Overcoming Diversity Challenges — Interview With Director Of Professional Development & Inclusion Michelle Wimes

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Michelle P. Wimes, Esq. is the Director of Professional Development & Inclusion at Ogletree Deakins. She leads the firm’s efforts to attract, develop, and advance diverse attorneys in the firm’s 45 offices across the United States and in Europe. Additionally, she lectures, publishes, and presents throughout the country on diversity-related topics.

JATHAN JANOVE: What are the most common challenges in developing an effective diversity program or initiative?

MICHELLE WIMES: Three stand out:

  1. Making the connection between diversity and bottom-line organizational results;
  2. Changing the perception of the corporate diversity department from that of a“chief party planner” that is simply focused on multicultural celebrations and diversity sponsorships to that of a department that is actively finding effective ways to meet organizational needs and goals; and
  3. Cultivating a sufficient pool or pipeline of diverse people so that when selection decisions are made, stellar diverse candidates are available for consideration.

JJ: Regarding the first challenge—making the connection to the bottom line—how can this be done?

MW: Here’s an example: For a service provider like a law firm, having a strong diversity and inclusion program with demonstrable results helps it compete for business. Many organizations, either formally or informally, evaluate whether to do business with a particular vendor, including law firms, based on its demonstrable commitment to diversity. It’s no stretch to say that a strong, tangible commitment to diversity means greater competitiveness in the marketplace, more and better clients, and increased revenue.

JJ: What about the second challenge—how do you keep from being labeled a “chief party planner”?

MW: In several ways. Start by assessing the climate in your organization. Conduct a “needs” survey. Identify organizational strengths and weaknesses. Get information from employees, supervisors, managers, and executives. Create a strategic plan. The plan can include celebrations and sponsorships. However, it should emphasize specific initiatives in hiring, promotion, development, and advancement of employees. The plan should be organized and substantive. It should be in alignment with the firm-wide vision and strategic plan. It should also define objectives and create a structure for their implementation.

JJ: What about the third challenge—developing a sufficient candidate pool or pipeline?

MW: Start by assessing demographics. Where are your desirable diverse candidates likely to be?  For example, our firm’s diversity team identified law schools with relatively high percentages of African-American students. This information enabled us to direct our resources into programs that would have the greatest likelihood of success.

In my former position at a law firm in Kansas City, the diversity team partnered with our competitor’s team to create a joint job fair. We reached out to trade groups, professional associations, schools, and other organizations. Although we competed with the other participating law firms for candidates, all of us benefitted by taking coordinated steps to expand the overall candidate pool.

A related step is to create a long-term pipeline. Become connected with colleges, high schools, and other groups of people who will be entering the workforce. Offer to provide internships, coaching, and mentoring to interested individuals. Give presentations that will help job seekers on their career path, including real world experiences and practical advice. Consider these activities a long-term investment.

JJ: That sounds like a true win-win. Not only are you helping meet your company’s diversity objectives, you’re making valuable contributions to your community.

MW: Absolutely!

JJ: You offer great suggestions, which sound ambitious. How does one start and move forward on diversity initiatives?

MW: Don’t try to do everything at once. You don’t want to create “diversity fatigue.”  I recommend creating a three-to-five-year plan. Figure out what’s most important or pressing based on your needs assessment, and concentrate your resources there first. Is it developing a candidate pipeline? Is it retaining and promoting existing diverse employees? Is it getting internal support? Is it something else? How can you leverage the company’s strengths? What actions can you take that will have a multiplying effect?

Also, create allies and develop coalitions, both externally and internally. Don’t neglect middle management, thinking that senior executive support is sufficient. Often, the bottleneck is not at the top of the bottle but in the middle. Educate, train, and cultivate middle managers. Get them involved. Solicit their perspectives and ideas. Enlist them to be diversity and inclusion ambassadors. Don’t assume they’re opponents; strive to make them your advocates. An investment in middle management pays high dividends.

JJ: Any other advice?

MW: Keep plugging away. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t overwhelm others and don’t get overwhelmed yourself. As the ancient saying goes, “A journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step.”

Michelle P. Wimes is director of professional development and inclusion at Ogletree Deakins.

