Tara Jaye Frank on Creating Workplace Equity and Inclusion
May 17, 2023
As a sought-after consultant, speaker, and leadership experience designer, Tara Jaye Frank helps leaders and organizations define a vision and develop strategies to advance their culture and leadership goals. In 2015, she published her first book titled Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose - a practical tool to help emerging leaders reach their own professional high grounds.

Today, Tara works closely with member organizations like Network of Executive Women, The Executive Leadership Council, and PGA of America to create content and facilitate diversity and inclusion-based learning experiences through conferences, intensive leadership programs, workshops, panel design and moderation, and keynote addresses. She also works with global Fortune 500 companies to support national and international women’s leadership initiatives, the size and scope of which vary from team-specific to enterprise-wide. Before founding TJF Career Modeling LLC, Tara spent 21 years at Hallmark Cards, Inc., where she was the company’s first Black female vice president, and at the time of her promotion to executive management, the youngest person to rise into senior leadership in Hallmark’s history.

Just before her departure from one of America’s most beloved brands, Tara served as Corporate Culture Advisor for Hallmark’s President. Tara is also the visionary behind #MoreThan: A Movement, a non-profit recently founded to facilitate deeper understanding between disconnected people. #MoreThan combines media outreach, apparel, and scholarships and communication curriculum to build bridges across emotional distance and increase our collective power for good.

Today, people in the workforce really want to be part of defining the culture. They want to contribute with ideas and insight and passion to the kind of company they've decided to commit their hours, their energy, and their talent to. That is a very different paradigm for leaders today than it used to be. It requires more of us. It requires us to understand the workplace through an employee lens, and not just through the lens of our own experience and power I'd like to say.

I wanted to write a book that honestly would help leaders see the opportunities inherent in looking at the workplace through the lens of the employee and meeting them on a very human common ground. I want to share with you a little bit about the research we conducted before we wrote the book that I believe gave a really significant dimension to some of the issues and more to some of the solutions.

The first thing I honestly like to tell people whenever I'm engaged in this kind of conversation is I believe one of the mindsets that kind of gets us stuck and makes us feel paralyzed is the whole industry of diversity, equity and inclusion has almost become this ball of fire that's a little bit distant from us. We look at it off in the distance, we're trying to understand it, we're trying to figure out exactly how we get to it. How do you do DEI?

I think this is a posture that many leaders have taken because of that insecurity, and not necessarily knowing what to do. And I like to remind people that the work is a whole lot more familiar to us than we give it credit for. My work is really focused on the translation between our great aspirations and the big claims we've all made over the last couple of years about the kind of company we want to be, between that and the daily reality of the people who work for us and with us.

There is, as I know and many of you know if you just stopped to think about it, quite the chasm, in many organizations between who we say we are and how people actually experience us. Everything that happens in between there. What are our values? Yes, but how do they show up every day? What are the choices we're making? What are the behaviors we are exhibiting and expecting of others? That's really where the good stuff is.

In any entity, company, environment, you have three levels of culture. You have the level of the claim. You have the policies, which are the rules we put in place to reinforce those claims. And then you have the norms, and this is really where culture is created and sustained. It's not just about you saying that you're a great place to work. It's not just about you saying, I have flex work benefits, we have partner benefits and these are the things that we do in the community to prove that we are a great place to work, or that we do value diversity and inclusion. It's really about those choices and behaviors every single day.

Who you invite into the learning loop and don't, who you promote and don't, the leadership traits you celebrate versus those you tolerate. Those are the kinds of things that we do every single day that either lead to a more equitable and inclusive culture and environment or work against it. In the past, when I've asked people who work at different organizations, does your company value diversity and inclusion? If their CEO got up in the last town hall forum and said so, and they thought about that question through the lens of the claim, they may say, yes, absolutely. It's on our wall, it's on our website, our CEO says it all the time. If they thought about it through the lens of the policy, they may also be able to come up with proof points as to why that is true. But when I asked them questions that really exist on this day-to-day experience, the answers are often very, very different.

It's important that we recognize that this is not just about what we say and not even the rules or the laws, because ultimately, people interpret and then implement policies or don't. And often they implement those in alignment with their preferences. They expect them of others in alignment with their values. And this is where some of that stuff falls apart. So unless we inspire again and equip the people leaders, those who make those decisions, who engage talent, who helps support people toward their aspiration, all of this starts to fall apart. You all have probably noticed that as well.

