In today’s podcast, we’re joined by Brian McComak diversity & inclusion consultant to discuss how your organization can create inclusive workplace cultures and human-centered leadership.
About Brian McComak
Brian is a diversity & inclusion consultant, speaker, author and facilitator with over 20 years of experience in D&I, HR, company culture, change management, internal communications, and employee experience. He is the founder and CEO of Hummingbird Humanity, a consulting firm that cultivates and champions inclusive workplace cultures and human-centered leadership. After the interview, look for Brian’s upcoming book, Humanity in the Workplace: A Blueprint for Building an Inclusive & Equitable Company Culture.
Read the Transcript
Allison: Welcome back to the Deliberate Leaders podcast. I am your host, Allison Dunn, executive coach. I am super excited to introduce our guest today. We have with us Brian McComak. He is a diversity and inclusion consultant, speaker, author and facilitator. He is also the founder and CEO of Hummingbird Humanity, which is a consulting firm that cultivates and champions inclusive workplace cultures and human-centered leadership. Brian, thank you so much for joining us here today.
Brian: Oh, Alli. So is it Alli or Allison? What should I call you?
Allison: You can call me Alli.
Brian: Okay. Got it. Alli, thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted to be here. You know, as I hear my bio get read, there’s that three letter title CEO that I didn’t know that I signed up for that, and I’m also incredibly grateful that I get to do this work and share stories, so it’s so nice when people like you invite me to be part of your communities. And my team at hummingbird is really encouraging me to embrace that CEO title. Hey, we believe in you and others will too. So these are moments that validate that.
Allison: Fantastic. Well, we are pleased to have you here with us. I love to kick these off with a deliberate conversation. What would be your number one leadership tip for our listeners?
Brian: Number one leadership tip. My work is all about how I can be an advocate, an ally and accomplice to make the world more inclusive for others, particularly those that are marginalized or underrepresented in our workplaces. And I am, as those of you who are watching on Live, you can see that I’m a white man. I’m also a cisgender man. I happen to be gay, but you might not figure that out when you see me. So, so much of the world and the world I grew up in and that taught me how to make sure that people that look like me were included.
So what I’ve learned is I need to ask for the people around me, to have a great diverse group of humans around me, I need to ask them to share feedback with me, to tell me if I’m missing something. I need to make space for that. So I think my leadership tip is to really encourage and embrace those conversations and to allow them to be safe and allow for people that you lead or manage to say, hey, Brian, I know that you’re trying to get this right and I think you’re missing this vantage point, or this point of view or this experience in how you’re making that decision, or how you’re conveying that message, and allow that to be a gift that they give to you. That way you can be a leader who is inclusive of everyone and makes it safe for people to help you do better.
Allison: Thank you for that. I appreciate that. In our pre-show conversation, I was sharing my love for birds, and so Hummingbird is the name of the company, so you shared it and so I just wondered what made you choose Hummingbird? Hummingbird Humanity.
Brian: Yeah. You know, I’m going to guess that there’s going to be a theme in our conversation today, Allie, which is good because since what I do is this diversity, equity and inclusion work. The thing that I think is magical about the hummingbird is if at first glance you look at the bird, the hummingbird, you might really underestimate it. For anyone who doesn’t know, it is the only bird that can fly backwards, so that alone is like the coolest thing ever. And I think that’s really a great analogy for all of us as humans. There is so much to the rest of our story that is not seen at first blush or at first glance, and almost all of us are likely underestimated for what we’re going through, what experiences we have, what capabilities we can offer.
I think the hummingbird is a really great analogy and a good reminder for us to say, Hey, wait, let’s pause. Before I make that assumption or assessment about this person I’ve just met, let me get to know them a little bit better. Let me ask them about what’s important to them, about what drives who they are as a human.
The fact that I’m a white guy is possibly the least interesting thing about me, and what’s more interesting is I battle anxiety and depression. I am HIV positive. I’m sober. I’ve gone through these experiences that have been really tough. You don’t see those. I don’t wear them on my shirts. You can’t see them, but those are the stories that shape who I am and how I show up and why I do what I do. So I think the hummingbird is really a reminder of let’s get to know the rest of the story and see what we learn.
Allison: Yeah. I appreciate you sharing that. I think that’s a great kind of a visual to think about that for the name. So you have a new book coming out or is out. Which is it?
Brian: It’s coming out. We were originally going to release it in the spring, but I realized I wanted a little bit more time with the manuscript, so I’ve pushed it to the fall.
Allison: Oh. To the fall.
Brian: Yeah. So it’s the fall. It’s called Humanity in the Workplace, and it’s a blueprint for building inclusive and equitable company culture. That subtitle is not rolling off my tongue yet, but it’s going to.