Jathan Janove is director of employee engagement solutions and the managing shareholder of the Portland office of Ogletree Deakins. Follow Jathan on Twitter.

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Michelle P. Wimes, Esq. is the Director of Professional Development & Inclusion at Ogletree Deakins. She leads the firm’s efforts to attract, develop, and advance diverse attorneys in the firm’s 45 offices across the United States and in Europe. Additionally, she lectures, publishes, and presents throughout the country on diversity-related topics.

JATHAN JANOVE: What are the most common challenges in developing an effective diversity program or initiative?

MICHELLE WIMES: Three stand out:

  1. Making the connection between diversity and bottom-line organizational results;
  2. Changing the perception of the corporate diversity department from that of a“chief party planner” that is simply focused on multicultural celebrations and diversity sponsorships to that of a department that is actively finding effective ways to meet organizational needs and goals; and
  3. Cultivating a sufficient pool or pipeline of diverse people so that when selection decisions are made, stellar diverse candidates are available for consideration.

JJ: Regarding the first challenge—making the connection to the bottom line—how can this be done?

MW: Here’s an example: For a service provider like a law firm, having a strong diversity and inclusion program with demonstrable results helps it compete for business. Many organizations, either formally or informally, evaluate whether to do business with a particular vendor, including law firms, based on its demonstrable commitment to diversity. It’s no stretch to say that a strong, tangible commitment to diversity means greater competitiveness in the marketplace, more and better clients, and increased revenue.

JJ: What about the second challenge—how do you keep from being labeled a “chief party planner”?

MW: In several ways. Start by assessing the climate in your organization. Conduct a “needs” survey. Identify organizational strengths and weaknesses. Get information from employees, supervisors, managers, and executives. Create a strategic plan. The plan can include celebrations and sponsorships. However, it should emphasize specific initiatives in hiring, promotion, development, and advancement of employees. The plan should be organized and substantive. It should be in alignment with the firm-wide vision and strategic plan. It should also define objectives and create a structure for their implementation.

JJ: What about the third challenge—developing a sufficient candidate pool or pipeline?

MW: Start by assessing demographics. Where are your desirable diverse candidates likely to be?  For example, our firm’s diversity team identified law schools with relatively high percentages of African-American students. This information enabled us to direct our resources into programs that would have the greatest likelihood of success.

In my former position at a law firm in Kansas City, the diversity team partnered with our competitor’s team to create a joint job fair. We reached out to trade groups, professional associations, schools, and other organizations. Although we competed with the other participating law firms for candidates, all of us benefitted by taking coordinated steps to expand the overall candidate pool.

A related step is to create a long-term pipeline. Become connected with colleges, high schools, and other groups of people who will be entering the workforce. Offer to provide internships, coaching, and mentoring to interested individuals. Give presentations that will help job seekers on their career path, including real world experiences and practical advice. Consider these activities a long-term investment.

JJ: That sounds like a true win-win. Not only are you helping meet your company’s diversity objectives, you’re making valuable contributions to your community.

MW: Absolutely!

JJ: You offer great suggestions, which sound ambitious. How does one start and move forward on diversity initiatives?

MW: Don’t try to do everything at once. You don’t want to create “diversity fatigue.”  I recommend creating a three-to-five-year plan. Figure out what’s most important or pressing based on your needs assessment, and concentrate your resources there first. Is it developing a candidate pipeline? Is it retaining and promoting existing diverse employees? Is it getting internal support? Is it something else? How can you leverage the company’s strengths? What actions can you take that will have a multiplying effect?

Also, create allies and develop coalitions, both externally and internally. Don’t neglect middle management, thinking that senior executive support is sufficient. Often, the bottleneck is not at the top of the bottle but in the middle. Educate, train, and cultivate middle managers. Get them involved. Solicit their perspectives and ideas. Enlist them to be diversity and inclusion ambassadors. Don’t assume they’re opponents; strive to make them your advocates. An investment in middle management pays high dividends.

JJ: Any other advice?

MW: Keep plugging away. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t overwhelm others and don’t get overwhelmed yourself. As the ancient saying goes, “A journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step.”

Topics:  Diversity, Professional Development

Published In: Professional Practice Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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