We're kicking off 2021 with a new interview series: GOTO Unscripted, with our first round of interviews recorded back when we could still meet in person. GOTO Unscripted takes our conference speakers off the big stage and brings them behind the scenes for an intimate conversation on topics they know best.
Jill Wetzler and Evan Suttter sat down with Jørn Larsen to explore what companies could and should do to enable inclusion in the workspace, including what the best tools to accomplish that are and how important it is to have support from different groups in the company. Last but not least, they focus on a list of things that each one of us should do to start moving the needle.
Jørn Larsen: So here we are in Chicago, it's raining and very cold outside, very windy here in the city. But we sit inside, it's very warm and cozy, and we're at GOTO Chicago, which is a software developer conference. I'm really happy that we have two guests in the studio here, Evan Sutter and Jill Wetzler. So, why don't we just start with you, Jill? If you can just say a little bit about yourself, your background and dive into what we're going to talk about.
Jill Wetzler: Sure. I got my start as a software engineer, worked at Salesforce. I was there for seven years. I was working on a lot of platform features, so external developers as customers. Around sort of my last year at Salesforce, I became an engineering manager because management was very, very intriguing to me. I felt like people’s problems were more interesting to me than computer problems.
Those were sort of the responsibilities I was gravitating towards. While I was at Salesforce, I helped start the Women in Technology employee resource group there. After that, I went to a social media company, I was an engineering manager there, also working with the women engineering group, and then after that, I wound up at Lyft. So, I've been at Lyft for about four years. I was initially hired to build up the infrastructure engineering org, so build that from about 7 people to 115, so quite a large org through hypergrowth, and have been doing a lot of diversity and inclusion related work at Lyft for pretty much the entirety of my tenure.
So last year, I wound up pitching a job role to my boss and our founders, and I became the director of engineering and leadership development. I view my role as in service to three different groups. One is our manager population — I want to make our managers better at managing, and specifically better at managing underrepresented people. I also want to be in service to our engineers as well, and to our contributors, and help usher them into leadership roles. Then I also view myself in service to the external community as well. So, that's the work that I've been doing for the last year.
Jørn Larsen: And that's also why you're here.
Jill Wetzler: That's exactly why I'm here, yes.
Jørn Larsen: Thank you for coming.
Jill Wetzler: Yes, thank you for having me.
Jørn Larsen: So Evan, you have a very different background.
Evan Sutter: Yes.
Jørn Larsen: Maybe you can just tell us a little bit about that... how you ended up sitting here.
Evan Sutter: Yes, my story's a little bit different. I guess it starts after I spent three months living in a hut in the forest in a monastery, and I guess after that experience, learning the tools of mindfulness, and learning just how to slow down, I came back and wanted to share those experiences with other people, so I wrote a book. Then from that book, I organically started doing talks at schools and companies, teaching people the skills and tools to live their best, most vibrant lives.
While doing that, I've been involved in some cool initiatives: some environmental campaigns to ban single-use plastic bags, engage creative education movement with disadvantaged children, children's stories to learn literacy skills in a fun and dynamic way. Then I guess more related to this, a social enterprise in a favela in Brazil to teach people the skills of entrepreneurship, to create alternate pathways to the drug and crime trade down there. It was those last things in particular that made me realize that more than just teaching people those skills, how a business could play a bigger role in really maximizing that output.
Jørn Larsen: What did you do before you stayed in France as a monk for three months because of your brother?
Evan Sutter: I had a background… I'm quite different. At university, I was studying business marketing work and marketing and finance to a range of different startups.
Jørn Larsen: And you're also the founder of Hapzly.
Evan Sutter: Mm-hmm.
Jørn Larsen: Maybe just a few seconds on that?
Evan Sutter: Yes, well just leading on to what I just said, I saw that we may be supporting businesses that inadvertently support businesses that do not align to our values and beliefs every single day, and that can have a huge impact on a much greater scale. So I realized the importance of, on the consumer level, being able to identify businesses that are fostering and promoting happiness, so they can make clearer, more informed choices that have a positive impact, but also a tool for businesses to continually improve their happiness outcome. So I guess the challenge was to be able to define happiness, and show that it can be defined, and it can be used as a tool to improve business' success, but also increase the happiness of all their stakeholders, the community environment, their employees and things like that.
