As organisations’ responsibilities around diversity, equity and inclusion continue to evolve, Ford is encouraging its executives to sit down and listen to their people about the issues that matter most to them.
Today’s world of work calls for leaders who know how to champion a cause.
Employee activism around social issues is growing, and organisations are under increasing pressure to take a stance on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG). As a result, senior leaders now have a greater responsibility to balance the interests of their business with what’s important to their people.
Recognising the importance of keeping a finger on the pulse of the workforce when it comes to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), HR leaders at Ford have created a direct line between leaders and their people through what they call ‘leadership listening sessions’.
“Ford has been a pioneer in creating a diverse workforce right from the very beginning, when it was opened by Henry Ford more than 100 years ago,” says Anoop Chaudhuri FCPHR, Vice President of HR at Ford ANZ.
“But now, it’s about how we continue evolving our workplace to make people feel that they can belong.
“We have people from diverse backgrounds and different nationalities – for example, in Australia, more than 50 per cent of our employees were born overseas. We [want to show] that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you look like, what you say or don’t say – we want everyone to feel like they can belong. And this initiative was kicked off as an opportunity for leaders to come and listen – not talk, but listen.”
Chaudhuri discussed this initiative at this year’s AFR Summit in February, as part of a panel alongside AHRI’s CEO Sarah McCann-Bartlett as well as Nicky Sparshott, CEO of Unilever ANZ, and Simon Longstaff, Executive Director at The Ethics Centre.
Hosting a leadership listening session
The listening sessions held at Ford are made up of senior leaders at the company and selected employees who belong to a particular demographic group or a mixed demographic group.
“The sessions usually go for about an hour or so, and it’s generally preempted with a particular topic. Whatever the topic may be, it’s an opportunity for people from a particular background to come and share their views or opinions. Some were very general in nature, and some were around specific topics like gender equity or LGBTQI+ issues,” says Chaudhuri.
Both leaders and employees are briefed on the topic beforehand, and special focus is placed on setting the scene for executives to approach the sessions in the right way, he says.
“Leaders, being leaders, always want to solve problems. They are very solutions-driven – they want to fix things right now. And part of the pre-brief for them is getting them to pull back and remember that we’re not there to solve the problem, we are there to listen and learn.”
Feedback on the initiative has been overwhelmingly positive, with employees appreciating the opportunity to have their voices heard at a senior level and leaders themselves gaining a thorough understanding of what needed to be done to advance DEI in the organisation.
Chaudhuri offers some advice for HR leaders considering implementing a similar initiative.
“There are a few key success factors. One is to ask yourself why you’re doing it – what’s the intent behind it? [At Ford], we had two things in mind. One was that we wanted leaders to experience the world from someone else’s perspective. A second was to gather information and intelligence about where we could be doing better.
“Another factor is to make it clear what’s in it for the business, the individual and the team.”
In order to marry the interests of a business and its people, Chaudhuri suggests considering both top-down and bottom-up approaches to listening sessions.
“An example of a top-down approach would be [looking at] a strategic objective. For example, we are an industry that’s more [dominated by] men than women. So, maybe we want to increase women’s participation in the workforce,” he says.
“Leaders, being leaders, always want to solve problems. They are very solutions-driven – they want to fix things right now. And part of the pre-brief for them is getting them to pull back and remember that we’re not there to solve the problem, we are there to listen and learn.” – Anoop Chaudhuri FCPHR, Vice President of HR at Ford ANZ
“A bottom-up approach would be consulting with [employees] themselves. For example, at Ford, we have some very successful employee resource groups, or ERGs, that many of us are part of. And ERGs often champion a particular cause.
“When you bring the two together, it’s a much more holistic way of addressing [these issues]. If you just tell them what to do, they won’t have an interest in sharing their ideas because there’s no involvement from them.”
Building a sense of belonging
While a great deal of progress has been made in the field of DEI, leaders at Ford are increasingly directing their focus on moving beyond inclusion and creating a true sense of belonging for the company’s diverse and dispersed workforce. Belonging was therefore the cornerstone of the leadership listening initiative.
“I think the sessions helped us to acknowledge that sometimes, we tend to think about diversity in very black-and-white terms,” says Chaudhuri.
“Beyond some of the more obvious differences we all have as humans, there are many that are not obvious. And the ability to appreciate that became very prominent in the sessions.
“For example, some of our people might have a medical condition that means they get a migraine if they’re in an office setting with particular lighting. Or some might have a condition that makes it difficult for them to lift and move things.
“It made us think about how we can better support diverse needs in the organisation and how we, as leaders, can role model some of the behaviours we think will be instrumental in making the workplace more inclusive.”
Chaudhuri says leaders should also consider how they can champion the push for a more diverse workforce. For many leaders, he says, this means letting go of the idea of the ‘perfect fit’.
“If there’s a job opening to fill, the normal tendency for leaders is to try and look for the perfect person. But often, if you’re looking for a perfect fit in any type of role, you’re not going to get the best output, because there is nothing to challenge the individual.
“I would ask [leaders] to challenge themselves and think about how they might look to make accommodations from a DEI perspective, because there’s no such thing as a perfect fit.
“That ‘perfect’ persona that we have in our minds prevents us from opening up the candidate pool. If we can challenge ourselves to say, ‘How can we provide that level of flexibility?’, we end up with a much more diverse and inclusive organisation.”
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