Please, no platitudes

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Lisa Toppin, Chief Diversity Officer and VP of Talent Management for LPL Financial. With 20+ years of HR experience, Lisa led both DEI and L&D programming for Charles Schwab. She is a member of the Forbes HR Council and a world-renowned leader when it comes to engaging DEI change in a manner that is meaningful and sustainable. 

In this interview, Lisa shares her views on:

• How using metrics can’t just be about counting heads
• The importance and pitfalls of engagement surveys
• What it takes to create a healthy workplace culture
• Investing in Employee Development
• Why DEI needs to be engaged straight through the talent cycle

Leeno: Hi Lisa, Thanks so much for agreeing to sit down with me to talk about your personal DEI journey and what DEI looks like at LPL. As you know, the one caveat for this interview is you can’t use platitudes or pie in the sky” talking points. We want everything we discuss here to have some meat on the bones so that folks can pull real actionable ideas from our discussion. If that’s OK with you, let’s go.

First things first, I have to understand how you got to this place in your career. How did DEI become your area of focus and how do you try and stay sharp?

Lisa: I am a career HR Leader. I began as a business partner. While I was leading HR, my colleague basically told me she was leaving, and I would take over Diversity. I did not see the opportunity initially, but she was a mentor, and I trusted her. Well, it was one of the best things that happened in my career. DEI for me is the best combination of all things HR. This is my second opportunity to lead this function, and I love it. And knowing how complex the field is, I try to stay sharp by connecting with, and learning from actual experts in the field (e.g. sociologists, social and organizational psychologists). This approach allows me to build on the learnings I make when attending conferences. I love how real thought leadership helps to inform and contextualize the work being done in the field. 

Leeno: Being that DEI has become a very very crowded space in the corporate world, we’re seeing a lot of well-meaning, passionate people jumping into the arena. What do you say to those organizations that are desperately in need of DEI expertise, but don’t quite know where to start? 

Lisa: I would offer a few things. First, remember that DEI is all about people – who they are and how they experience your organization. Start with the talent cycle. Consider where and how you can infuse sustainable change to enhance your people’s outcomes. Remember, people are the most complex part of an organization. While this area has always been thought as soft,” turns out, soft” is also really complex…it’s actually really hard. Know that it will take time to drive substantive change, but it can be done.

Leeno: I love the way you put that. The soft stuff is really hard, and we have to get away from this notion that DEI will be effectively engaged with surface-level efforts that aren’t really fully thought out or tied to an organization’s main business. To that point, I wrote a blog recently where I touched on some of the challenges I believe arise in head-counting” approaches to DEI. How do you feel about quotas and other efforts that clearly place diversity ahead of inclusion?

Lisa: Here again, it is a complex issue. We typically say DEI and I think it may be because when this work first started, it was about getting folks in the door. Diversity did not exist. There were a lot of onlys” in business. The only” woman on the leadership team. The only” person of colour on the team. The population has changed and is still changing. There are more women and people of colour in the industry than ever before, so it may be time to reverse the way in which we reference to have Inclusion first. If we do not create organizations where others are welcome and thrive, then we will not be successful. 

Measuring outcomes matters. You have to measure whether or not you are driving change. That’s where some head counting comes in. However, what is also important is measuring your environment. It may be qualitative, but without some measure of inclusion, your diversity measure will be a measure of your revolving door.

And here’s the thing, if you really deal with the infrastructure in such a way as to drive inclusion, the need for quotas will dissipate. Let’s keep in mind why we had quotas. We were not making progress and needed to make up for hundreds of years of inequality. When you are trying to fix a system that has hundreds of years of inequitable practice, you’re going to have to measure something to move the needle. 

Leeno: I absolutely agree. I think that’s part of the struggle we’re faced with today, in that so many of the strategies and so-called best practices” still harken back to those kinds of old needs and ways of thinking. That’s why I love seeing companies turning technology towards trying to address the DEI puzzle. My trepidation falls around whether we might be square-pegging round holes with strategies and tools that aren’t meant for DEI. For example, I really like the concept of engagement surveys and what they can do if run properly, and I think they have the potential to play a valuable role in inclusive change. But it’s the if they’re run properly,” piece that matters to me. What do you think of Engagement surveys being applied to DEI?

Lisa: I think engagement can be a power measure of your DEI program. At LPL, our ERG leaders are more highly engaged and are promoted at a faster rate than the company average. This has implications on the program and most importantly, the experience these leaders are having. It is translating to their engagement and thus their work. I see engagement as an important proof point of DEI work.

Leeno: So you’re using the Engagement Surveys as a sort of litmus test as to the success of your DEI work, and you’re seeing results? That’s really encouraging. Being that the silo’d nature of ERG work sometimes prevents the real benefits from taking hold in a lot of organizations, it’s really great that you are not only seeing results but that you’ve been able to put some metrics on them. 

OK, so let’s jump 5 years into the future? Where do you see the LPL culture, and how did you get there? Is it what you want, or is it really more of a 10 year vision? Being really pragmatic, I’d love to hear your thoughts on goal-setting and how you plot the course for this kind of organizational change. 

Firstly, I love the work we are now exploring with MESH. Being able to put real numbers on that cultural lynchpin is powerful. Secondly, we really do appreciate securing a strong fact base behind our decision-making, and the MESH Diversity IntelligenceTM Platform gives us the clear metrics we need. That is powerful for our leaders, and it becomes really powerful for the organization when taking all of those individual measures in aggregate. It allows us to see how we will continue to evolve an inclusive culture. 

In the fullness of time, I would anticipate hiring inclusive leaders as measured by your tool even as we use it to develop our employees. It provides so much information that can be leveraged to drive us further along our DEI path, and simply because it allows us to invest in DEI straight across the talent cycle, from hiring to team formation, to leadership and importantly, employee development. 

Leeno: So when you say investing in employee development, could you work that out for me a little bit? Why do you see that as an impotent key?

Lisa: Basically, I’m talking about the power of feedback. Feedback is a powerful driver to development, and it’s vital that we build on our ability to provide all our employees with the same quality of feedback and development opportunities that we provide to our leaders. And nowhere is this more impotent than in how we drive DEI. If we can understand where there are opportunities for improvement, and our efforts can be supported by real science-based suggestions on what behaviours to modify in order to become more inclusive, we stand to set our culture on a very impressive trajectory. That’s why I love the potential that using an instrument like the MESH’s Diversity IntelligenceTM platform brings us, because leaders and employees alike can get real insight into how they perform, and how they are received. We can provide accurate feedback about how they are experienced and what the potential gaps are between their intent and their impact. Basically, you can tell people, here’s what’s broken and here’s how to fix it.” It’s not one broad sweep. It is custom-built insight driving custom development suggestions. 

Of course, training is important too, although it’s important to get the right training and offered in the right way. Harvard Professor Frank Dobbin did a study that showed when training was required it actually caused more discriminatory attitudes than it corrected. One must keep in mind this is deep work. If approached in a surface way, you will get surface results. Too often, practitioners are focused on the hot ticket opposed to understanding and leading work that is deep and substantive and actually leads to real change. Training definitely needs to be a part of the equation. Development from my perspective may be more focused on the experience and actual practice of behaviours. 

Leeno: So now you’ve really sparked my attention. You had it already (chuckle), but now I’m sitting up at attention and leaning forward (chuckle). I completely agree with you. Coming from a guy who spent the formative years of his career as a DEI trainer, it might sound odd, but I never sold my work with claims that it would cure anyone’s DEI issues. Today there are options from trainings, to surveys, to personality assessments, to A.I. powered startups, and all of them are claiming to be solving the diversity & inclusion problem. What’s your perspective?”

Lisa: I think it’s all great news. It’s good because finally DEI is hitting Main Street for organizations. And that explains the marketplace boom. The challenge or the worry is that there are practitioners out there who are in the game because the game is now interesting or profitable and they aren’t committed or experienced enough to drive real change. Like anything, the buyer needs to beware. The A.I. stuff is interesting, but we must not miss how much bias is baked in. With some tools, they are solving a problem in isolation but not solving the larger problem for why the smaller problem exists. You can make resumes blind to the user, but if you have not helped the leaders become inclusive, you will either churn talent or work arounds will be found and no progress made. The big problems are hard and complex. It is good that there is so much attention now. Now we have to deliver in a way that helps leaders understand the full reach of our challenge and how we will be able to make real change straight through the talent cycle.

Leeno: I love the way you put that. Straight through the Talent Cycle. I suppose that’s one of the Keys. DEI is a systems issue, and if your solutions do not address the system, there will always be pockets of internal inconsistency and resistance. 

Well, this has just been wonderful Lisa. Thanks so much for taking the time and sharing your insights. I’m looking forward to seeing how you help drive DEI through the LPL culture over the next few years.