandings,” Celie explains. “I’ve loved being a translator of sorts, between the regulations and the business, and I typically use humor to help people understand.”

Interestingly, Celie found their way to compliance by accident, first responding to a newspaper classified ad to work as a credit card collector and later working their way up through the ranks into an array of leadership roles in financial services. “I think I was born to be a risk professional, but what moved me through my career was my willingness to raise my hand for tough projects, even projects I didn’t know what they were,” Celie chuckles. They eventually became a compliance officer because it gives them a bird’s-eye view of the entire bank.

The story became even more interesting when I asked Celie how they found the nerve to take such career risks. Celie’s candid response: “I wasn’t afraid to raise my hand because I faced challenges most of my life. Growing up gay trained me to assess risks at every turn, since being out was not safe, at home or anywhere.”

That strategic risk-taking mindset has served Celie well as they learned to cautiously share their authentic self, including their personal life, with colleagues, employees, clients and community members. “I work really hard to not self-filter. I need to free up my brain and be my full authentic self. It’s risky at times to come out, but the more you can share about yourself with others, the more you will be well-received and help everyone relax.”

Celie also has kept an eye open for allies and mentors who could inspire and support them along the way. “I think everyone feels the need to have a mentor, particularly someone with a senior title, but you can also benefit from unofficial mentors who you meet throughout the day. You can learn a lot through ‘mentoring moments,’ when you observe someone who does something well and just have an impromptu conversation with them to learn from their experience.”

At the same time, Celie has learned to call out others’ biased comments or harmful behaviors like micro-aggressions, albeit in a non-threatening and ally-winning manner. “Although we might want to just ‘let it go,’ silence doesn’t help,” Celie advises. “Instead, I try to seek clarity from the individual, take them aside, and ask, ‘What do you mean by that?’ or ‘Can you give me an example of this because I want to understand?’ It’s called unconscious bias for a reason, and the person may not be aware of the impact of their words or action.”

That accountability applies both ways. “I have a sense of humor, but I may not realize the hurt I cause others when I think I’m being funny. I would want someone to let me know.”

Helping others on their acceptance journeys

Celie’s focus on evaluating and navigating risk comes across in many ways and underscores the International Women’ Day theme of ‘Break the Bias.’

“When we talk about bias, I start with myself. Every day I practice overcoming that voice in my head. It could be my father’s voice, which makes me doubt myself, or thoughts I have about others that I must get beyond. I like to tell women, ‘Don’t place biases on yourself because it can be so self-limiting, and it can put obstacles in front of you that are debilitating.’”

This self-awareness helps Celie build relationships with others to challenge unequal treatment when they see it: “It’s so important for me to think about the biases I might bring to other spaces and then make a real effort to help others. Maybe I can support someone in overcoming bias imposed upon them or I can help the offender learn and improve their understanding of others.”

For example, Celie notes how, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, they try to be allies to people who might have conflicting views.

“I believe we need to have both grace and empathy to those who have questions or don’t know how to be an ally. Many people are afraid of asking questions since they are afraid of offending. That means we all need to create spaces where it’s okay to ask a question without being judged.”

Celie continues to learn ways to create spaces for co-workers and employees who may feel they can’t bring their authentic self to work.

“A few years ago, after the homophobia-motivated Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida, a straight colleague came up to me to say, ‘I saw the news. How are you doing?’ That was a really caring question, and it reminded me how important it is for each of us to check in with others when something happens in their own communities. We have to get brave enough to ask those questions.”

In wrapping up our chat, I marveled at how Celie builds bridges with others through compliance work and across communities by challenging themselves to be better, so they can help others do the same. Celie sums it up this way, “When we listen and position things so people can relate and help them understand the relevance, we can make great connections. And that brings me great joy.”

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