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Why The ‘B’ Needs To Come First In DEIB
CJ Fairfield, Gina Narcisi
‘With fitting in, you don’t get the creativity or that independent thought. You’re probably going to get more groupthink because people don’t want to say anything that’s going to make them stick out. The belonging is that opportunity to show up as your authentic self and say, ‘This is what I have to offer the business,’ says Rhonda Henley, vice president of Cisco’s Americas Partner Organization.
Amanda Glidden was working at a help desk for an MSP a few years ago when a customer said they wanted to talk to a man, a “real engineer.”
“Things were perfectly fair when I was sitting on that help desk,” said Glidden, now an Academy product owner at Denver-based distributor Pax8. “But when somebody called on the phone and said they wanted to talk to a real engineer, that’s an experience that people have that not everybody understands. That’s something you face.”
What’s important was how her company, her management team, reacted.
Glidden’s boss, she recalls, got on the phone with the customer and said, “You will not talk to my people this way. You will appreciate the help they give you and if you continue to act this way you won’t be our customer anymore.
“That was what belonging to the team meant to me,” she said. “Somebody stepped in. It was not me having to complain. We had the culture where somebody had my back.”
Belonging means that everyone is treated in a fair and just way. Everyone feels like a full member of the larger community and can thrive, according to Harvard University.
“When you get into the mindset of being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes, that’s the difference between fairness and justice,” she said. “It’s not just making sure everyone has a piece of the pie. It’s making sure that everybody is satisfied and happy and has that feeling of support.”
Belonging is the evolving piece in the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), or DEIB equation. A key part to belonging is psychological safety and genuine care, said Cass Cooper, DEI community leader for CRN parent The Channel Company.
“We all want and need to belong somewhere in our families, our homes, our communities, our work,” Cooper said. “Institutions are built on people but maintained on their ability to connect and belong.”
When individuals know there is care, not just for their work product or capitalistic output, but for who they are at their core, they feel belonging.
“There’s peace. And a peaceful person is a productive person,” she said.
‘Belonging Is About The Feeling’
“Belonging is the biggest factor of any growing business, and people put it toward the end. All the time,” said Izzy Polk, customer relations manager for MSP Limitless IT Solutions. “Before you implement diversity and inclusion, you have to start with belonging because if you’re not building a team that belongs as a unit, there’s always going to be conflict.”
Polk, a trans woman and Latina, is no stranger to discrimination. Because of her experiences, she was a self-proclaimed housewife who didn’t want to be part of the workforce. But after attending a channel conference in 2022 with her husband, an MSP business owner who bought her a ticket for the event, everything changed.
“The second night, we went back to our hotel room, and I cried. I said, ‘I’m going to do this by your side. I want to help the people that are closed-minded in our field,’” Polk said.
That’s when Limitless IT took on its new name. “There’s no limit. I realized in the IT world, there’s not a lot of females, and there’s not a lot of LGBTQ people to begin with [but] we’re smart. We can do everything. That’s why we changed the company’s name,” Polk said.
Belonging starts at the very beginning—the hiring process, Polk said. San Antonio-based Limitless IT’s hiring process instructs applicants not to include their name, race or gender on their resumes. The company also blocks out email addresses and doesn’t require four-year college degrees of its employees.
When candidates are interviewed, Polk or her husband aim to ask open-ended questions to understand the candidate’s point of view to determine how they could potentially fit on the team. Final hiring decisions are not solely based on Polk and her husband’s opinions: Employees are also involved, which is key for creating a team that will work well together, she said.
“When you’re building a team, that’s a unit. You can’t go out and say, ‘I want a Black person, I want a Mexican person, I want the woman who just had a baby’ so you can check your box off. Then you’re going to make all these people belong to one another? That’s pointless,” she said.
Diversity, said Polk, should be the last thing on the list.
The Pillars Of DEIB
The “B” for belonging comes first. That’s according to Munu Gandhi, CEO of ITsavvy, an MSP in Addison, Ill. The most important part of any work culture is physical and psychological safety, he said.
“I think the ‘B’ really addresses that psychological safety. That I feel comfortable in who I am, how I represent myself and what I can bring to the table to create value on behalf of the company I work for,” Gandhi said. “Without that physical and psychological safety, nothing else matters.”
As CEO, Gandhi knows that diversity of thought, experiences and culture is very important to bring together. Without a diverse workforce and different perspectives, businesses are missing out on developing better solutions or go-to-market strategies, he said.
“If some people are opting out because they just don’t feel like they can participate, then you’ve got half the equation right but you’re missing out on the other half,” he said. “The belonging part comes into play when you’re psychologically safe to engage, lean in, partner, and do and say [things] in a way that shows the authentic you.”