I've noticed it. I have clients now calling me basically saying, my people are on board, they understand that our company should be more equitable and inclusive, we've made all the policy changes we want to make, we've given our money to external organizations, and now there is a big now what?, that they can hear in unison across the organization. What do I do tomorrow?

Four big issues that are entrenched in many companies right now that have implications for us as leaders, is one, a lack of representation. We talk about a lack of representation a lot. And sometimes people think about it as a box checking exercise. We only have this many of these kinds of people in these kinds of roles. I honestly look at it as a visibility issue and a proxy for potential. If I go into your organization, and I look up into the left and to the right, and I don't see anybody who looks like me, I'm automatically making assumptions about just how far I'm going to be able to get. If I believe my growth potential will be limited in your company, that is not a place I'm going to want to go. Lack of representation is an issue from an idea standpoint, from a creativity standpoint, from a safety standpoint, but it also is a business issue because it truly does affect our ability to attract talent.

The second big issue is this limited opportunity. We spent a lot of time trying to create safety, trying to, again, invest in certain communities to show our employees and our stakeholders that we care about people who are not like us, when we're the people in power. But you can do all of that until you're blue in the face. If your, for instance, black and brown people inside the company feel that they cannot grow, that no matter what they do or how hard they try, they cannot get promoted, they will not advance, that's really where the rubber hits the road for them, it translates to a lack of value. And when people are unable to realize their aspirations, that's when they start looking up and around, and figuring there may be somewhere else they need to go. They can do that. Limited opportunity is an issue for us as leaders, for the business, when it comes to retaining talent, for sure. And also clearly for the individual.

The third big issue is really around the burden of proof, or as I affectionately call it, the hoop jumping Olympics. There are many people in the workplace, especially if they exist on some dimension of difference relative to the people in power, who feel stuck in a proving cycle. If I, Tara, have a big role to fill, and there's a black woman going after that role, and there's also a white man going after that role, and maybe the black woman and I went to the same college, and the white man and I did not, I have that big role to fill and I know 50% of what each of them brought to the table but there's 50% I don't know, I'm likely to project what I know about myself onto that black woman and say things like, I believe she can do it, she has the it factor, she has potential, I want to give her a chance to show and prove. When it comes to the person that I don't share an affinity with, when I cannot project myself onto him, I'm going to ask him to take on this assignment to show me this skill, to take on that assignment, to demonstrate that behavior, and I'm going to do that repeatedly until I am confident that he will be successful in this given role. I'm not doing this to be a jerk. I'm doing it because I'm managing not only his reputational risk, but also my own. Clearly though, when we ask some people to prove themselves repeatedly, and others get promoted based on potential, it causes resentment. And we end up saying that people have other different issues, like you got a chip on your shoulder, etc. And I like to remind high level leaders that chip might be there for good reason. And you may have put it there.

The next big issue, and I'll end here on the issues, is the lack of psychological safety. I think we've been talking about psychological safety so much, and for very good reason. It impacts not only our ability to be ourselves at work. We always talk about bring my whole self to work. But I think more importantly, it creates a scenario where people don't bring up those big ideas, especially if they go against the grain, where they won't identify risk, they won't raise the red flag. These are all things clearly that can have an impact on the business as well. What's been happening lately that I think is really interesting, and many of you have probably seen this play out as well, is there are these issues emerging with the majority population, primarily with a fraction of the white men in certain environments who are exhibiting or giving voice to this fear of loss, that focusing on diversity and inclusion will unfairly set them back. Many of them feel excluded from the diversity, equity and inclusion conversation. They don't feel like it's about them when they hear the term. Their brain says that's not me. Many of them feel they have a lack of competence.

We talked earlier about, people say they want to be included and then we talk about being nice, we talk about being welcoming, but true inclusion is not really about niceness, it's not really about being welcoming. It's really about respect. Do we respect not only who people are, but also what they know, and what they can do, and what they have done in the past? Are we respecting their experience and their expertise? Are we leveraging their ideas? Are we including them in decision making? These are the ways people really feel included, when they feel respected. People also want to be valued. Yes, as a person, but also as a partner, as someone with growth potential, with pay and opportunity and also appreciation. And lastly, they want to be protected.



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