Allison: Well, that is the focus of our podcast today, which is helping organizations create human-centered workplace cultures. And I love the fact that you also use the blueprint. So we look forward to it coming out in the fall. Who are you writing the book for?
Brian: I’m really glad that I achieved this goal as from the team members at Hummingbird, who’ve read the draft of the manuscript or a final draft version of it. The intention I wrote it for was for CEOs, chief HR officers, those senior leaders that are responsible for making decisions that impact the culture and the experience of their employees, the humans that work at their companies. And it’s really a call to change.
It is a call to action, but I think it’s more about a call for change of how do we make decisions and create workplaces where humans thrive, where we can really tap into the heart and soul of those people who choose to show up at our workplaces every day and help make our companies run, and how if we embrace their heart and soul and help them find purpose and connection with our organizations, how actually that really benefits our companies.
It’s sort of like the profit is not the goal. The profit is the outcome, because you’ve created a place where humans thrive. So it is for those leaders and I’ve had a couple junior members of the team who’ve read the book and they’re like, I totally get what you’re talking about, but I just graduated college and I don’t have that sort of room to play in making those decisions. So they’re saying, I think you hit the mark with who you’re targeting it for, and it’s more practical for those people who have that big picture view.
Allison: Okay, good. How would one bring humanity to the workplace? What are your thoughts on that?
Brian: There are a couple things that I frame in the book. I’m going to give sort of a big picture sort of view, and then I’ll give one that’s very sort of tactical and tangible. The big picture view is this concept of this heart and soul concept that I mentioned a moment ago, which is how do we embrace diversity, equity and inclusion in our organizations? How do we create an environment that fosters wellbeing? What does our social impact look like? What’s our corporate philanthropy and volunteerism efforts? There’s a chapter on communication, which is about transparent communication. So much of the communication principles that I learned growing up in management and leadership were how do you control the message? How do you protect the company? And those messages don’t work for most humans. What they do is they create mistrust and they create a lack of commitment and connection. So being transparent is the new way to embrace the humans. So that’s what the book is about.
One of the questions I ask is how do we make sure that … I’m an HR person as well, and HR has evolved to be a strategic business partner in so many ways, which I think is great. But that tends to be more business focused and less human focused. So how do we make sure that humans are at the center of every conversation?
So to give a practical tip, I’m going to mention two quick tips here. One is, if you’re one of those decision makers who’s at one of those tables – the boardroom table, the C-suite table, whatever that table is – and you’re probably using a spreadsheet to make and inform decisions, because we have learned that we need to use data. I’m all for data; data’s not bad, but remember that behind every number on every cell of that spreadsheet is a person or a group of humans, and those people are the reason that number exists, whatever number is.
And when you’re making a decision about it, say, before we make this decision, I know that’s a number, but how does it impact the humans? How do we embrace their humanity in this decision, and how does the outcome or the decision we’re going to make allow them to be, to foster and thrive, and to give back to our companies?
And so the other tech tip I’ll mention there, which is what I first hear when I make suggestions like that to leaders is that’s not what I’m supposed to do. That’s not what I was taught. So all of a sudden, they start to feel this discomfort, whether it’s about how they make a decision based on numbers or having a real conversation about what it means to be a gay person or a woman in the workplace or a person of color. Those are conversations we didn’t have. We should have had them, but we didn’t, and so there’s this discomfort. So what I say is reframe that discomfort when you have those moments. I say, I love that you’re feeling uncomfortable right now. That means you’re doing something different, and to make workplaces where humans thrive, we have to do things a little different and so lean into the discomfort and embrace the fear. And I believe that when you step to the other side of it, you’ll find it to be a really rewarding place.
Allison: Thank you for that. Those are some good tips and I think good advice on recognizing how it may make people feel when they think about it in a different way. Can you share with us what are the essential art of infusing diversity, equity and inclusion in HR practices?
Brian: There’s a framework that we released and shared last year, and we can certainly make sure that you have a PDF of this for your community, Allie. It’s called Representation Matters. It’s a thought leadership paper that introduces the four lenses of representation. The reason I want to start with just that framework is I grew up in corporate life and I was an HR person, so the conversation about representation, although we didn’t always use that word is not new to me. We used to talk about in the late 90s, early 2000s when I was doing HR. Do we have women? Do we have people of color? Are they in leadership? So those were the conversations and those conversations have been around for a while, and those are important conversations and there’s more questions to ask whether we’re looking at sexual orientation or religion or ability, and we need to continue that dialogue.