Are we investing enough time and money in making the world more inclusive?
Jørn Larsen: Ok, so we are here to talk about inclusivity and how to make the world better. I know you just did a talk about how a company can become happier, and a big part of that is that the employees are happier and that it's also responsible. So, we have a lot of minorities in our society, and we want to give them a fair chance to be a part of what we do in our businesses. So, let's look at the first question that we've prepared. So, there is a lot of will or there's a lot of time and money invested in this space, and there's a lot of debate. How do you see that? Is that… do we get enough out of that time and money invested?
Jill Wetzler: Yes, I can speak, at least from the inclusion front. If we're looking at the diversity reports that are coming out, and the updates to those reports, we're seeing the needle is not moving the way that we would hope it would be moving, despite $8 billion in diversity training, lots of chief diversity officers that we're hiring, giving budgets to groups internally.
I think part of the problem is that we're not treating this as a business problem the same way that we treat other business problems, we're not holding leaders accountable for solving this problem, right? So we continue to do the same things over and over again, and I think some of that comes down to power structures. I think until those of us who are in majority groups confront our privilege, confront or learned inherent racism, or sexism, or ageism, or ableism, everything that comes along with being in a society that has power structures, and how do we start to admit that maybe we got to where we are, sure, because we worked hard, but also because there are things in society that are set up to give us an advantage.
So doing this type of work is really hard because it involves leadership actually confronting the privilege that we have, and helping people, giving them a little bit of a leg up. It feels weird to maybe think about we're going to give extra attention or put extra effort behind helping disadvantaged people because I didn't get that extra effort, or you know, maybe a white man in power didn't get that extra effort when they were in a more junior level. And so I think that's what makes this problem really, really difficult, and we just have to… we have to keep trying different things, right, and it all has to be part of a comprehensive strategy.
There are lots of studies that are showing that there are certain things that we do that don't work on their own, unconscious bias training doesn't work on its own. But when unconscious bias training is part of a more comprehensive effort, a comprehensive strategy that has leadership support at the center of it, and people are actually held accountable and incentivized, that's what starts to move the needle. So in short, it's just very difficult.
Evan Sutter: I'm just interested in those new roles that are floating around in diversity. What is it like, the main aim of their role? Is it the hiring area, or is it, you know, research and studies to find what's the best way to...?
Jill Wetzler: It really depends on the company. I have some friends who are more in the social sciences area, who do get to do a lot of this research. But then also we have people who are solely focused on diversity hiring. But then once you get people into the organization, they're not happy, they burn out, right? So we really have to be looking at this from all angles. And I think the research part that you bring up is pretty important because we still don't have a lot of research on this. Like, we can't find studies that show that ERGs help people get promoted, we can't find studies that say that diversity training helps. I think we're still kind of in the early stages of figuring out how to tackle this problem.
Where should we start with making people more engaged?
Jørn Larsen: Ok. So, we can move on to the next question. So, where do we start? I mean, how do we make people engaged, and how do we make everyone feel important in a company? I mean, where do we start? Because if you are in a minority group, it's by default that you're not on the main track, so the risk is that you're being left behind, you're being set outside. Like in the schoolyard when you're young, if you're different, you're left outside, and this is kind of the circle we need to break. So, how can we break that negative circle?
Jill Wetzler: I think there are several different approaches, and everybody's different, right? And not everybody from a particular group is going to feel oppressed in the same way, right? So in my job as a director, a lot of what I paid attention to was transparency, upward feedback, making sure that people knew that they could come to me if they were having a problem with their manager. That was a culture on my team. My managers who worked for me knew that I was going to be having skip-levels, skip-level meetings with people who work for them. I wanted to create sort of a culture of “it's okay for us to give feedback to each other,” it's okay to call me out if I say something that is excluding somebody, and it's safe to do so. So I think there are a lot of things that we need to do around making sure that leadership actually understands what it is like for frontline employees, how do people feel when they come into work every day? Are they happy? Do they enjoy coming to work?
If they're not, is anybody listening to them? And that's really been the biggest thing, because I'm going to screw up, I'm not going to do everything correctly, and so I want people to be able to tell me what needs to be fixed so that I can go fix it.
