How to Reach Middle Managers

January 6, 2014 3:08 pm

By Barbara Frankel

What’s the top issue DiversityInc readers ask about? Getting D&I support from middle managers, most of whom are white and male. Here are best practices and case studies from General Motors, Procter & Gamble, Travelers, KPMG, Cox Communications, Baxter International and Progressive, seven companies that have faced—and overcome—this challenge.

Tip No. 1: Have Clear Messaging From the Top

Middle managers want to please their leaders. “If we aren’t consistent with the messaging from the top, with a regular drumbeat across the company, it doesn’t get across,” says Ken Barrett, Chief Diversity Officer of General Motors, one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies.

Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, KPMG


As a case study, Barrett cites the company’s need for cultural-competence training during Hispanic Heritage Month. Instead of having one message at the beginning of the month from top leadership, GM decided to have a series of personal stories and events, visibly supported by top executives all month long.

Another case study comes from KPMG, where Chairman and CEO John Veihmeyer insists on meeting with resource groups and staff from underrepresented groups every time he visits a local office. “If I’m a middle manager and I know the top of the house is coming to the office, it helps make sure the importance of diversity is established,” says Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, National Managing Partner, Diversity and Corporate Responsibility, KPMG (No. 23 in the DiversityInc Top 50).

Tip No. 2: Don’t Assume All Middle Managers Don’t Get It

Ken Barrett, General Motors


But don’t be naïve enough to assume all do get it, either. Barrett estimates 35 percent of General Motors’ middle managers “may not be as enlightened as others.” An executive from another large company told us, “We’ve never had a challenge getting middle managers on board.” Whom do you believe?

“If I was sitting here saying every middle manager gets it, you’d know I was telling tall tales. More get it because they’ve been exposed over time,” notes Hannan.

Tip No. 3: Use Their Disconnects to Address Corporate Culture Gaps

Helen Tucker, Procter & Gamble 310


As a case study, at Procter & Gamble (No. 7), flexible-workplace policies have been in place since 1999. While top management “got it,” middle managers sometimes didn’t. Subordinates would say “I’d like to take some time” and the middle manager’s response often would be “I wouldn’t do that. It could hurt your career,” says Helen Tucker, Global Diversity & Inclusion Director. Insights gained from current employees and former employees who had left P&G determined that a change was necessary. This was accomplished in 2011 through extensive communications, role modeling and storytelling, such as a vice chairman saying he took a vacation day to stay home with his newborn and missed a board meeting.

“We’ve got tailwinds here we never knew about. That’s a real role model,” says Tucker.

After the campaign, employee survey scores on flexibility questions increased dramatically, she says.

Tip No. 4: Make Cultural-Competence Training Mandatory

At Baxter International, a half-day, four-hour cultural-competence training class is required for all people managers worldwide, about 9,000 people. “The class is really built to enable discussion. It’s very interactive and helps managers become aware of things like their own unconscious bias and actions to mitigate bias,” says Linda Hartman-Reehl, Director of Inclusion and Diversity.

Progressive offered Inclusive Leadership training for managers from 2008–2013. The program was not mandatory but 99 percent (about 3,700 managers) participated in the daylong training, according to Marisa Afzali, Talent Management Specialist. Given the nearly universal participation, the company has created a new manager on-boarding program that incorporates elements of Inclusive Leadership as well as additional D&I educational pieces.

In late 2013, Progressive also introduced Inclusion Self-Assessment on its internal D&I site, featuring questions on seven competencies such as “Interacting With Difference,” “Team Inclusion” and “Diversity Sensitivity.” Participants are then told whether the competency appears to be a strength, whether they are competent at the behaviors or whether they have opportunity for improvement. The company hopes to offer additional educational opportunities in 2014 to help managers develop behaviors related to the seven competencies.

Marisa Afzali, Progressive


“The expectation from our senior leaders is that this is important. Some managers had to get out of their comfort zones and lead discussions and field questions they may not ever have addressed before,” Afzali says.

Middle managers are encouraged to relate cultural-competence training to the marketplace—how do they and their teams communicate with customers with accents? How can they overcome potential biases about customers based on their neighborhoods? How do they understand customers who have a cultural preference to negotiate?