What I think it’s really missed, and we know this from the research that’s been done, is you can have all of the things, strategies, tactics, actions you want to get people that look different to work at your organization. But if the environment, the culture doesn’t allow them to grow, to learn, to get promoted, to really add meaningful impact, then they’re going to leave when you hire them.
So what the four lenses do is reframe the thinking about how do people see themselves in your organization through the lens of people. Are there people that look like them and how do those people get to the opportunities in the organization? And there’s culture – what are the stories being told? What does the culture look like? Is there psychological safety? Can I use my voice to say to a leader, Hey, I think we need to think about this differently, or ask a question or challenge a decision? Are the benefits meeting my needs as a human?
Then we have customers, which is once you have a culture that allows for a diverse community of humans who can use their voices and experiences, then you can start to innovate or be inventive about the products and services you’re offering to meet the needs of diverse customers. And all of what we know today from employees is that they want to have a connection to purpose. So some of that is about the work they’re doing. It’s also about how their companies are giving back to their communities. So that’s the fourth lens is what you’re doing for your communities.
So when I think about sort of taking that to a policy or practice perspective in HR, it is how does HR think about representation in all of the decisions they’re making, and how that supports the ecosystem through the lenses of people, culture, customers, and community.
Allison: Thank you for that. There’s some verbiage, I guess is the way I’m going to position it, and so I’m hoping that you can help kind of explain. What is visible versus invisible identities?
Brian: Sure, sure. I sort of talked about these a little bit. I use the part of the example that I share, so I’ll frame it in a slightly different way. If I’m in front of a room which doesn’t get to happen very often, but I do get to be in rooms with humans again, like many of us are starting to experience for the first time in two years. And when I’m in a room with humans and facilitating this conversation, which is about the human iceberg, which if for anyone out there listening or watching, you can just Google human iceberg and you’ll get lots of examples. What I’ll ask the group is because it’s usually like 20 minutes into the session. They’ve learned a little bit about me and I’ll say, what do you know about me?
And what they will say is you’re tall because I’m 6′ 6″ tall. Sometimes people will say that I’m white. I’m obviously white, but so many of us were taught not to talk about race, so sometimes that gets skipped. I wear glasses. People will presume that I’m educated, which happens to be true. I have a master’s degree, but from the language that I use you know, so they’ll pick out some things that they can see. And so then I say generally all those things are true. Most people will presume that I’m cisgender. It rarely happens that someone will venture a guess on whether I’m straight or gay, so they don’t make that guess. So then what I say is, as I shared earlier, I’m a gay man. I’m a person with a disability and these are some of those stories. And as I shared earlier, I also say and those are the things that make me who I am .
And so the idea is we all have things that are part of our visible identity, those things that we can see or perceive based on just looking at someone, and we all have aspects of our identity that are invisible, that are hidden unless we choose to share them. The other sort of couple pieces of that to know is our water line for visibility tends to change based on our environment. So we tend to have the lowest water line with our close friends. Depending on your relationship with your family, your family water line may fall somewhere completely different. And with the workplaces, we tend to be more conservative unless you work in an environment that says we want you to be the human that you are and bring your full self to this workplace and we make sure that that that’s possible.
And the reason why that conversation is important, one is I mentioned, the rest of those stories that don’t get told are often the things that are most meaningful to us, and the things that we can really tap into to bring something unique or different to work. If we can build bridges of trust through those stories, sharing those stories with each other, then we can also trust each other. When we’re doing work together in different ways,, we can challenge things in different ways, so it just opens up the door for more creativity and problem solving, borrowing on the full range of who we are.
If we’re really boxed into this very sort of narrow set of here’s the box of things I do, and here’s the box of what I’m supposed to bring, then we’re not fully living to our potential. And ultimately when every employee at a company is all in those little boxes, you’ve taken out so much of the potential that they can bring. So let’s sort of take down some of the walls of those boxes and let them bring their full selves and see what that energy brings to the success of the company and the results that you can achieve.
Allison: Yeah. In my work as an employee engagement certified coach, one of the exercises that we do to kind of build engagement in teams is to share stories and it’s really focused on the invisible, and so we position it as a time in your life that you’ve faced adversity and what happened and then how are you better for it? But it’s always a very invisible below the water line element and it lowers it and brings everyone closer. And I think that’s so important to recognize you can make a lot of assumptions just how you show up, what you see. But we are so much more than that, I’m assuming the hummingbird.
