In preparation for the TOLA IT & Security Leaders Forum taking place on February 24 – 26 in San Antonio, TX, we caught up with Nickoria Johnson, Senior Director of IT Plan and Build at Alliance Data and speaker at the event to gain some insight in to her scheduled panel discussion on creating and promoting a diverse IT workforce.
At the upcoming TOLA IT & Security Leaders Forum you will be moderating a panel discussion on creating a diverse IT workforce. Can you begin by providing your thoughts on why this continues to be a major challenge for IT leaders and organizations as a whole?
Diversity and inclusion should be a natural approach for every aspect of life, but we all get into our comfort zones… we feel most comfortable when surrounded by people who we like and who we feel we have things in common with. We all have our own set of unconscious biases that can limit our level of openness and inclusion. Notice the keyword is unconscious… we are not even aware of what we are doing to end up in a non-diverse, non-inclusive environment. Organizations and IT executives have to learn how to take a hard look at themselves to identify opportunities to get into some “uncomfortable” situations. Many leaders and organizations are not very self-aware and therefore are not in a position to change. Once the self-awareness challenge is addressed, the next step is to be intentional in your thoughts and actions to focus on diversifying your workplace and including a variety of ideas in your decision-making. Another challenge I hear about quite a bit is that, in certain roles and levels, there aren’t enough available diverse resources to pick from to bring into the conversation. If that’s a problem your company is facing, first look within… see if you have high potential candidates that can be coached and mentored to get to the next level. Partner with external recruiting and talent management organizations that can expand your base of candidates.
Research conducted in this area shows groups with greater levels of diversity (gender and ethnicities) innovate and solve problems at a greater pace. What do you feel are the main reasons for this?
No one person knows everything about everything. The best leaders know how to “get the right people around the table” to innovate and solve problems. What would happen if your table was full of people just like you… with the same upbringing, the same work experiences, the same personality type, the same strengths? You would, for the most part, agree on everything and again…. Feel very “comfortable” about everything your table was producing and responsible for. When you are able to introduce a voice that is different than yours, that’s when magic and innovation can happen. A different voice can unleash thoughts and ideas that would have never come up at your “homogeneous” table. Because no one person knows everything, the more unique voices you have around the table can form a very powerful body of knowledge and action. This table can challenge each other, brainstorm from different angles, and use everyone’s strengths to build innovative products, “out of the box” solutions, and better understand customer needs… all of that together gives a company a true competitive advantage.
What immediate steps can IT leaders take when trying to create a more diverse workforce?
I will go back to self-awareness… and then back to being intentional. Take an honest look at yourself to assess what your conscious or unconscious biases might be and develop a plan to work against those biases. Look around you and make sure you don’t just have a bunch of “yous” sitting at your table. Challenge yourself to include some other voice in the conversation the next time you are trying to do something new or make a strategic decision. Go to lunch with someone different… you may learn quite a bit from that exchange. Also, hire some professional help to educate you and your organization about D&I and figure out the best set of strategies for your workplace.
What long-term foundations can they put in place to ensure this continues?
Longer term, partner with your HR team to make sure you have a program in place focus on diversity from the recruiting perspective; make an investment in leadership training and coaching to make sure you are growing leaders who understand how D&I is a critical component to high-performing and innovative teams; track your progress through data… use surveys and assessments to measure where you are and how you are improving over time; make sure your existing employee base has a formal way to give feedback on improvements and share ideas to celebrate and focus on D&I. The best tip I can give is to tie D&I initiatives to solutions to operational challenges… don’t just think of D&I as its own battle to fight… figure out how you can leverage D&I to forward your operational goals. Make sure your strategy is well-rounded and incorporates the “4c’s” of diversity: Culture, Career, Commerce and Community.
Following the session at the forum, what do you ultimately want the executives in attendance to go and do when they return to their offices?
Ultimately, I want my peers to approach diversity and inclusion from the standpoint of looking within first and creating self-awareness. I’m hoping that during the session, every attendee will discover at least one action item they can take back to their organizations to incorporate into their professional and organizational development plans. I also hope that each person will better understand what other companies are doing to improve their D&I strategies and the business case for change and feel compelled to drive home the advantages of D&I.
Nickoria Johnson is speaking at the 2019 TOLA IT & Security Leaders Forum taking place on February 24 – 26 at the St. Anthony Hotel, San Antonio, TX. For information on the event go to https://sincusa.com/event/tola-it-security-leaders-forum/