Understanding diversity and inclusion in the workplace is critical to success in the modern economy
Diversity and inclusion are complex topics woven into the fabric of society as well as the current workplace environment. Our personal and professional development requires that we engage these issues in order to better understand this context and thrive in the modern marketplace. Amy C. Waninger has risen within the insurance industry as a key voice in helping professionals broaden their perspectives and achieve success in their journey. While some approach with trepidation, Amy helps to cast these subjects in another light, reminding us that failure to engage serves only to limit opportunities. In her book, Network Beyond Bias, she challenges us to, “Invest in people and ideas outside your own norms to create opportunities for yourself and others (p.95)." Her acclaimed book informs as well as inspires with insights that will educate the reader, including personal stories that help to make these topics approachable. We were grateful that Amy took a few moments out of her busy schedule to correspond in this interview.
Do I understand correctly that you background is in software and IT? What brought you into that industry and how far have you gone with it?
My first Bachelor's degree was in Criminal Justice, and I aspired to practice Civil Rights law. Just before graduation, I learned how much law school would cost. Then I learned the meaning of the phrase "pro bono." I decided instead to join the workforce, but I struggled to find a position that offered a path for growth. On the advice of a friend, I went back to school and earned a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science. The industry appealed to me because there was a shortage of software developers at that time, at the height of the Y2K frenzy. There were a number of bubbles and bursts in the years that followed, so I learned how to adapt quickly. I spent the last twelve years in progressive management roles, the most recent decade within the insurance industry. The highest position I have held is a Senior Management role within a Fortune 100 company.
You started Lead at Any Level over a year ago, what was the impetus to get this venture off and running?
A few experiences converged that led me to start a blog in 2017. First, I had been participating in Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that had been launched by my employer. I was surprised and excited to learn that there was a business appetite for messages around diversity, equity, and inclusion. At the same time, I earned my Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU) designation, a prestigious award within the insurance industry. The CPCU conferment in 2016 marked the first time I'd ever attended an industry conference. The experience was inspiring, and I began to think about how I could contribute to the industry beyond my "day job." I submitted a proposal for the following year's CPCU conference, and the committee accepted my proposal. I began working on the hour of content I would need to deliver for the conference. A couple months later, I attended the Out Women in Business Conference, where I met Jennifer Brown, a Diversity & Inclusion consultant and TED speaker. An idea began to form in my mind that I could build my own business around my passions. I blurted out my idea to Jennifer, and she said, "You totally should!" It seems silly, but that was all the encouragement I needed. I began building a social media presence, writing content for my blog, and developing workshop outlines to submit for conferences.
What is one thing that is harder than you thought it would be as an entrepreneur and one thing that turned out to be a bit easier than you expected?
For 2018 alone, I've booked over 35 public speaking engagements, including workshops, webinars, keynotes, and podcast interviews. I also wrote and published a book, which I'm sure we'll cover later. It's been a lot of work, but it's all been fun for me. Even the book was much less of a challenge than I expected, once I enlisted the right coach to help me through the process. The "hard" thing I didn't expect has been to develop services beyond the talks, and articulating to prospective clients what I have to offer.
Take a moment to talk about the concept of Lead at Any Level, the name and concept is powerful and for me invokes the idea that we shouldn’t be waiting to become leaders but engage in leading from where we are. Can you elaborate on what you envision for leading at any level?
Not only did you start a business but you also wrote a book, Network Beyond Bias: Making Diversity a Competitive Advantage for Your Career. What did you see in the professional experience that prompted you to put pen to paper and speak into this area of need?
Naming the book was as important to me as naming my business, so please allow me to answer your question by breaking down the title. Networking is a critical career management and leadership skill. Many of us fail to recognize our default behaviors or the perspectives that are missing in our networks. We may not be able to overcome or undo the biases that cause us to limit ourselves, but if we recognize them, we can move beyond them. I also wanted to be clear that the book is a tool for individuals' careers. So much literature exists on what companies or executives can do, and I felt there was an unanswered question in the marketplace: "Yes, but what can I do?"