Jørn Larsen: Evan?
Evan Sutter: Yes, I think that's important in terms of… as she just mentioned, in terms of people being heard. When our employees feel useful and recognized, that's a big component of meaning, and meaning is a fundamental part for us to achieve happiness. That leads directly on to more engaged employees, right, when our voices are being heard, when we're playing a role in actually, the decision making, or getting feedback, or the employers, understand our goals as employees, and working towards them it's important for them to feel recognized, useful and then increase their positive emotions, and then come back to jobs, and you know, you want to push through.
Jørn Larsen: So, you also talked about doing just things that are not directly work-related, so it could be like meditation, learning about mindfulness, yoga or exercise, or whatever it is, that is not directly work, because maybe that's new to everyone, or at least it's new to the people in the group on a different level, so you can kind of make everyone a little bit on new ground. And when they're there, they feel, oh wow, maybe that's a minority person who is more into mindfulness, and the other ones are all of a sudden behind everybody. You can kind of challenge everyone in a different way than you do in a normal work environment.
Evan Sutter: I feel like just...
Jørn Larsen: Just shake… I mean, shake a little bit.
Evan Sutter: For example, in terms of mental health programs and well-being programs, it just shows that there's care coming from the employer. And one of the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, less stress and less anxiety and things like that, but it also creates a more compassionate human being, and that's a fundamental thing for empathy and belonging, and you know, that kind of thing, training that social trust within a business, which has a huge effect on our employees’ well-being and happiness, and then also, you know, their success in a role, and then where that takes them.
Jørn Larsen: So, you say that the main factor for making this work is to reduce the stress of everyone?
Evan Sutter: Well I think, like, on the sort of top-level, I think most people think about meditation, especially from a business level, they think of probably just reducing anxiety and stress, but you know, the ripple effect goes well beyond that. It has a huge impact outside the business, in terms of how they impact on their relationship with their family and their customers and all those kinds of things, but also, things like better concentration, all these other things like problem-solving, and sharpens intuition, which are all these things that create better, happier employees, more engaged employees.
Jørn Larsen: Yes.
Jill Wetzler: I think similar to this, I actually tell a lot of people I work with to get into therapy. Because I've been going to therapy, and it's been hugely helpful for me to work on myself, and to see some of the behaviors that I do at home and in my personal life, and how those carry over into my professional life. I think one thing that's important for leaders especially is for us to just be self-aware, and always be working on ourselves, and be improving ourselves in some ways. I think a lot of us get stuck in this, we're successful, we got here because everything I've been doing has been great, but really, I want people to be always thinking about how they can grow and how they can improve.
Evan Sutter: Yes, I think I mentioned that in my talk. We run so fast we can forget, people around us, and people’s personal experiences, and we get every kind of emotion. Then, when we implement little tools like this, it can increase empathy in the business, and understanding, which then has a huge ripple effect for the minority groups, but also for, you know the managers.
Jørn Larsen: And you're talking about the same thing, like understanding yourself.
Evan Sutter: Well, understanding yourself is imperative to better understand others.
Jørn Larsen: Exactly.
Jill Wetzler: Empathy.
Jørn Larsen: And open your mind. When you understand yourself, and you can open your mind, then you are more receptive to be inclusive, and not just look for people like yourself.
Evan Sutter: Yes. So maybe when it comes to this, it's like, it is about training people on these other skills to develop these things around compassion and recommend how they're treated.
Jill Wetzler: Yes. I did a bunch of interviews with people across our tech organization, and I was asking people what do you want in a manager, and the words that kept coming up for kindness and empathy and compassion, I want a manager who understands me. So, compassion is a word that came into our management principles, and we're thinking about how we get people to build that EQ muscle over time.
On Radical Candor
Jørn Larsen: So, you probably know, Kim Scott, both of you?
Jill Wetzler: Yes.
Jørn Larsen: There's one thing I like about her book, about the radical candor, and that is when we are in a job situation we cannot treat people like professionals, because we spend so much time together that we actually become a family, and in a family, feelings and emotions are important. So her point is: it doesn't help that you have a relationship with your leader and an employee, that you have, like oh, I'll just keep it on a professional level? That's wrong, she says, because it is actually about the relationship between two people, and that's about emotions. So you have to work with that, you have to accept that, and that's scary to many managers, that they are more than just someone who tells someone what to do, and gives feedback and says, oh, you did really well, now it's about listening to problems, and handling a situation.
Jill Wetzler: Yes.
Evan Sutter: And that's how it should be, right? Because employees are just human beings after all, and...
Jørn Larsen: Exactly. But that's not what's happening in a lot of places...
Evan Sutter: Yes, of course. Right.
How important is it to involve top management and founders?
Jørn Larsen: Ok, so that leads to a question of how important is leadership in this, and top management? How do you engage management in a company? You mentioned founders before, you mentioned that you went to the founders of the company… and how important is that, and how can you do it?
Jill Wetzler: Yes, I think it's really important for leadership to signal what their values and their beliefs are because that's very important to a lot of people when they decide where to work. It's really important to me, in terms of where I decide to invest my time. I think we can't do much without getting leadership involved. A lot of the inclusion work, when you look at, like, diversity labor and inclusion labor, it's happening with underrepresented employees who are not well represented in leadership and management roles, and a lot of them feel like I have no choice but to advocate for myself if I don't advocate for myself and my community, who will, right? So without the help of majority groups, and without the help of leadership, the people with actual authority in your organizations to shift your culture, or to state what your values are, and to choose where to invest time and resources, it's very, very difficult to make any meaningful progress on this. There are lots of studies that show without that engagement from top leadership, it's really difficult to move the needle.
Jørn Larsen: Do you have any experience with how you approach your potential customers? And at what level? I mean, what works?
Evan Sutter: It takes, as you said, founders or leaders who are forward-thinking and compassionate individuals, first and foremost, to make these big changes. Like, that's how you and I met. You know, you're someone who really thinks about the happiness of your employees, and also your environmental impact. So, it takes people like you, who are in those positions, to make a shift. It's like Patagonia, which has now, flourished as a company, based on its, focus on the environment and sustainability, but it took Yvon Chouinard, who is the founder, you know, to create 1% For the Planet, where he started, donating 1% of profits to carefully chosen environment nonprofits. Then when a big company like that is doing it, the other companies start, getting on board too, because they see the positive impact it has not only on the environment but also on their business. I think it has to come back to how it benefits the business, and I think, in this case, there are huge benefits for your business, and I think that's why it needs to be, you know, put into the spotlight.
Jørn Larsen: I bought a Patagonia ski jacket the other day, and the sales guy understood the values of the company, which is not always the case when you buy something. But he understood it, and he taught me about the values of the company. He stressed that you know, whatever happens to your jacket, just come in, we will repair it, so you don't have to buy a new one, you know? We will make this, the lifespan of this jacket, you know, very long.
Jill Wetzler: And that creates loyalty, right?
Jørn Larsen: Yes, and I liked that, you know?
Evan Sutter: And also, as it started with Patagonia, now it's becoming the norm like other companies are starting to do that. And that's how it starts happening, when they see a huge success they're having, especially, you know? The amount of loyalty that is present amongst their consumers and their employees. Then we need to start doing this, too.
How can HR help with inclusion?
Jørn Larsen: Now we talk about management and middle management but how can HR help?
Jill Wetzler: HR has been a huge partner to me in pretty much everything that I've done, whether that is our diversity and inclusion group, or simply our HR business partners. Those are the people who are meant to be in service to the employees, of course. And we hear this phrase, that HR is there to protect the company and not to protect the employees, and I understand where that comes from, and there is, like, a little bit of truth behind that. But also a good HR person is going to protect the company by protecting the employees. And so for me, it's really important that I have a good relationship with my HR team, and that I know who to go to, especially when I start to hear little concerns, and hearing them before they become big concerns, and knowing where to take them. A lot of the work that I do has implications on our HR processes and our systems, and so I want to make sure that we're all on board because ultimately, we do want the same things, right?
We do want engaged and happy workforces, we don't want to be dealing with escalations all the time. We certainly don't want to see big problems show up in the news, we'd like to address them early. And so it's really been important to me to engage HR really early in anything that I'm trying to embark on, because sometimes I could go off the rails a little bit.
Evan Sutter: Obviously it has a huge impact on the choices they make, and who they hire, and what they do...you know, it not only changes their business, but it changes the world, fundamentally.