Brian: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And I’m so glad you shared that. I’m aware that given the starting point of my work that I’m doing today is largely around identity. I use identity driven examples, but I’ll share one other one that I love to use. I wasn’t in the space for this; some of the hummingbird team members were, and one of the participants from this company shared that when they were a teenager, what’s below your water line conversation, what’s a story you’d like to share that shapes how you see the world. This employee shared that when they were a teenager, they were in a car accident with their family and they were the only one who survived. And every time I say it, I get the shivers and I feel the power of that moment and the tragedy of that moment.
I’ve never met this person. I really know nothing about them, except for this part of their story. I also feel like I know them so much better. And I think about one of the things we know happens to parents in the workplace. I don’t know if this person is a parent, but let’s make the assumption that they are. I’m going to venture a guess that they’re a parent who says I’m leaving at 5. I will never miss my kids’ bedtime. And you know what? I’m good. I’m here for it. Go be with your kids at bedtime. Go spend that quality time with them.
There’s so many perceptions that we have about people who stay late, don’t stay late or come in early, all of these things and there’s different perceptions around women or men. But put all that aside in this moment. Doesn’t matter. This is a human who lost their entire family and they’re going to cherish and honor every moment they have with the people they love. I want everyone to be able to do that and that particular person, I want to do everything I can to support them. So there’s lots of those versions of the stories and I like the way you frame it around what adversity have you overcome because you just learn something different about someone.
Allison: And everyone has one, and it has formed exactly who they are. And the more we understand that, the more we can have compassion for how they show up sometimes on the more visible side.
Brian: Yeah, absolutely.
Allison: Brian, I have one final question I think today. If you could just share, why does reframing representation matter?
Brian: So when I was an … I am still a HR professional, so it’s not like I took that coat off. It’s still with me, but I worked in HR roles for a long time. And when I would assess employee experience, survey employee engagement, survey results, we would analyze them at the group level. We would analyze them at the team, the department, the function, the organization level, the location level, all of those levels. And that data is important. What I’ve realized as I have tried to do the best that I can at this work, which is an always learning journey. Doing work that is human centered means that you’ll never know it all, and you’re always learning, and sometimes you get it right. And sometimes you’re like, oh, that I could have done better and I’m going to learn this from this moment and that’s all good.
The approach that we have historically used to analyzing employee survey data, I’ve realized, has sanitized the experiences of individual identities in ways that I believe were likely – I hope that I didn’t cause harm when I was doing that. I know that my intent was never to, but I also realized that there are humans who didn’t feel heard by when I said we would report back and say, here’s what we heard from all of you. And they’re like, well, that’s what you heard from all of the men at this company, but did you pay attention to what the women said or the women of color? And so I think in reframing representation matters, as we’re thinking about making decisions for organizations, if we start not from the composite of the population, and then we start from those identities that are most erased when we look at a composite analysis, we start to say, how can we help people feel seen, heard, valued? How can we meet their needs? What does that look like?
And I think for me, it’s actually more interesting because it’s very meaningful and so one of the phrases we like at Hummingbird is good for humanity, good for business. So I’m leaning on good for humanity. It’s more meaningful. I love that. I want humans to thrive. I want them to feel seen and valued and heard. And I also respect that as business leaders, we have to make responsible business decisions. We have to think about return on investment. The reality is that we are tracking in 20 years that the United States specifically will be predominantly people of color. Women already are 51% of the nation’s population. So if we’re not paying attention to the rest of those stories, we are going to manage ourselves out of business. So if you’re going to go to the good for business side of it, I don’t care how you get here. Just come on board. I think that that’s why reframing representation matters is so important. It’s a reminder every day that we have to think about the rest of the story and the experiences of others through different lenses.
Allison: I think that’s a powerful perspective and I’ve been guilty of analyzing the data just like that. And I don’t even think that at this moment in time that even the data sources I have allows us to say men, women, and splice it in representation ways. Thank you. Brian, what is the best way for people to connect or reach out to you?
Brian: The two best ways today are you can visit hummingbirdhumanity.com and we have a weekly newsletter where we share lots of information that you can sign up for. And of course, Hummingbird is on Instagram and LinkedIn as well. The best channel for me is the LinkedIn channel. I share lots of content on representation matters there. So that’s another great way to sort of continue this conversation that we were just chatting about a moment ago. And then next month on the PeopleForward Network, I am launching a podcast as part of the Gut + Science™ podcast community as their DEI commentator, so you can join us there and hear more from me on the PeopleForward Network.
Allison: Fantastic. Well, thank you for sharing that. It’s been a pleasure having you here with us today, and I look forward to your book being released this fall.
Brian: Thank you so much, Allie. It was such a pleasure and everyone listening, thank you for taking a moment of your time to listen to my stories. I hope that you got something that will be helpful for you as a leader, or as just as a human. So I send you all good wishes.
Allison: Thank you.