What in your personal and professional experience has brought you to the place where you feel so passionately about making a difference with regards to diversity and inclusion?
Diversity and inclusion was important to me before I even knew what to call it. There are so many examples, anecdotes, and personal stories I could share -- and I do share many of them in the book. The common thread, I guess, is that I firmly believe everyone should have the opportunity to do their best work and contribute as much as possible to the world. There are so many problems to solve, and we need everyone's gifts to solve them.
For those who are reading that are in a position of leadership what is one simple step they can take to make progress towards making a positive impact for diversity and inclusion within their teams?
For current leaders who want to be more inclusive, start seeking diverse perspectives on purpose. If you don't do it on purpose, it will not happen by default. When I sit down with people to help them assess their professional networks, they are invariably confident that their networks are diverse. After a few minutes of putting pen to paper (this framework is described in Chapter 32), they typically say, "I have a lot of work to do, don't I?"
For those who are employees, working their way up the ladder but still wanting to be a part of the change, what is one simple step that they can take to lead at their level?
For professionals who are aspiring to higher positions in the corporate hierarchy, I offer this. So many corporate employees want the pay and prestige that come with leadership positions. They seek out high-profile projects, promotions, and executive sponsors. To really stand out in a company, though, you need to stand for something other than your own self-interest. Specifically, you can position yourself as a leader by being an ally to others.
Resources for professionals wanting to learn more about diversity and inclusion
What does it take to get your web presence generating leads and revenue for your business?
We all know that the internet is the information super highway with unlimited potential to unlock opportunities for our businesses. Yet, very few entrepreneurs know the secret codes to unlock the portals that stand between success and obscurity on the world wide web. We can spend endless hours studying the ins and outs of optimizing our content or we can partner with the right professionals. Greg Power of Real SEO Ninja has the unique ability to understand what is needed as well as the skill in helping your organization reap the benefits of a solid web presence.
Greg, thank you for taking the time to share a bit of the secret sauce with us. Are you able to explain in less than three sentences what SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is to the layman?
Search engine optimization consists of the visible as well as the invisible (back end) actions made within the body of the website to improve the overall search visibility. This is done by constant updates to a website targeting specific keywords that potential clients are regularly searching for that could drive traffic your website. SEO is a full cycle of having a vision for what a business is targeting, developing a strategy for reaching into that client base and structuring the content to connect with those end users. With the right efforts in the set up of a webpage and development of optimization tools, entrepreneurs can expect increased traffic to the site. Traffic raises your webpage rank for specific keywords that in turn brings you into contact with people interested in your products or services.
There are plenty of businesses who have website but do not have an optimizatio strategy. What is the consequence of investing in a website but not paying attention to SEO?
If you want your website to drive potential clients to your business than you need to play the games by the rules that Google has established. A key component of this is getting your website indexed. If your website is not optimized then your progress could be held up by it taking Google too long to index your website. Without indexing your site basically does not exist to Google as the crawlers get delayed in their process on your web page. Instead of sailing the open seas of the internet you will be anchored in obsolescence, far from the first page of Google.
How hard is it to optimize a site after it’s been set up poorly?
Like anything else, it's best to do things right the first time. Age of the domain where your website is registered factors into the equations of success for online presence. Looking at the age of domain, you can expect to have lost the equivalence in search rankings which are key to placement. Attempting to go back and fix something that was set up poorly can be costly. The effort to dig back through a site and fix the structure is difficult because it will likely require restructuring all URL tags, meta descriptions, tags, site structure...the list goes on and on.
What are some keys that entrepreneurs and business owners an utilize towards getting more out of their websites?
The number one technique we use for all of the websites that we construct for our clients is first analyzing relevant trends in searches. Your website strategy needs to be consistent with your goals as a business. Like good business practices, learning what your clients are searching for online and knowing what your top competitors are targeting provides key insights into where you should direct your efforts. There are a number of free tools and resources out there for this level of research or you can partner with professionals who specialize in these areas. Google trends in a common tool that will provide the user with historical data for search terms. Moz is another good free resource as well that offers a wide range of perspectives to maximize your efforts online.
