Blog Post

Diversity Dialogue with James White, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at OppenheimerFunds

August 8, 2016

James White joined OppenheimerFunds as head of Diversity and Inclusion in late September of 2015 where he has been tasked with leading the execution and ongoing development of a multi-year strategy to establish inclusion as a core value and competitive advantage for the firm. Implementation of this strategy entails establishing an ongoing change management process with targeted programs and effective governance in order to yield meaningful, measurable results.

We asked James to share his insights into creating a strategic diversity and inclusion plan, ramping up Employee Resource Groups and engaging middle managers after his first year in this new role.

You recently joined OppenheimerFunds to create and lead a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategy. What was important for the initial discovery phase to be productive and ultimately led to the strategy you launched earlier this year?

Immediately after joining OppenheimerFunds in September 2015, I presented a 90-day plan to set expectations for the road ahead. Although there was a groundswell of support for diversity and inclusion across all levels and departments, for many this was the first exposure to an organized, business-aligned strategic approach.

I spent the majority of my time during the first two months listening, observing, asking questions, and analyzing engagement survey and other HR data while documenting the firm’s previous diversity and inclusion efforts. It was important to understand the cultural landscape.

The long term strategy we would develop needed to take into consideration the firm’s history, current state of diversity and inclusion, business strategy and subject matter expertise. While there are many tools that firms can leverage to achieve their goals of diversity and inclusion, the suite of solutions should be systematically curated, launched in a logical sequence based on readiness, so that every new initiative makes sense and is clearly aligned to the goals of the business. To be effective, there should be a narrative that tells the story of the journey past, present, and future, not a laundry list of activities.

During the third month, I began to socialize a foundational Diversity & Inclusion strategy based on four key pillars – Talent, Brand, Culture, and Client – and fully aligned to our business strategy. It was clear that our firm’s leadership understood the connection between diversity, inclusion and innovation and saw their impact on our employees, clients, and the communities we serve. In fact, when I looked at the investment strategies of some of our funds during the discovery phase, the notion of diversity was clearly embedded in some of those strategies.

Building relationships with key stakeholders, influencers and other diversity champions who understood the organization was critical so that as we began to have conversations on gender, ethnicity, and unconscious bias, for example, discussions that hadn’t necessarily occurred formally in the workplace before, there would be supporters along the way.

By April, the firm’s leadership had fully approved the diversity and inclusion strategy and offered their endorsement to move forward into the execution phase. As presentations at town halls and team meetings kicked off, it was important to cascade our leadership’s support to all levels of the organization.

You mentioned that diversity was already embedded in many of your investment strategies when you joined OppenheimerFunds. Can you elaborate?

Yes, a good example is one of the investment spotlights within our Beautiful World Campaign, in which Heidi Heikenfeld, portfolio manager of the Oppenheimer Emerging Markets Innovators fund, says that “by empowering women we can change the future for entire communities.” She continues, “Women spend on education for their children, healthy food, fitness and ways to make their communities better. In my role as portfolio manager I look for companies that are aligned with the aspirations of the people in the country … in the consumer space, healthcare and technology, because I think that represents the new emerging markets.”

The suggestion that understanding the spending habits of women in creating an investment strategy for a fund is a perfect demonstration of the business alignment we talk about in our diversity strategy. This is just one example but you’ll see this same idea throughout our campaign.

OppenheimerFunds recently re-structured the way employee resource groups function at the organization. What was the process to manage this change?

There were three Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) when I joined: the Women’s Network, the PROUD Network representing the LGBT community, and the Multicultural Network. Since then, three more have launched: the Military Network, the Black Professionals Network and the People with Disabilities Network.

Since none of the ERGs had existed for more than two years, there was a unique opportunity to drive change, which can be much harder to do in well-established groups. To introduce a new vision for their potential in driving business value, it was important to evolve the perception of our ERGs from stand-alone, social networks to that of strategic partners in driving our business strategy. At the first annual ERG onsite in February 2016, the steering committees discussed the vision, mission and objectives for our ERGs, as well as leadership roles and responsibilities, new processes and benchmarking. Reflecting the theme of business alignment, the ERGs were officially changed to “Business Resource Groups” or “BRGs”.

Since that time, we’ve observed a 20% increase in BRG membership which is believed to be a direct result of the re-alignment and the marketing efforts that followed, including a new BRG brand toolkit and web portal. This month, we will host membership drives with the goal of marketing the new BRG strategy and value proposition for employees, the firm as a whole, clients, and our communities. The hope is to see a material increase in membership and engagement by the end of 2016.