What are the biggest challenges faced by minority groups, at companies today?
Jørn Larsen: Okay. So, what are the biggest challenges minority groups face at companies today? Any thoughts on that?
Jill Wetzler: Yes, I would really point people to the Tech Leavers Study, that the Kapor Center for Social Impact did. It came out, I think, in 2017. It's very different per group, so black woman getting passed over for promotions, LGBT employees getting bullied or harassed in the workplace, so it's very dependent. And again, not everybody feels aggression in the same way. One thing that I tend to think about is that we can't point to the smoking gun in these situations, and so there's this concept of death by a thousand paper cuts. It would be one thing if somebody could just tell us this is the problem in the organization, and somebody could go fix it. But instead, it's an engineer who may be one day is mistaken for recruiting or janitorial staff or kitchen staff, and then the next day it's being talked over in a meeting, and the next day it's having someone steal your idea, and the next day it's being told you're too vocal, and the next day being told you're not vocal enough. All of these things you can maybe look at in isolation and explain them away, or you know, oh, this person had really good intentions, but what we don't actually get a sense for is how that feels over time, and how it starts to build up, and how it starts to make people feel isolated and excluded. I think that's part of what makes this so difficult, is how do we actually deal with all of these little microaggressions, and the isms, and the things that are, you know, very difficult to deal with in the world, and now we have to deal with them in our workplace. So, I think that's really what makes this seem so intractable.
Evan Sutter: Well, I guess it goes back to what we were discussing before, the important factor in education. Because these things we're seeing in the world are the same as what we're seeing inside business now. So educating people, really making sure our employees are developing the skills around compassion and empathy, I think that's a good start, to help with the obstacles that they're facing daily. I don't know firsthand experience as much as Jill, in terms of the day-to-day and things like that, but I guess it starts by teaching people those tools, you know?
Tips & tricks for starting inclusion initiatives
Jørn Larsen: So maybe, let's talk about what you can do to help? Do you have some tips and tricks that can get the ball rolling? Because we talk a lot about the problems and how it feels and all this stuff, but maybe just some really good ideas that you can pass on to the audience, and so they can just get going and get the ball rolling, and be happier as a business, have the employees more engaged. What are the top three tips you can give?
Jill Wetzler: You go first.
Evan Sutter: I think the first thing is being aware of what an employee needs to be happy in the first place. And how businesses can influence those elements in terms of time use and living standards in workplaces that nurture positivity and well-being and care for the health of these employees. So I think once we're aware of those elements, then we can see how a business influences them. So things like when you look at time use, it can be implementing things like flexibility into the workplace, that can deepen that culture, and that high-trust culture, which is important for business success. When you're looking at what an individual needs to be happy, they need to be able to develop themselves personally and professionally, so we can implement things into our employees to keep on improving their skills, to add to their existing skills, to learn things like values and ethics.
We can also have them involved in the decision-making process, and have their voice heard, because that, you know, is directly in line with them being able to develop personally and professionally, and also that engagement, and deepening that meaning and that recognition and that usefulness. So, there are just two simple things I think that come on the back of being aware of how we can influence our employees' happiness.
Jill Wetzler: I like it… plus one, everything that you said, I might also add that there are some interesting ideas around… if you're familiar with the term ombudsman, that's like a third-party that's meant to hear concerns and sort of help people navigate, and figures out how to resolve an escalation.
I think there's a company called tEQuitable, that it's like this third-party organization, and employees can… think about all these paper cuts, employees can anonymously report these issues that are happening in their workplace. Because they're happening all the time, we just don't hear about them because it seems like such a nuclear option to go and to, like, escalate something so small to HR.
To make sure that we're capturing what it is like, and then to be able to see those patterns. It's hard to see those patterns when you're talking about minority groups, and like, small end numbers in your organizations. So, giving people an outlet for how to raise their concerns, and for them to be able to say, I don't need you to make a big deal out of this, but I want someone to be aware that it's happening so that once we start to see the patterns, we can address it.
Evan Sutter: That's important. Because otherwise, those little things become always overlooked, and then you don't see those patterns.
Jill Wetzler: Right.
How can we start to change things right away?
