For a good portion of her 21-year career in the advertising industry, Hermon Ghermay says she shrunk herself to fit into a box. Her family history originates in Eritrea, but the current global chief cultural officer at Mediabrands lived in several African countries where she didn’t know the local language while growing up. Then she found herself stateless in the US during her college years, and applied for political asylum. Her background was different—and few in mainstream African or American society knew exactly where to place her. To make it easier for others, she ultimately joined a broader grouping as a black person in America, although her own personal identity was far more complex.
“It made others more comfortable," she says. "But doing that is not inclusion. And I think that's why it's so important to me. Inclusion is really equally about uniqueness and belonging. It’s important to think about not just whether everybody feels a sense of belonging—regardless of what they're doing to feel that—but also, if we are honouring and seeing somebody's uniqueness and allowing that to really come to the forefront.”
Ghermay’s comments were part of a fireside chat at Campaign Leading Change about the human side of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) metrics and initiatives at organisations. She explained that the rigour of data and reporting are critical for shining light on the gaps in representation and ensuring accountability measures are in place to move the needle. But it’s also only one side of the greater ambition.
“The problem with representation is all of this work comes down to identity, and identity is not one- or two-dimensional,” she explains, noting the importance of intersectionality. “If we focus only on [representation], then we're missing this whole amazing complex richness of what it means to be human. We're relegating people to a single identity, which, especially in the business that we're in, in the creative field, is the antithesis of what we want to do.”
Balancing representation and inclusion
Given this, Ghermay says her strategy is to have both representation and inclusion work hand in hand. At Mediabrands, this involves meeting with leaders in their top global markets, discovering where they and their teams are at and need to get to, and then setting representation goals each year that are tied to their leaders’ compensation, with multi-year horizons.
But within that is a crucial avenue for listening to leaders, client and employee groups. This starts with human insights around what people are really looking for, Ghermay says, before building data-based processes for reaching tangible goals and scaling them more broadly into global frameworks.
One example she cites is of a new career advancement program for black talent in the US that is intended to be rolled out globally. The initiative was shaped early on by a shared-space focus group conversation about how the employees felt perceived in the company. “They don’t see us,” one employee said in an emotional moment. By taking in that human insight, sparked new thinking about how others might actually ‘see’ the group, Ghermay says. This, in turn, steered the initiative away from practical skills training to a focus on long-term career development.
“People want to feel heard, seen and supported,” Ghermay says. “So the approach we've tried to take is, how can we provide global support and guidance, but really make sure that it resonates for the brands, the teams in the markets that we're doing work in.”
This also means acting on changes in how employees are feeling as discourse changes in different societies. Rigidly sticking to a fixed five-year plan may not be the best way to reach that desired change in five years.
"What the last year-and-a-half has shown us is, if any of us have ever used a diversity playbook, now is probably the time to put that aside," she adds. "It is such a completely different time.
"We have to react in a really thoughtful manner. And so some of the things that we've done in the past may not be as applicable to what we do and also do what feels right for your specific culture. When something has worked somewhere else, use that as inspiration. But custom-, custom-, customise it. Because if it feels like an off-the-shelf solution that we've just tried to slap on top of it, it won't have the impact, and it will feel that way.
Other measures of cultural change
Determining impact, of course, is where the DEI boxes and spreadsheets once again come in handy on representation. And often, the intangibles around cultural change are measured by the number of new initiatives at each company alongside their award count.
But when assessing company’s culture, Ghermay notes it’s important to take a long-term approach: looking at whether various new initiatives actually stick and build off one another, or whether they’re mostly reactive and short-lived.
The other measure Ghermay advises paying more attention to is what people say about their experiences, rather than just hearing it from leadership or looking at spreadsheets. It’s the people who create cultural change, after all, and they can help provide the clearest sense.
The starting point of culture: Let’s talk
What many will likely find is that the employees who speak most positively about their company’s culture are those who are part of the conversation in shaping it. So just as important as the smaller focus groups and safe spaces, Ghermay says, is the need to foster a larger shared conversation at the center of an organisation.
“We have to be able to talk about this," Ghermay says. "That sounds so simple, but as we’ve seen, it’s become really hard because there's such a fear of getting it wrong or inadvertently offending. I think there are people who feel like they don't have a voice, that this is not their time. And there's a sense of disenfranchisement that comes with that.
“But if we don't have a center to come to, I worry that we won't be able to achieve any of the things that we want to. And so we really try to think about our role as an organization is how we create that shared space in the center. How do we create all of the amazing different groups and identities and have people celebrate that, but then come together and actually have a conversation in the center? Because without that, it might stifle and kill all of the creativity or ability to be able to engage with each other as human beings.”
This story first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific.