Summary: The human resources landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, with diversity and inclusion (D&I) playing a significant role in every organization’s infrastructure. Today’s HR executives need the skills to spearhead systemic change by learning about and implementing solutions to the complex diversity issues that occur at all levels of an organization. The key is to listen well; be intentional about workforce talent acquisition, planning, and management; and provide managers with the resources they need. HR executives also must be aware of cultural nuances that differ depending on the country, acknowledge that some of the current systems are broken, and challenge themselves to fix them by learning how to solve problems they weren’t originally taught to solve.
In a live online session with participants in Wharton Executive Education’s Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) Program, Lindsay-Rae McIntyre, chief diversity officer at Microsoft, shared these insights about the challenges facing today’s HR leaders as well as thoughts about how to tackle them in the context of D&I initiatives.
Do today’s HR executives have the necessary strategy, operational framework, and senior leadership commitment to make their systems accountable and responsible for accelerating inclusion in a holistic, sustainable, scalable way? That’s the question veteran HR executive Lindsay-Rae McIntyre asks when confronting complex and challenging diversity issues and finding solutions that result in systemic change.
In a live online session with participants in Wharton Executive Education’s Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) Program, McIntyre, chief diversity officer for Microsoft, shared her insights into a wide range of diversity issues facing HR leaders today as well as future trends. The CHRO Program provides senior HR executives with the opportunity to build their leadership skills, explore the latest concepts in people analytics and performance management, and hone their decision-making capabilities.
McIntyre has worked all over the world in pursuit of equitable human resources outcomes. The real work, she said, is figuring out what the organization is trying to achieve because “D&I work lives in different organizations in different ways.” Sometimes, it’s bolted to philanthropic or foundational endeavors. Other times, it’s attached to marketing communications efforts. And often it’s focused on the organization’s core business or what she calls the “business of the business.”
Whether that goal is aligned with or driven by different functional goals, McIntyre said the basic work of D&I is making sure it’s connected to all the systems that make the workforce function: “How and where we source candidates, how we move folks through their onboarding experiences, and how we provide systemic support through talent management motions are all critical.”
Business Success Requires Inclusion
McIntyre told the program’s participants that at Microsoft, diversity is about striving to empower everyone to achieve more. “We don’t have ‘high potential’ talent because we believe everybody has potential. But the operational discipline to unlock that potential requires focus and leader engagement in a very different way.” To do that, she noted, requires human-centered talent management and an understanding of the challenges and opportunities confronting various teams throughout an organization.
At Microsoft, D&I work is grounded in the company’s core mission and accountability to its employees, customers, and shareholders. It’s also about being a profitable company that employs a competitive workforce and meets the needs of its customers. “All of that requires greater representation, perspective, and inclusion,” McIntyre said.
Knowing When to Ask the Right Questions and When to Listen
McIntyre shared with program participants that one of her most useful skills has been the ability to explore the questions people don’t ask — “the silence in the room” or what isn’t being said. “The ability to lift things into the conversation is the most obvious trick I have. But I also listen hard and stay focused. If you listen hard enough, it’s not difficult to catch trends, directions, or dissatisfaction.”
No matter what HR challenge McIntyre is working to solve, she said she always starts by exploring the data. “What data do we have and what is it telling us about where we have momentum or are stuck?” She also asks, “How can we build empathy and invest in the messy discomfort of connecting to concepts and lived experiences that we don’t have or understand but need to be smarter about and more accountable to? How can we become the leaders we aspire to be?”
How does McIntyre define success? Achieving greater representation ― from interns to board members ― is essential. “It requires real intentionality around workforce planning, acquisition, and talent management to move people to and through the organization to ensure an irresistible work experience.”
McIntyre said it’s critical to provide managers with the tools and resources to help them become successful. Doing so also fuels McIntyre’s own professional motivation. As for developing her own HR muscles, McIntyre adds she is constantly curious about the many non-traditional sources of talent she feels are an untapped opportunity. Additionally, McIntyre routinely checks in with her peers to ascertain what matters to them or what’s getting in their way.
McIntyre told the participants that she feels fortunate her leadership team “flies in formation” on this topic, acknowledging that kind of formation doesn’t happen accidentally but represents an intentional commitment to D&I at the most strategic levels of the business. Much of this work is built on strong partnerships across the company and leadership teams, McIntyre shared. “Once you have a sense of what fuels a leader, you can offer solutions and grow with them as their guide. Our best opportunity as HR professionals is to support leaders so they don’t feel alone.”
The Future of D&I Depends on Deepening Understanding
Looking to the future of D&I, McIntyre argues that being more global is necessary and challenging. She said managers and HR professionals need the skill sets to understand race, ethnicity, and the gender continuum broadly while also being aware of cultural nuances that vary across different countries. In a diverse workforce, she notes it’s important to provide the cognitive frame and logistical education that builds the confidence needed to offer support and respect differences in employees’ identities.
McIntyre told the group of HR executives that the pandemic’s effect on the workplace cannot be ignored. “COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on marginalized individuals. A lot of hateful behavior unfolded and escalated that brought into focus how we need to behave with one another in the workplace for a different outcome.” Not surprisingly, mental health has also taken center stage. “We need the language that brings mental health into focus, too. There is a lot of partnering that must happen to determine how to provide new and different support structures.”
What advice does McIntyre give for HR executives seeking to advance in their careers to a CHRO role? She suggested the first place to start is with yourself ― read, learn, and talk to people of the identities about which you want to learn. She adds that opportunities like those provided in the CHRO Program are “an incredible way to keep relationships and networks alive. It’s an untapped well of support, innovation, and insight that too many of us ignore. We need to hold on to our peers so they can be accountability partners. Because we all need those teams and support systems.”
Previously, HR was known as the protector of company and management, but today McIntyre argues that organizations are moving into a decade of greater focus on employee engagement and satisfaction. “How can we as an HR function pivot hard in the service of an incredible employee experience building systems that will accelerate and support the change we need to achieve, solving new challenges we were not necessarily trained to solve?”
As HR leaders, McIntyre said the greatest way to support employees is to invest in their learning and growth and foster a culture that truly values D&I. Companies can be focused on how to drive revenue, acquire customers, and compete. But the only way they are going to be successful — and truly innovative — is by ensuring D&I isn’t extra, it’s just an expectation for how we drive HR and the business.”
You can learn more about the Wharton Executive Education Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) Program by visiting our program home page.