Jørn Larsen: So having this is important, and to feel engaged and heard is important. So how do we start changing all this? What will you do tomorrow? That’s my question, what can we go home, or just right after this video is over, then people, they think, okay… what should they do right after? I mean, what's the most important thing they can just get going on?
Jill Wetzler: One of the things I said in my talk is if you don't know where to start, go address your underrepresented people, and pick a process. Pick something opaque to them, that we probably think is working. Let me explain how it works to you, and let me just listen when people say that's not how it works for me, and that has generally told us where we need to focus our attention.
Right now, one of the things that we're trying to take on, we have a diversity working group that is led mostly by managers and directors, so that's who's doing all the work, and we're talking about team switches, and how do team switches work, what does a manager handoff look like?
I want to know, what is the experience of our underrepresented people? What's holding them back from switching teams? What about the process has been frustrating to them? That's going to tell us where we need to focus our efforts. We don't have the answers, as far as we're concerned, everything's working just fine. But I've heard enough of those little struggles here and there that I think it's important to sort of get everybody in a room, allow them to feed off of each other, make that environment safe for people to speak up, and tell us what we need to go address?
Evan Sutter: I think an important thing is to realize that these things make business better. And once we are aware of those things, then we're probably more likely to do it. And then asking questions and listening, and actually creating that awareness individually first, and then you have to be aware of what things are happening first to be able to address them.
How important is it to understand the values of the company you work in?
Jørn Larsen: So, how important is it to understand the values of the company you work in, to achieve better inclusivity and happiness?
Evan Sutter: I think the choices we make as to where we work, or who we hire, or what we wear and buy and eat, and who are our suppliers in everything, they all have a rippling effect throughout all of the business and society and the ecosystems and everything, right? So basically, every time we make a choice, we're choosing to have no impact, or have a positive impact.
Jørn Larsen: Super.
Jill Wetzler: Yes. For me, you know, I think almost every company is talking about how much they care about diversity and inclusion, and most companies are starting to put some money behind it, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they care. And so I need to listen to my back channel, to like, view the actions of companies, because I know, like, this work is really hard, and you know, I constantly have to… I feel like I'm swimming upstream sometimes. And so I must know that to serve the entire management chain above me, that we're all working towards a common goal. Because if we're not, I'm just going to hit roadblock after roadblock. But when we have the same values, and we can have discussions about what approaches we want to take… and you know, I'm not going to be right about everything, but I want to make sure that we're marching towards the same goals. And I also think, in terms of the companies that we support, I think if we care about, you know, racial equality, and I care about it in my organization, I also care about it in my community, I want to invest my money in black and LatinX businesses, in women-owned businesses, because ultimately, they might be businesses that I want to work for one day, right? And so I think it's really important that we do put our money where our values are as well.
Evan Sutter: That's important.
Jørn Larsen: Yes, I know.
Evan Sutter: I was going to say we can connect with our values in all areas of our lives.
A Chief Happiness Officer in every company
Jørn Larsen: And Evan, you would like to see a chief happiness officer in every company?
Evan Sutter: I think if it aligns to those company's values and if it sort of can connect the dots in a holistic way that can make the business better. Sometimes we have people who look after sustainability, and that's all, and sometimes we have people who look after employee well-being, but in many ways, they're so interconnected. So, maybe we have people who have the oversight for looking after all the things in their organization and connecting the dots, then we can create a happier workforce, and also a better business.
Jill Wetzler: That sounds great.
Jørn Larsen: What role would you put in on the high level, and what would your recommendation be?
Jill Wetzler: I'm interested in trying to make my role work, which has been a journey for me in trying to figure out how to scale some of the work that I do. But for me, I've wanted to focus on line managers and middle managers. I feel like these are the groups that we don't often give a lot of support to in this industry. I sort of had this realization, I was mentoring an engineering manager, a few engineering managers at some very, very small startups, and none of them had management background, and they were being thrown into this situation in these, you know, 20-person companies and they don't have anybody to learn from, right? And, you know, it was great that they were able to find some mentorship outside of their organization, but really, so much of an employee's happiness and career progression is in the hands of their direct manager, and these are people who might even be doing it for the first time. And so ensuring that we're investing in our frontline managers and our middle managers, and making them more empathetic and better at understanding their people, and more...