Driving Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. Spotlight on: Alistair Marshall and Thomas Kilgore

We invited Retail Hive Advisor and Expert Alistair Marshall to interview Thomas Kilgore, Manager of Diversity, Belonging & Environmental Social Governance at Neiman Marcus to share their advice to drive diversity, inclusion and belonging within the retail space.

Alistair Marshall: Retail and hospitality are two of the only industries where you’re really connected to the customer. You touch people across every spectrum of humanity and, as a result, the team’s dynamic and leadership should reflect the end customer. Unfortunately, whilst a business’s diversity metrics can look pretty healthy on paper, this is not what we see in practise.

When you really dig into the figures it’s hard to see where that diversity sits and when you move up to leadership positions these ultimately become significantly less diverse.

We feel really passionate that retail can be an industry leader in the space. What we want to talk about today are some of the obstacles to diversity and inclusion; the initial work that we as retail leaders can do; and how to partner with external agencies and organizations that can help to drive this change within your organization.

Thomas, what does diversity and inclusion mean to you?

Thomas: It’s interesting because, if you look at the history of diversity and belonging, “belonging” is a term that has been coined in the 21st century – 2010 to be precise. The word “diversity” dates back to the 1960s and the Equal Employment Opportunities Act of 1964, through which “inclusion” had very legalistic undertones and there was a huge focus on racial quotas in particular areas. Over time, it has significantly evolved to become more expansive and is now inclusive, not only of race but of all forms of diversity including sexual orientation, veteran status, women’s rights and all types of disabilities.

A huge misstep that a lot of organizations take is to have a siloed diversity and inclusion department operating as its own entity. On the contrary, what they need to do is to ensure they are creating and building out a strategy which looks at all facets of the organization – from supplier diversity to brand diversity; PR and marketing; customer experience; eCommerce and IT etc – and work out how to integrate diversity, inclusion and belonging (DIB) into all sectors, whilst simultaneously ensuring that all leaders are empowered to spearhead this movement. Companies that do this well will make a very clear impact to both the top and bottom line. There is a very strong business case for having more diversity in your team as this will represent more voices of your clients.

“Diversity are the metrics – what your organization looks and feels like. Inclusion is the space you’re creating for everyone to exist. And belonging is the feeling of being in that space and how it resonates with you”. Alistair Marshall

Alistair Marshall: What are some of the first steps that you recommend a company to take when tackling the issue of DIB in the workplace?

Thomas: For starters, I would recommend all employers to review the Equal Employment Opportunity benchmarks and see how they compare to others within their retail space. Whilst one can claim to be a very diverse organization employing several minorities, when looking at a more granular level, where are these individuals actually employed? Are they in positions in-store? And what about executive C-suite positions? Data can be skewed, so it’s important to see how you stack up against others and to be open and transparent with regards to the opportunities available within the organization.

Before going ahead with any strategy to address DIB in the workplace, organizations should look to the nucleus of opportunity. Too often companies make the mistake of diving in and trying to fix a problem without taking a barometer check of how the organization is feeling. So, it’s crucial to take a pulse survey with employees before starting any initiative to affect change – another way this can be done is by creating affinity groups.

Alistair Marshall: What do you think of affinity groups? What would make these types of focus groups successful?

Thomas: Affinity groups are crucial to provide a safe space for associates to provide feedback. That said, organizations are too often very micro in their approach and so we typically find groups representing either gender or race. However, I would always encourage organizations to cast a broader net and look at other groups such – working millennials, cancer survivors, single parents and military family members are just a few examples. This will provide a good cross pollination of different identities coming together to find a common theme of something they connect with, rather than simply leading with race.

Alistair Marshall: For me, the most crucial factor for success of these affinity groups is that a member of senior leadership is present. Without this, a lot of these discussions can go nowhere. To achieve this, organizations really need to understand who their internal allies are for the cause. Even if an associate resource group is not a part of their remit, they need to champion the cause and take responsibility for helping to create a paradigm shift in mindset where any issue that’s important to the business is important for all of its members.

