By Ellen McGirt
June 26, 2017

What do you wish people at work understood about you? How are you invisible to them? What do people get wrong about you?

When Accenture asked these and other important questions of its employees in a series of workshops, they took the answers seriously.

“Frankly, I was blown away,” Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer at Accenture told Fortune.

Some were annoyed at being mistaken for other ethnicities. Some young employees were tired of being dismissed as entitled or unengaged. Others worried that misconceptions about their disabilities would leave them behind at work. And some expressed resentment that their accomplishments, as majority culture white males, weren’t as celebrated as those of others. All the human stuff.

“We’re doing so many things right on paper,” says Shook. “But those can’t work if people can’t be honest about who they are at work.”

Shook decided to turn those insights into a learning moment. “This isn’t just about diversity that you can see,” she told Fortune. “This is about 411,000 people feeling like they have a place to be successful, professionally and personally.”

Accenture partnered with Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global to conduct the workshops, which yielded the above insights, and after a lengthy development process created a video using real Accenture employees holding cards describing their authentic feelings. It’s well worth your time. (Bring tissues.)

You can find it here.

I had a chance to see how the video impacted a herd of Accenture employees when it was shown last week at the company’s annual learning conference for executive directors. There was nary a dry eye in the 700 seat auditorium, including mine.

I was in the room to moderate a panel about inclusion at Accenture, which featured Shook, Zahra Bahrololoumi, a managing director for Accenture Technology in the UK, CIO Andrew Wilson, and Nate Boaz, the senior managing director in charge of talent strategy and learning. It began with the five of us showing our own cards describing our own feelings. (Yes, even me.) That as it turned out, was an important first step.

After our discussion, Boaz led the room through one of the most effective exercises I’ve witnessed in ages. “We’re asking you to make a commitment – starting with yourself – to make Accenture the most inclusive organization on the planet,” he said.

Boaz had asked the panel to prepare and share another card with a specific action we would take toward making our lives more inclusive. (Yes, even me.)

Then, Oprah-style, he had each audience member reach under their chairs and pick up a poster board to write their own. “When you finish writing your commitment, please stand up and hold it up so that we know you’ve completed it,” he said. It was an enormously moving sight to wait and watch as 700 people began to rise. “Look around. Look in each other’s eyes. These are commitments that we are making to each other, to our friends, to our colleagues, to our families, human to human,” said Boaz.

Boaz has had an interesting route to leadership. In addition to stints at HBS and McKinsey, he’s also a combat veteran. In 2003, he was part of a group of Marines who rescued seven American POWs being held in Sammara, Iraq. Boaz spoke openly about his combat experiences and his subsequent PTSD. “I will be kind to everyone I meet-for each person is fighting a private battle I know nothing about,” he wrote on his commitment card.

That’s a pretty good commitment if you’re looking for some suggestions.

I asked Boaz for his best advice on how to design an exercise with impact:

  1. Engage the heart before the head. This is not about corporate mandates, it’s about human beings. Therefore, start with how you feel and ask how others how they feel.
  2. Create psychological safety. Give people permission to get whatever they’re holding back out in the open. You do this by having influencers role model their own imperfections and insecurities so others feel comfortable doing the same.
  3. Make the action specific and personal. People change when they understand the reason why, and have a clear step to take. We are often too general and don’t explain “why” we are going to change. With both, we most certainly will.

Shook says this “moment” is really part of a much larger movement. “What happens when we all feel like everyone belongs? Not just at work but in the world?”

But it’s real work, so here’s me doing it. My feeling poster said, “I feel sad when people don’t think of me as a real (step)parent.” Standing in a room full of people who were working hard to understand other people and their complex identities, it felt good to share it.

My commitment was a public declaration of the one I made to myself when I took an unexpected tumble into journalism fifteen years ago. Now I make it to you: “I promise to always speak truth to power.”

 

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