Brokerage Ops the May 2024 issue

Doing the Work for DEI

Real engagement on diversity, equity, and inclusion requires understanding ourselves and a readiness to engage honestly with others.
By Rich Schaeff, Tracey Rogers Posted on April 30, 2024

In September 2020, I interviewed former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho for The Council’s annual Insurance Leadership Forum, which was held virtually that year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Acho had just started his YouTube channel, “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” (now renamed “Uncomfortable Conversations with Emmanuel Acho”), and The Council invited him to share with the conference what he was learning.

A wave of police-involved deaths of black men, women, and children around the country during that time—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and the list goes on—galvanized Acho to start his channel. In his own words, he wanted to “create a safe space to have uncomfortable conversations about race that many white people have never been able to have.”

The Council was also inspired to respond to these tragic events. Along with having Acho speak at ILF, the organization reached out to Tracey Rogers and me, both consultants familiar to The Council, to create a similar space where people could engage in uncomfortable conversations that centered on the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

In November 2020, Tracey and I launched The Council’s first learning circle cohort titled, “Discussing the Undiscussable,” facilitating a series of six sessions, 60 minutes each, designed for employees of Council member firms to meet once a month. Our main objective was to give people the chance to learn about DEI while engaging in courageous conversations about race, the underlying principles that perpetuate violence against BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) individuals, and how we can address it.

The cohort experience, now in its third iteration, has been in high demand since its inception and addresses the following topics:

Session 1: White centering: what it is and how we contribute to it at work and at home

Session 2: Implicit biases that shape leadership culture at the office

Session 3: How to be an accomplice (not just an ally) at work when racial tensions are high

Session 4: Beyond the performative gesture: diversity, equity, and inclusion in practice

Session 5: What is your “anti-racist intelligence quotient” (ARQ)

Session 6: What does “unlearning” white (male) centered cultural norms look like in practice.

Each learning circle incorporates multimedia, small- and large-group conversations, and other learning modalities to engage participants. We also establish accountability groups that meet in between each session as additional means of support. The members discuss what they would most like to change about themselves, and the others hold them to following through on that commitment.

Since these are virtual meetings, we make full use of the technology at our disposal. As an example, we use participants’ cameras so they can declare where they stand on particular events, topics, or practices—activating or deactivating the camera to respond yes or no to a question.

We also break participants out into small groups that focus on sameness or difference, highlighting the various aspects of everyone’s DEI journey. Through it all, we invite people to choose their level of participation while encouraging them to step outside their comfort zones.

As more members of The Council dived into our cohort experience, it quickly became clear that participants needed more time to fully experience the depth and richness of the conversations. We have lengthened the learning circles to 90 minutes and, as of 2024, are meeting twice a month. Even with attrition, each cohort has participation in at least the mid-teens.

These learning circles are not your typical “company training”; we intentionally slow things down and encourage people to connect with their bodies and emotions as well as their thoughts and knowledge. We challenge participants to sit with their discomfort. We call this “integrating hearts and minds,” a necessary principle that is common in the DEI space.

We need to understand our own emotional landscape and reactions (defined by psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman as emotional intelligence) and be able to feel strong emotions while also maintaining a connection with others who are having their own reactions. We all have room for improvement in these areas. Mastering this skill set separates a good leader from an exceptional one.

To have courageous conversations, we must be willing and able to make mistakes. This goes against the dominant cultural norms of perfectionism and maintaining an image of competence and infallibility.

Most organizations now have some form of DEI focus, whether it’s a vice president of diversity, employee resource groups, or tying DEI metrics into performance reviews. But fear of saying the “wrong thing” or having behaviors misinterpreted keeps people from fully engaging in this work.

To have courageous conversations, we must be willing and able to make mistakes. This goes against the dominant cultural norms of perfectionism and maintaining an image of competence and infallibility.

In our learning circles, people can make mistakes without repercussions to their standing or their reputation. As trust builds within the cohort and people look deeply into their own conditioning and biases on these topics, real conversations can emerge.

While maintaining respect for individual choice and honoring people’s lived experiences, Tracey and I thoughtfully challenge participants to expand their comfort zones and take risks—for example, speaking one’s true opinion, giving honest feedback, acknowledging when you feel anxious or uncertain, or asking for support.

As people behave courageously, others are moved and inspired to do the same. They get to see one another’s humanity beyond differences, while discovering areas of connection and previously unknown commonality.

Learning to “discuss the undiscussable” is imperative if we are serious about creating inclusive organizational cultures where everyone feels like they belong. We cannot remain emotionally “safe.” True inclusion requires us to know ourselves better, to have compassion for ourselves and others as we risk saying and doing the wrong thing.

This is especially true for those of us who have enjoyed a life of comparative advantage; we need to learn how to know, respect, and learn from people who are typically disadvantaged in our culture.

Only by understanding our differences and how to navigate them can we build upon our commonalities in a way that celebrates diversity, cultivates equity, and ensures inclusivity. As Emmanuel Acho said, “A conversation doesn’t mean you agree. It means you’re willing to learn and understand.”

Learn more about The Council’s Learning Circles.

Rich Schaeff principal and DEI consultant, Richard Schaeff Consulting Read More
Tracey Rogers DEI consultant, Tracey L. Rogers, LLC Read More

More in Brokerage Ops

New Remote Workplace Demands New Skills
Brokerage Ops New Remote Workplace Demands New Skills
Q&A with Dawn Brost, Senior Vice President, E&S Brokerage Excess Casualty, Natio...
Sponsored By Nationwide
Brokerage Ops Command the Room
Executive presence is crucial to increasing your influence and advancing your ca...
Navigating Today's M&A Waters
Brokerage Ops Navigating Today's M&A Waters
Q&A with Alex Panlilio, Founder and CEO, Vantage Insurance Partners