Alistair Marshall: In terms of roadblocks, what are some of the more common ones that you’ve come up against?

Thomas: I find it really interesting how, as a result of all the current social unrest, a lot of organizations have really rolled up their sleeves and got into the trenches – but they’ve done this without doing any of the pre-emptive work. Before an organization can start to get into the really heavy topics, such as micro aggressions and unconscious bias training, it’s really crucial that the foundation components are there, such as emotional intelligence and what this looks like when having a dialogue. There needs to be a clear cultural competence and understanding of differences in cultures. Skills such as how to engage in a “brave conversation” and what it looks like to be an active listener are important, as is the ability to show empathy. The only way that organizations can ensure they get there is to slow down the process and hear from the people first.

That said, when faced with reality, some people just won’t be on board – they won’t think that it’s their problem. But, ultimately, every organization needs to get buy in from the top, and leadership need to embrace and champion this training.

Alistair Marshall: I find that a lot of leaders are trying to find easy wins to achieve DIB but I disagree with this mentality. Diversity, inclusion and belonging should be all about significant, permanent and sustainable changes to your culture and climate – it is not a quick process and will inevitably take time. Would you recommend doing this internally yourself or through an external consultancy?

Thomas: Often organizations will do these surveys internally, but I certainly recommend hiring an expert consultant if there is budget to do so. Investing in this work will have a long-lasting impact on the business, so hiring a diversity and inclusion consulting firm will be very helpful to ensure that these surveys use the correct language and you’re being very clear and succinct with your questions.

Alistair Marshall: What kind of training curriculum do you advise companies to initially focus on? What do we need as a leadership team to support this initiative? I think really important to understand what foundational leadership management skills needed in team to adopt change mind set.

Thomas: One thing that I recommend to everyone is to use LinkedIn learnings – there is literally database of over 16,000 modules readily accessible. Covering topics from how to manage diversity to unconscious bias, cultural competence and emotional intelligence delivered by world class speakers; it’s an invaluable tool and means that organizations don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Similarly, if a business belongs to a parent company, they should look to their curriculum to utilise and see what’s already out there to use. A massive misnomer is for brands to think that they have to create all these documents from scratch.

Alistair Marshall: I think it’s really important for leadership teams to form ally ships. All employees within an organization should feel comfortable speaking up and calling people out when they’re behaving in an unsavoury way. Leaders can focus on encouraging micro affirmations and building people up and offering support. By creating an opportunity to understand from colleagues the issues that they’re facing, allies can be the champion in the room to help push initiatives through. It’s okay not to know; it’s not okay to not care to know.

What’s the most important thing you think retail leaders should be doing?

Thomas: This is a little controversial, but I believe that organizations should share the results of their pulse surveys with all employees. By being transparent, they are then able to set clear goals and intentions for what the business needs to do to create viable solutions.

What is paramount to understand is that this is going to take time, especially if diversity and inclusion is not already interwoven into the organization. A longer-term strategy is very likely to be required. Being honest and forthcoming about what’s realistic to achieve and having sustainable resources to achieve this, and sharing regular updates along the way, will be the difference between those who succeed and fail. That’s how to make change happen.

Alistair Marshall: Are there any organizations or non-profits that you would recommend for people who are looking for guidance and support in this area?

Thomas: Yes! These are a few I would recommend:

  • 100k Mentors – A really amazing business linking key executives within an organization with students looking to do similar work. It really creates space and opportunity for students to find autonomy in retail sector
  • BRAG– A non-profit organization that prepares and educates professionals, entrepreneurs and students of color for executive leadership in retail, fashion and related industries
  • Pilot– Offers scaled career development so ideal for diversity and inclusion initiatives to support talent growth

Thank you, Alistair and Thomas!