When people are comfortable engaging and feel like their perspectives matter, it also helps with employee retention, Gandhi said.
“They’re going to stay. The lower your attrition, the more institutional knowledge you retain and the less cost [there will be in] having to hire, re-educate and rebuild relationships and social capital. All of those things are massive economic benefits that a firm accrues,” he said. “It’s just good for business.”
Lyndsey Hoffman, vice president of social impact at Pax8, describes the pillars of DEIB in this way: Diversity is the representation, “the way that we look;” “Inclusion is the behavior behind the way that we act and the way that we build our business. Then the belonging is how everyone is feeling, the feeling that you have when you step into a meeting or a conversation.”
In some cases, minor changes can have a big impact on someone’s sense of belonging, she said.
“That layer of belonging is as small as ensuring that there’s an accessibility feature built in for people who are colorblind, to also ensuring that every woman that sits in a room feels like they have space and the ability to take up that space,” Hoffman said. “Perfection is not key, but it’s how do we give each other grace and space to learn and grow together.”
Focusing on DEIB enhances relationships on every level, she said.
“It gives us deeper and closer client relationships with our partners by having this psychologically safe space to be able to foster a culture of inclusivity and innovation and to drive business growth,” Hoffman said. “It’s also the right thing to do.”
Helping Partners Become More Inclusive Helps Everyone
Rhonda Henley, vice president of Cisco Systems’ Americas Partner Organization, is glad that work culture has moved away from “fitting in” in favor of ”belonging.“
“With fitting in, you don’t get the creativity or that independent thought. You’re probably going to get more groupthink because people don’t want to say anything that’s going to make them stick out. The belonging is that opportunity to show up as your authentic self and say, ‘This is what I have to offer the business,’” she said.
One of Cisco’s DEI initiatives, the Cisco Talent Bridge program, is linking Cisco Networking Academy graduates to open positions within Cisco and its channel partners taking part in the program. So far, the group has connected a diverse group of candidates in more than 180 countries and in 17 languages with the right job in the tech space. Cisco has also pledged to invest $50 million by 2025 to diversify its partner ecosystem with the formation of the African American Cisco Partner Community (AACPC), Henley said.
For San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco, DEI doesn’t just live within the HR department. Rather, it’s baked into the company’s different business units, including the partner organization, she said.
“We probably know more members of our DEI team [than] we know our [business unit] leaders. We pull them in for partner events [and] guest speaking events for roundtables, coaching and mentoring. We pull them into the business as we need with our direct and user customers, as well as with our partners,” she said.
Cisco has been vocal about its DEI goals in recent years, but no matter how purpose-driven a company is, businesses need to spend as much time on the “why” as they do on the “what,” Henley said. “Otherwise, you could lose people along the way,” she added.
For its part, Irvine, Calif.-based distributor Ingram Micro later this year is launching its Represent program, which encompasses four subprograms: growth, knowledge, recruitment and mind share.
Susan O’Sullivan, vice president of U.S. DEI at Ingram Micro, said while larger partners may have figured out the DEIB piece, its SMB partners may still need help, and that’s where Ingram Micro is stepping in.
“We can be that liaison, bring our value, fill that gap and help them foster the growth,” she said. “At the end of the day, that’s what we do. We’re here to help them grow their business, and so if we can do that from a diversity and inclusion perspective, it’s great.”
The program will help partners with numerous initiatives such as best practices, training and rewriting job descriptions to highlight the DEIB aspects for prospective job candidates. To get the message out, Ingram Micro plans to host a quarterly speaking series and a monthly talk show. Scott Sherman, executive vice president of human resources at Ingram Micro, said the company’s goal is to deliver a psychology-safe workplace environment where everyone can achieve their career goals.
“We think part of our role in an organization is to help make our communities better,” he said. “We benefit from the community and so we should benefit the community.”
Events Being Built Around Inclusive Partner Networks
Pax8, meanwhile, plans to build out new events around its inclusive partner networks, such as mission briefings and boot camps. It also plans to partner with minority technology groups within the channel, like the Black Channel Partner Alliance and Women of the Channel.
To help drive that initiative, the company is educating Black channel partners on minority-focused programs to give them a larger awareness of the offerings and resources available to them.
“It’s creating an ecosystem inside of the ecosystem, communities inside of the community, so that we can hyper-target those challenges that are specific to the marginalized and those that don’t have as much platform and privilege as others,” Hoffman said.
At N-able, there is a visible note on the company’s online career page that reads, “If you are an individual with a disability and would like to request an accommodation for help with your online application, call...”
“We really wanted to make a visible movement that we welcome people from all walks of life, all backgrounds,” said Kathleen Pai, chief people officer for the Burlington, Mass-based MSP platform vendor. “The disabled population is one that is harder to tap into unless you’ve partnered with specific organizations that seek to hire people from those populations, and that is something that we’re looking into.”