What is the next frontier for BRGs at OppenheimerFunds?

Modeling BRGs after established BRGs in other organizations can limit their potential to add value. And while benchmarking is a valuable tool, it can also halt innovation.

Introducing design thinking methodologies to our BRG mindset can turn the notion of a traditional BRG on its ear. Investing in BRG leadership and developing new skillsets positions them to be think tanks for discovering new solutions to business challenges. As the millennial generation moves into the workforce and our global footprint expands, BRGs can become change agents to help drive cultural agility and navigate the changing world.

Additionally, there is an increasing and urgent need for BRGs to find their voice in recognizing current events that impact employees and their communities. When natural disasters or acts of violence occur, the ability for a BRG, without fear, to acknowledge these events and provide resources, discussion forums, and written responses through internal websites, emails, and blog posts can have a powerful impact on engagement, retention, productivity and culture.

BRGs can also play a role in advising senior leadership on how to address these events. As we encourage authenticity as a means to embrace our diversity, we have an added responsibility to acknowledge events that cause disruption, upset and pain in the lives of their employees. Although some conversations might not belong in the workplace, BRGs can help leadership to connect and show their empathy.

A theme that has become central to many diversity and inclusion conversations is the idea of “allyship.” not just for the LGBT community but as a cornerstone of successful diversity and inclusion efforts. How did you ensure that allyship was built into your strategic plan? What are some examples of how the diversity and inclusion team and the BRGs engage and leverage allies to move their work forward?

​​Understanding the role of diversity and inclusion in driving innovation, we recognize that by engaging the majority demographic as “allies,” we can have a direct impact on representation of diverse talent. (To become an ally is to develop an awareness of the unconscious biases that lead to decisions in favor of those who “look like” the decision maker.) This can influence outcomes when hiring, promoting, creating development opportunities, assigning key clients and offering plum projects. When allies provide sponsorship and other forms of support for diverse talent, we see an increase in skill-sets, retention, engagement and promotion rates.

Typically associated with the LGBT community, we have broadened the definition of allyship and embedded into the strategies of all of our BRGs. For example, we want men to join our Women’s Network, not only as members but we’d also like to see them in leadership roles. And, as we consider a diverse talent development strategy, allies will be engaged as sponsors.

We’ve identified a few practical considerations for allies to consider:

  • How diverse is your team? Maintain an ongoing awareness of the diversity of your team and the limitations in driving innovation that can come as a result.
  • How diverse is your internal network? Make a conscious effort to know the organization’s diverse talent outside of your own team and internal social network.
  • When hiring new employees, develop an awareness of how your unconscious biases may lead you to undervalue the experience, talent and expertise of those who are not like you.
  • When building a new team, making promotion decisions and assigning plum projects, consider these opportunities in advancing the careers of diverse talent.
  • At team meetings, make a conscious effort to engage diverse talent in the discussion.
  • Mentor or sponsor diverse talent.
  • Join a BRG to remain connected to diverse talent. Serving on a committee, volunteering or just attending events are valuable opportunities to engage with diverse talent to learn more about their experiences and the unique skills, talents, and perspectives they bring to the organization.

Engaging middle managers in diversity and inclusion efforts is an area of opportunity for many organizations. In what ways have you incorporated efforts to address this issue in your strategic plan and ERG re-structure?

Mid-level managers are the next generation of diversity and inclusion leaders so early engagement is critical to allow time for adoption before leading the organization.

One way to engage mid-level managers is through BRGs. Through a rigorous co-chair selection process – and in some cases steering committee leads – our candidates are nominated by the BRG and then key stakeholders such as HR, the Diversity Council (to be formed in Q4), and our senior leaders weigh in on selection and approval. This positions key roles in BRGs as leadership and development opportunities for high potential, mid-level talent, making the roles more attractive for those who are nominated. Also, mid-level managers in BRG leadership roles increases opportunities to engage more senior employees which increases networking and development opportunities for junior employees.

Another opportunity to engage mid-level managers is through our departmental diversity committees. These committees are responsible for creating diversity “business plans” which outline the department’s deliverables along the four key pillars of our diversity strategy: Talent, Brand, Culture, and Client. By nominating mid-level managers to serve on and lead these committees, we increase opportunities for leadership, engagement, networking, recognition, and accountability for impact in the firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts.