How to Get Buy-In From Middle Managers

4 Best Practices From GM, Caterpillar, Cox Communications

By Barbara Frankel

Ken Barrett, Kim Hauer, Lissiah HundleyHow do you effectively reach what General Motors’ Ken Barrett calls “the frozen middle”? How do you get a group of mostly white men to understand how diversity and inclusion benefits them?

DiversityInc convened a panel of experts—Ken Barrett, Chief Diversity Officer, General Motors; Kimberly Hauer, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, Caterpillar; and Lissiah Hundley, Executive Director, Diversity and Inclusion, Cox Communications—at our fall event in New York City. The panel was one of the highest-rated sessions by event attendees. To see video of the entire discussion, click here.

Here are the highlights and best practices:

1. Understand the challenges of middle managers.

All three panelists agree that the biggest issue middle managers face is the need to get beyond their day-to-day tactical operations and see the strategic “big picture.”

“They’ve got some real busy jobs and they tend to really be focused on that. … Sometimes that’s why middle managers are seen as obstacles to D&I even when support is expressed by senior leaders,” Ken says.

That “resistance” can be evidenced by not letting subordinates participate in employee resource groups or mentoring roles.

2. Make the business case for them.

“If they don’t understand the impact of D&I on driving their business results—the ‘What’s in it for me?’—it’s a struggle,” says Lissiah. “We are touching and educating them. If they are not vested in the work and the initiatives, it’s just another task.”

For example, at Cox Communications (No. 18 in the DiversityInc Top 50), there are strong diversity-representation goals for recruiters, and middle managers are “heavily engaged” in the process at every stage. The managers and recruiters “get together and brainstorm, provide feedback, discuss organizations to meet and where they need to be in the community. Their voice is there, they are at the table and they are engaged from the beginning. So when recruiters present a diverse talent-pool slate, they are already vested in this,” Lissiah says.

Caterpillar (one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies) specifically shows middle managers how the business is changing, Kim says. While the company has traditionally retained employees for long tenures, 67 percent of the current workforce has been with the company for less than 10 years.

“Our dynamic is changing and it is all about explaining the impact on the business,” she says.

For example, Caterpillar has an inclusion index that assesses employee satisfaction. The company also makes safety a major priority. The top 25 percent of employees in the inclusion index had 2.5 times better safety results and 21 percent better scores on inventory turnover than the bottom 25 percent. “That is an absolute business result showing the benefits of an inclusive environment,” Kim says.

3. Make sure they understand this is critical to their bosses.

At Caterpillar, each of the 30 business lines has a leadership summit with its top 30 people, in which the business imperatives and five-year results are discussed. The strategic connection of D&I is emphasized and clearly communicated to the middle managers.

At Cox Communications, senior leaders (President Pat Esser and his direct reports) comprise the National Diversity Council, which meets regularly with middle managers to communicate how essential diversity is to the workforce and marketplace business goals.

Pat’s direct reports are the executive sponsors of the employee resource groups, and middle managers see their visible support all the time. “There are really strong white men here who are diversity champions, starting with our president,” Kim says. “The message is consistent and it really gets traction.”

Ken cites the strong leadership of GM’s first female CEO, Mary Barra, and the company’s increasing emphasis on highlighting middle managers who are diversity leaders.

Showcasing those managers, and exposing them to leadership, has a snowball effect, he says. “Other managers see that and think ‘I could do that and get acknowledged by the CEO’ or “I am already doing that,’” he says.

At Caterpillar, the 12 employee resource groups with 104 global chapters are important vehicles to show senior leadership support of D&I.

Ken says GM (one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies) has programs with names such as “White Guys Are Diverse Too” and “What Boomers Hear.” But the most popular employee resource group is JumpStart, for employees who have been with the company up to five years. They do reverse mentoring with senior leaders and “it’s very powerful.”

GM is all about selling cars—“and it isn’t just for sales people. The ethnic market is $75 billion. Everyone needs to know what the drivers are,” Ken says.

4. Ask them to be part of D&I

“It’s not a hard sell. Many times, they just want to be asked and made part of it,” Kim says. She notes that training modules focused on unconscious bias and inclusion (one is called The Power of And) are helpful.

What’s most important, she says, is to “understand your own culture and what resonates with your people. At Caterpillar, the tremendous focus is on safety. Every meeting begins with a safety briefing.” To show the importance of D&I, leadership has added a slide to those safety briefings that shows how important it is to “be present. … Emotional safety is just as important as physical safety,” Kim says.

“Observe your audience, know your leaders and you will have to communicate differently depending on who you are working for. …. It’s storytelling. You’d be surprised at what people have in common with you,” adds Lissiah.

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