Sharra Owens-Schwartz of Rocket Software: “Being an inclusive leader is about seeing employees as more than just that”

Being an inclusive leader is about seeing employees as more than just that. You have to think about them as actual people and really get to know them. Understanding what interests your employees and who they are helps inform you and the way you lead. As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase […]

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Being an inclusive leader is about seeing employees as more than just that. You have to think about them as actual people and really get to know them. Understanding what interests your employees and who they are helps inform you and the way you lead.

As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase a Company’s Bottom Line”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharra Owens-Schwartz.

Sharra Owens-Schwartz is the Senior Director of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity at Rocket Software. Reporting to Tracey Leahy, Sharra will help elevate its RIDE program and lead the initiatives and programs focused on creating an inclusive environment, where Rocketeers are valued for their differences.

Sharra has committed her personal and professional life to the advancement of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. She currently serves as Board Chair of the Diversity Committee at Belmont Day School. Most recently, Sharra served as the Director of Annual Giving at The Park School where she was responsible for raising 10% of the annual operating budget. While in this role, she was integral in the formation of an anti-racist task force to tackle and rebuild the development department with more inclusive practices and was on the team which assessed the School’s climate for inclusivity and multiculturalism. At The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, Sharra held a leadership role on the advancement team and was a key contributor to the first-ever Diversity Strategic and Implementation Plan. Prior to these roles, Sharra held various communications and policy roles in the public, private and non-profit sectors. She earned a B.A. from Bethune-Cookman University and an M.B.A. from The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into the main part of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you share a bit of your “backstory” with us?

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a tight-knit community in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston. It was one of those communities where everyone looked out for each other and it was a nurturing environment to be raised in. My immediate family in particular was really service oriented. My dad held an elected office in Boston and my mother had a leadership role with the city. From a young age, I was taught the importance of service, advocating and, overall, looking out for others so everyone can have a voice.

My father’s work has always reminded me that representation for underserved communities, especially through the political process, is pivotal. My dad was an advocate for movements and causes well beyond those that were “popular” — not only did he fight for the Black community in communities of color. He went against the grain and championed for gay rights before most people joined the fight. I believe that having a foundation where service, equity and equality was instilled as a child helped shape the decisions I have made growing up and in the work I do today. At Rocket Software, I’ve been tapped to lead our inclusion, diversity, and equity initiatives.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

During my time working in higher education, I had the privilege of meeting a lot of interesting and successful people who were at different points in their careers. I connected with some of the younger professionals on a deeper level and this allowed me to understand their thought process during their undergrad experience. So many of them were hyper focused on figuring out their career trajectory when they hadn’t even figured out what classes they were going to take the following semester.

To my surprise, when I talk to people who are well into their careers, most of their stories had these winding paths of getting to where they are. There wasn’t a set trajectory to follow and often they truly didn’t know where they would end up. In my conversations, I find that most people major in something different than what they’ve dedicated their career to. Ultimately, this taught me that it’s OK to have varied experiences throughout your life, especially when you’re young. Somehow, these allow you to look at events or situations from a different perspective. Everyone has a unique way of getting to where they are, and the lessons and experiences are truly what it’s all about. The journey is fluid and that’s an important truth to embrace.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you tell us a story about how that was relevant in your own life?

“In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.” — Justice Thurgood Marshall.

This resonates with me not only with my work, but truly in the way I live my life. I’m constantly thinking about how people are crossing bridges and coming together to break down inequities, challenging systems of injustice all with the intention of creating inclusive environments. And all of this is really only possible with empathy. We have to take the time to really see and listen to each other and strip away biases and stereotypes. It’s critical that we look at people as individuals and honor our differences. This is how we break down barriers between cultures and generations. When you recognize the humanity in other people, you’re doing yourself a big favor; you allow yourself to be open to new things, people, and perspective and in the process unburden yourself from preconceived notions.