What makes Real SEO Ninja different from all the other web marketing and SEO nerd services?
At Real SEO Ninja we want to partner with our clients and take great joy in seeing them succeed. We pride ourselves in creating real value by helping businesses get the most out of their internet strategy which includes their website, SEO and social media. Real SEO Ninja attempts to simplify the nerdy aspects of SEO for our clients, showing them that dominating local search isn't as mysterious as so many entrepreneurs make it out to be. Instead of being another bill for your business, we strive to be an invaluable extension of your vision and growth plan.
There is money to be made on the internet. Having a website is a key step towards building your empire. The difference between a good website and a mediocre one has a lot to do with quality of the visual, the content as well as the behind the scenes structure. SEO is all of the back end items that can elevate your presence and progress in getting the word out about your business. As with all industries there are professionals and there are pretenders, if you are interested in finding out whether your website and web presence are working for you, contact Real SEO Ninja today.
IZ Ventures - more than business coaching and consulting, we help you connect, collaborate and conquer.
Sarai Johnson is an entrepreneur in the non profit space and has founded a company Lean Nonprofit, LLC. She uses her unique skills and experience to help non-profits generate revenue, develop sustainable business models, create and launch social enterprises, and maximize the social good nonprofits can create. Just because an organization is operating in a non-profit or not-for-profit model that doesn't mean that they shouldn't incorporate best practices from strong organizations that operate in the for-profit sector. Sarai is proponent and resource for organizations helping nonprofit and government agencies of all sizes to utilize lean and project management principles. We are grateful to mother, entrepreneur, author and consultant Sarai Johnson for taking time out of her schedule to share her story with us.
IZ Ventures: When you started your studies in general ministry, what was your original professional pursuit?
Sarai Johnson: When I went to college, I thought I would be a pastor. I had known from a young age that I was “called” to something, and as a kid who grew up in an Evangelical world, pastoral ministry was the only thing I knew to do - besides being a missionary, and while I wanted desperately to travel, I had a really strong knowing that I would only want to do that if I could offer some kind of practical skill or information for people. I’ve never been one for converting people just because.
When I was a junior in college, I had a moment when I realized very clearly that I didn’t want to work in a church. I finished the degree course, because at that point, it would have taken a lot more time and money to change my degree. I have found the education I got was just right, though! I learned how to do public speaking well, how to be an executive manager, how to provide guidance and coaching to people, and gave me the time and space I needed to find my own philosophies about life, politics, and spirituality.
Was Allan Brothers your first "adult" job? What did you learn from your time working in the food service industry?
I think my first “adult” job was probably a different coffee shop I worked at for a few years. I was a manager there, and it was during a tough time for the shop and for the owners. I worked in the coffee industry for the better part of a decade and I learned a lot about how to manage and motivate people, how to conduct smart planning to reduce waste and increase profits, and how to keep customers happy and coming back. I also learned a lot of skills I carried into my professional career later, especially when my former nonprofit employer developed a regional food hub. I took that food service experience and applied it to social good in a really innovative and interesting way.
What was the primer for you to pursue further education and public administration at UO?
I spent my whole life until about three years ago aggressively pursuing every promotion and career advancement I could get. I was always on this upward course. I found I was at a place in my nonprofit career where I really needed and wanted to grow quickly so I could serve my employer at the time even better, and so I could help navigate with the organization as we had a big Executive Director transition. Public Administration was a degree that was in high demand in the nonprofit and public sectors, where I imagined I would spend my career.
Many steer away from non profit organizations but you entered NEDCO and worked your way up the ladder, what were some of the key lessons you learned working with them?
Oh man. I could fill a book with this (oh wait! I have! And with a bunch more to come! See books by Sarai HERE)...I learned a ridiculous amount of work and career-specific things - like how to not only climb the ladder to advance, but also how to build my own opportunities, and build my position as I went. I was able to create a lot of new programs and get a lot of new funding, and as I did, my position grew with the organization. I asked for what I wanted, and I got it, most of the time. I had the power to change things, and make them better for myself and my colleagues, and I was rewarded for that. I also learned that making yourself indispensable is a terrible idea (may have learned that the hard way), and that working yourself out of a job when you’re a leader is the best way to grow the organization and the opportunity for others.