The company also shares cultural-competence information with its managers and employees, especially DiversityInc’s Meeting in a Box monthly heritage information.

Tip No. 5: Use Your Resource Groups to Connect With Managers

At KPMG, when a new resource group is launched (most recently, one for veterans), the company ensures there are clear and quick communications on how it is connected to the business strategy. “The middle management gets to see the value D&I brings to the firm through the ERGs. They see relationships developing—‘We got this win because so-and-so met this person through a network [resource group],’” Hannan says.

Tip No. 6: Link Diversity to Middle Managers’ Business Goals

At Travelers, one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies, middle managers are tasked with using clear metrics for volume, speed in which consumer calls are answered, etc. “We really had to take a step back about engaging our managers to guide and direct their teams,” says Joelle Murchison, Vice President, Enterprise Diversity & Inclusion. “It’s absolutely critical for the managers to have metrics that incorporate diversity into their work.”

Joelle Murchison, Travelers


Murchison notes that the real need for managers is around diverse talent, and several diversity-related programs enable the company to build that base. As a case study of a middle manager for whom this has worked, Travelers cites Joe Reynolds, Business Insurance Management and Professional Liability Underwriting Manager. Reynolds, a white man, has been involved in diversity programs for six years, especially the Empowering Dreams to Graduation and Employment (EDGE) program. EDGE provides a holistic approach and more opportunities for higher education for students from underrepresented groups and increases the talent pipeline for the company.

“We are an underwriting insurance company. Having employees of diverse backgrounds and perspectives is crucial to our strategic business goals. From a middle-manager perspective, I don’t feel like I’m part of an initiative; I feel like I’m part of a business strategy,” Reynolds says.

Kevin Adams, Travelers


Kevin Adams, Vice President and Regional Underwriting Officer, agrees. “As managers, we get paid to bring in results,” he says. “Managers who can honor the uniqueness of each person and figure out how people who are different can work together productively are the ones who produce results.”

Adams, who has been an EDGE mentor since its inception, says involvement in the program has changed him as a manager. “It’s about helping students who have not had role models throughout their lives,” he says, citing a Latino youth he mentored who was the youngest of 10 and the first in his family to go to college. “I’m a middle-aged white guy. When we first met, it wasn’t smooth. Now he’s graduated from the University of Connecticut and was the keynote speaker at our EDGE graduation. It made me a better manager by teaching me not to give up on people and to truly listen and understand where they are coming from.”

Tip No. 7: Link It to Recruitment

Lissiah Hundley, Cox Communications


At Cox Communications (No. 22), an enhanced diversity-recruitment strategy has been shared with employees, including senior and middle managers, says Lissiah Hundley, Director of Diversity and Inclusion. It is also posted on the company intranet for reference.

“When managers feel they’re getting the best candidates in their pool and know it will include diverse talent, it gives them more options. It makes them more accountable,” she says.

All recruiters are trained on the diversity strategy, and Hundley attends Talent Acquisition team meetings and provides updates on diversity and inclusion. Talent Acquisition leaders conduct random audits of hirings and observe how recruiters utilize the diversity-recruitment strategy. Hundley also attends intake sessions with hiring managers and recruiters to discuss opportunities in hiring when managers need extra guidance or have tough positions to fill.

Tip No. 8: Link Success to Performance Goals

At General Motors, taking a leadership role in a resource group is reflected in the employee’s Individual Development Plan, which helps ensure that these positions are accurately accounted for when assessing employee performance and ties them into employees’ ability to move up in the organization. “Ninety percent of resource-group leaders are mid- or higher managers,” notes Barrett.

At KPMG, to become a partner, a person must demonstrate how they are supporting diversity and inclusion, such as board service or community work or mentoring.

“There is a correlation that those people who are not supportive of diversity are probably not that great on people issues at all. We see that engagement at the pre-partner level,” says Hannan.

Tip No. 9: Address Real Obstructionists Directly

Barrett advises a friendly conversation rather than an ultimatum, with examples of how other managers have been successful.

At Cox Communications, Hundley says that when a manager becomes a diversity problem, she’s asked to intercede. “With me at the table, I can tackle it head on,” she says.