The company provides its employees two paid volunteer days to give back in their own way. Pai said she is looking into how the company can involve its partners in that initiative.
“We really try to educate and create awareness, and then hopefully our partners will come on this journey with us organically,” Pai said. “The worst thing is when, whether it’s partners or employees, they feel like we’re pushing them to do something. If they haven’t fully grasped the why, they don’t get the why, they don’t see the why and they just feel pushed and forced ... it always backfires.”
To cultivate the feeling of belonging, Seattle-based Amazon Web Services leads with inclusion. In fact, it refers to its efforts as ID&E.
Each morning, all AWS employees are served up a question in a mechanism the company calls “Connections,“ which allows AWS to gain real-time, companywide feedback to learn about employee sentiment and to improve their experience. The company has been infusing inclusion questions into Connections, said LaDavia Drane, director and global head of inclusion, diversity and equity for AWS.
Drane said that data is key, and it’s something every company has in abundance. One way for partners to begin their inclusion work is to collect and evaluate employee data honestly, without rejecting it, she said.
“I’ve been in those rooms where people they really feel like they’re inclusive leaders. They’re working hard on hiring to make sure they have a diverse staff, but their data is telling a different story,” she said. “Leadership has to be ready to accept what is it that they see, be willing to inspect often, and then put action plans in place to address the hardest challenges.”
Partners Leveraging Vendor DEIB Initiatives
As a person of color, Corey Kirkendoll, president and CEO of Plano, Texas-based MSP 5K Technical Services, a Pax8 partner, helped the distributor in its DEIB initiatives by talking to its employees about what a diverse partner looks for and how to better serve them.
“What they want to understand is what our wants and needs are,” he said.
But the feeling of belonging has to spread across the whole channel community, he said.
“A lot of people believe that we all are equal, the playing field is equal, and we can do everything, but in reality, that’s just not true,” he said. “For Pax8 to even make it an opportunity and acknowledge, as a vendor, that there is a problem that needs to be talked about, is a huge plus.”
There is a need for this, he said. There is an opportunity for those in the channel to help bridge the gap.
As an Ingram Micro partner, Brent Morris, vice president of business development of Golden Valley, Minn.-based MSP Success Computer Consulting, said the distributor has always led the market when it comes to initiatives and changes in the community.
“They’ve always invested in their partners to ensure that there’s awareness and understanding, and they’ve done it at the human level,” Morris said. “They’ve been really effective at connecting with us individually in the true spirit of partnership.”
Leading with the human factor is the important part, said Bruce Lach, president of Success Computer Consulting.
As Ingram Micro offers more resources, he said, it’s nice to tap into those “so we don’t have to go down that path and stumble around to figure out what might be good.”
Morris said the more people get involved in these initiatives, the better. “We can learn from another and accelerate our understanding of each other,” he added.
Simon Beckett, director at Takeley, England-based MSP Dynacom IT Support Limited, an N-able partner, is just beginning his journey to diversify his company. With four white men on his staff, he wants his next hire to be a woman or a person of color.
But he knows that diversity isn’t just a box that needs to be checked.
“The stuff that N-able is doing is excellent because, quite frankly, I can steal their ideas,” Beckett said. “I suppose it’s a natural progression for [N-able] to say, ‘We also have these skills around DEIB, and we can give you those resources as well because there’s no point in keeping them to ourselves when everybody can benefit from them.’”
DEIB Brings Different Perspectives
Marlboro, N.J.-based master MSP IT By Design was seeing some turnover and Kam Kaila, president of the company, turned to her husband, Sunny Kaila, CEO of the company, and said she needed a female in a leadership position they were looking to fill.
“I don’t care what you do, but you need some diversity on your leadership team, and I needed a female,” Kam Kaila recalls saying. “I don’t think people are intentionally mandating that, whereas I was because it’s a different perspective. And sometimes because we’re very service-dominated companies we forget the other perspective.”
And finding people to diversify a team sometimes means going outside the channel.
“If you have the ability to understand that you can go outside of the channel to find good, talented people that really bring value to your organization, then all of you sudden it will start to balance the scales,” she said.
She encouraged companies to put an ESG statement at the bottom of their next job ad it to see how many more women and people of color apply. When IT By Design did, the company received three times the number of job applicants.
“Having [diversity] on the team and where it comes from is a start,” 5K’s Kirkendoll said. “But having people that can make a change, make a difference, have a voice and show some directional changes and influence on the company bottom line, that’s what it really comes down to.”
He urges others to not let diversity, inclusion and belonging become buzzwords.
“Really put the right effort and programs behind it and support it because this is something that’s generational [and] is going to have to continue to grow,” he said.