I often think about my ancestors and everything they’ve done to pave the way for me and being empathetic with people is a way for me to pay my respect to them. I’m a firm believer that it’s my duty to lead with empathy and recognize that everyone is human at the end of the day.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

Definitely my parents. When I showed up in this world, they had my back, and they continue to do so. They’ve always told me the truth and supported me, but most importantly, they’ve challenged me in my thinking. To this day, there is nothing that I can do, no decision I would make where they wouldn’t be there to support me. They have been and continue to be my foundation, my cheerleaders, my teachers, and support system.

More importantly, they are my role models. They’ve shown me what it means to be passionate and committed to justice and social inclusion and equity. While my parents have been the most consistent figures in my life, I do have to say that it’s also bigger than my parents. Throughout my life there have been several people who have been integral figures in supporting me throughout my journey. From teachers to colleagues, to random interactions, to my spouse there’s so much that I’ve learned throughout my life from people that aren’t part of my immediate circle. It really has taken a village to help mold me throughout my journey, including the tough times that are equally important. The tough times are the greatest times of growth. These are the moments that teach us resilience and add to our journey’s story.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

To me, what makes Rocket Software standout is our values. When I was going through the interview process, the values stood out and I found them really interesting: empathy, humanity, trust, and love. I wasn’t sure how these would apply at a software company, of all places, or if they’d even be real. I had my initial doubts, but I also decided I needed to dig in deeper to understand what these were about. The Rocket culture truly lives and breathes these values and embedding things like love into how we approach our work is really powerful. The values became the most compelling thing to me about Rocket.

I’m passionate about DE&I, so the combination of that with Rocket’s values, really made this a good opportunity. It was very apparent that Rocket employees applied these values not only in their work and interactions with other employees, but these also applied to customers. During my onboarding process it was reassuring to hear Andy Youniss, Rocket’s CEO, talk about these values in such a deep manner and it really resonated with me. It’s refreshing to work at a company that truly stands by their values.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Lucky for me, most of what I’m doing at Rocket right now is new. In fact, my role is an entirely new one. Last year, our CEO wanted to take a new focus and commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion, because it was something that was missing. While Rocket has these wonderful values, there wasn’t really a concerted effort to focus on these areas. Our company is diverse in the sense that we have employees and offices spread across the world, but we had to take a closer look at other aspects. My position was created to do this. I am so proud of the company for taking the steps to put the work in increase DE&I efforts. It’s vital and a tremendous opportunity for me to put my passion in play to make a difference.

One of the company’s first efforts was launching Rocket Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (RIDE) which is a diverse group of internal employees dedicated to bringing all of these elements to every corner for Rocket Software.

I’ve been tasked with taking a deeper look at what inclusion, diversity and equity mean for us and what it looks like across the organization. As part of this, I’m looking at things from a holistic view and putting strategic plans in place to execute. This includes widening the pool for candidates for open positions, helping women develop in their leadership roles, re-examining policies to be more equitable and inclusive. From an organizational view, we are doing some really wonderful and dynamic things and I’m excited for it!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

It’s not so much about using my success to bring goodness to the world, rather it’s a part of who I am and what I do. I choose to spend my time outside of my job working with underrepresented, disenfranchised, and marginalized groups. I’m lucky in the fact that my passion for DE&I intersects with my professional work. Being able to spend time giving back to different communities where I spent my time as a kid has been and continues to be a wonderful experience.

I’m focused on giving my time back in consistent and intentional ways. Especially in the arts. My talents are certainly not in that area, but I truly appreciate the benefits and impact of the arts. For me it’s about supporting organizations in underrepresented neighborhoods. I focus on bringing access and opportunity to those who might not have it at arm’s reach. While this is an ongoing process, it really helps break down some of these barriers that sometimes seem unbreakable. Creating access and opportunity helps people thrive. This can only happen when you have people like me giving back and lifting up.

Ok. Thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. This may be obvious to you, but it is not intuitive to many people. Can you articulate to our readers five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line. (Please share a story or example for each.)

When we talk about diversity and the bottom line, we can’t really separate the diversity piece from the inclusion and equity pieces. While diversity creates value for companies, on its own it does not create the highest levels of value. Diversity without equity and inclusion is just shifting around the numbers when it comes to your employees. There are two distinct ways in which diversity increases your bottom line: innovation and decision-making.