Having worked in both for profit and non profit organizations, what are some of the lessons these structures can learn from each other?
For profit and nonprofit organizations have a lot of similarities. Some things, business does well. Businesses tend to be more focused on metrics (it’s easy for them - how many people are buying our stuff, buying it again, and how much money are we making). Nonprofits have a harder time with that, because what they measure is harder to quantify. It can be done - in fact, it MUST be done.
Nonprofits incidentally generate a lot of waste because of this limited focus on measures. For profits, on the other hand, could learn to think of the social good and be more aware of public policy issues as they affect everybody in the country. Nonprofits track this more closely because they depend on public support so much. Businesses have the opportunity to learn from nonprofits on this front, and the world would be better off if they did this.
At what point did you decide to pull the trigger and launch out on your own as Lean Nonprofit?
Full disclosure, I was in a pretty challenging position by the time I left my former organization. I was exhausted, burned out, and frustrated. My boss and I had some very toxic dynamics between us (we both contributed to it, and we both learned from it), and I had thought about leaving for at least 18 months before I finally did.
A year before I left, I started working on building a consulting practice, learned about how to be a consultant, and how to run a business of my own (it helped that I was a business advisor at my old employer!), and laid the groundwork. I decided to leave on a day when whole slew of things happened that made me suddenly realize I was burning with rage and needed to get out of there. I did, however, also still love the organization, and wanted to support them as best I could.
My boss asked me to take something back on that I had (finally!) delegated, and I said, “I’d be happy to do that for you as a consultant.” Then, I wrote her up a proposal, and they signed on to work with me in a different capacity. It was epic. (Read more on the story behind this turn of events - Why I Quit My Nonprofit Career)
What was harder than you thought and simpler than you thought about starting your own business?
It was harder than I thought to have the energy to do anything at first. Like I said, I was deeply burned out, and that made it really hard for me to get to work on booking new clients and all the things you have to do to have a viable business. I was lucky to have a retainer for about a year with my former employer. It was hard finding my footing after that, and it got harder when I realized nonprofits weren’t my favorite people to work with. Pivoting isn’t easy.
It was simple to me to create products and services and sell them. I focused online first, and then did a lot more local and national consulting in person. I found what I liked and didn’t like to provide, and adjusted my offerings accordingly.
Lean Nonprofit is not just about the financial aspects of making your dollars stretch, what are some of the keys to long term success that you work with organizations to achieve?
Lean is more about continuous improvement and reducing waste than it is about operating on a small budget. What I focus on with nonprofits is developing a culture of continuous improvement that supports people who work in the organization to try things in a thoughtful way, make decisions about how the things they try work (or don’t work), and measure and report on their results. I develop processes and systems that allow them to map their work, take accountability and assign responsibility effectively, and always make their way toward getting more impactfull mission results.
Now that you have been in business for a while you are expanding and collaborating further, what do you see as some of the keys to conducting business as a business without losing the heart of your values?
As a person, I can’t function outside of my values. Nothing is more important to me than doing what I think matters most - working with people for greater freedom, liberation, and self-determination. I suppose the key is to know why you are doing what you’re doing, and stay true to that. Sure, making money is important to me. I gotta eat, just like the next guy, but it isn’t the only thing that drives me. I could just as easily get by with a temp job doing data entry (and I have when business was slow! - read more about this in Mundane Gratitude), so I know I don’t have to do things that don’t serve me or my clients well. I find it pretty easy to let clients go when their values don’t match mine, or when they do things I find unethical or compromised. That’s something I’ve practiced a lot over the years, and I find it serves me well in business.
If you are looking for more resources regarding management, leadership, and transition coaching you can connect with Sarai through her website or on LinkedIn. If your goal is to improve your organization through lean priciples you can find tools through the Lean Nonprofit, LLC website.
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