According to a recent McKinsey report, companies that have gender and ethnic diversity outperform companies who don’t, respectively by 15% and 35% than less diverse companies. I think that most people today agree that diversity is the right thing to do and businesses are increasingly realizing that it’s one of the best things to pay attention to in order for businesses to continue being successful. When you have diversity on teams and within your organization you get better outcomes.

It’s more than inviting diverse populations to work for you though, you need to provide an environment where people can truly show up and be themselves and know that they are welcomed. Employees need to know that they will be treated fairly and that they will have access to opportunities regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they are from or who they love. If you provide this type of environment, what you’ll see is deeply engaged employees which will in turn create space for broader levels of creativity, innovation and high performance.

The second piece is when you have diverse perspectives you boost your decision-making capabilities which is critical to any business. Again, it does not stop there. Leaders need to respect and seek out diverse and unique perspectives. People with different lived experiences and outlooks will approach problem solving differently. Imagine the possibilities. You enhance your capability to understand and anticipate the needs of your customers when you have diverse perspectives. Customers are paying closer attention to companies who align with their values and who are making decisions about products and services. Having diverse employees improves credibility in the market.

I don’t see there being five specific ways, rather, there are so many interconnected parts to the DE&I synergy — everything has to work together in order to be successful.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive?

Being an inclusive leader is about seeing employees as more than just that. You have to think about them as actual people and really get to know them. Understanding what interests your employees and who they are helps inform you and the way you lead. Cultivating these types of relationships provides engagement and safe spaces for people to be fully engaged in their work. Creating a space where people have a voice and feel connected helps get a job done, inspires new ideas and creates team comradery.

Regarding advice, I would ask any leader five things:

  • How do you lead? Really examine your style.
  • What does an inclusive leader look like to you? What traits does this person have? Perhaps an example comes to mind.
  • What does servant leadership look like?
  • How are you supporting your team members?
  • What are you doing to check your own biases?

I firmly believe the 360-review process helps examine different points of view from other team members. It’s truly a way for you to get a full picture of someone’s strengths and areas of improvement. It’s also really important to have ongoing check-ins to help foster an inclusive environment rather than just once a year.

What advice would you give to other business leaders about how to manage a large team?

This doesn’t really differ much from being an inclusive leader. First, you have to model what inclusive leadership looks like. When someone is managing a large team, it’s critical that you understand and know who your employees are and what drives them. Knowing who their families are, know something about them outside of work. Taking the time to truly engage with them makes them feel connected and that you are on the same team. Cultivating a genuine team dynamic creates a safe space and makes you seem approachable.

Giving feedback and also soliciting feedback from your team is critical. Adopting a growth mindset makes you a better leader. As a leader, you have to know how to give good and constructive feedback. While I agree that face-to-face feedback is often better to give/receive (there’s little room for misunderstandings like with emails), sometimes conflicting schedules, or a global pandemic, doesn’t always allow for this. However, it’s important to give as much feedback as you can, as well taking the time to know what people want from their careers and support this as much as possible.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

I’m fascinated and always have been by Bishop Desmond Tutu. His journey really piques my curiosity. He lived through apartheid in South Africa all while becoming an integral figure and a symbol of liberation.

I would love to have a meal with him to really understand what this was all like. He worked with Nelson Mandela and I’m fascinated to learn more about the different layers of work that went in to navigating this entire situation. He constantly had to deal with a brutal environment and working on some of these intense negotiations with those that were progressive, liberal and conservative is really fascinating. Being able to understand the balance that he was able to find for this situation would be great to understand.

If you think about it, he was in the middle of different points of view while also working to abolish brutality and ease deep social, historical and political tensions.

His focus has really been about reconciliation and forgiveness, which is something I want to understand in a deep way. How do you live through brutality and come out so leveled? Getting a firsthand account of how he navigated this and what the process looked like in real-time might help me better understand how he was he able to be such a transformational figure.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thank you for these excellent insights. We wish you continued success in your great work.

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