I truly believe that giving people an opportunity to share of themselves, and to find acceptance in that sharing, is an amazing force for good. I also firmly believe that engaging with art makes life so much richer. It allows us to connect with humanity across time and without borders.
As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase a Company’s Bottom Line”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandra West.
Alexandra West is an award-winning designer, international speaker, and corporate trainer. She is passionate about culture, creativity, and collaboration. Her company, Art at Work, teaches organizations how to use art to increase inclusion and drive innovation. When not busy curating and coaching, Alex can be found eating cheese. All kinds of cheese.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Alexandra! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Thank you for having me! My journey has certainly not been a straight one, but it has been interesting. I have always had a passion for art. After growing up in Florida, I moved to Atlanta to attend Emory University where I earned my degree in Art History. I then spent about ten years working in commercial and non-profit art galleries. I slowly found myself becoming a bit disillusioned with the art world. It seemed to me somewhat exclusionary, deliberately difficult to access, and overly money driven.
I ended up leaving the industry and working for a large human resources software company where I helped clients with their hiring processes. I learned a lot about what goes into building a strong team and the enormous costs that go into recruiting and hiring. I also found the work a little boring and the corporate environment somewhat stifling. I certainly wasn’t getting to use my creativity, or work with other creatives. Because I was making good money, I stayed — A situation I’m sure a lot of your readers can relate to.
Then, in 2007, the universe decided to give me the kick in the pants that I needed. The recession hit hard, and I was downsized from my company. After shedding more than a few tears I realized this was an opportunity to return to the world of creatives — the world I was really passionate about. A director I knew suggested I try working in the film industry within the art department. I ended up starting out at the bottom of the ladder as a production assistant. I was able to work my way up fairly quickly thanks to my background and a lot of hustle and eventually found myself working as an art director and production designer.
In 2015, my husband Dave and I started a tech consulting firm. While he was busy coaching technical teams, I wondered how I could use my background to bring value to these organizations. Luckily I was introduced to Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) — an amazing method of facilitating group discussions of art in order to sharpen critical thinking and collaboration skills. While the method is primarily used in schools, I quickly realized that it could be applied to corporate teams. I started speaking about it and leading workshops and I’m so excited every day to introduce it to new people. Not only do I get to work with art — my love! — but I get to present it in a simple and non-threatening way to other people. I feel so lucky to have gone on this journey and ended up here.
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?
When I began speaking about VTS I was fortunate enough to get booked at several international conferences. I noticed that some of the organizers in several countries did not think I’d get the audience participation needed for the types of highly interactive sessions I run. I heard things like, “Swedish people are very reserved. Don’t be disappointed if they don’t participate.”, and, “Indian people don’t like to speak up in group settings so you may have trouble.” So discouraging!
What I found out was that none of that was true! I never had a session that wasn’t a lively discussion. Audiences engaged because I worked hard to create a safe space — one where no one feared having a “wrong answer”. I learned to believe in myself and what I was teaching and to not let the nay-sayers get in my head. I’ve gotten to speak all over the world and have amazing interactions with people despite those silly warnings!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think bringing the museum into the workplace is a unique idea. What I do is allow people to talk about art without needing a background in the field. Because there are no right answers, the Art at Work program increases psychological safety — the feeling that one can share ideas without fear of embarrassment or punishment. This in turn gives participants the opportunity and confidence to share all of their ideas freely — making collaborative work more engaging, inclusive and equitable. The value of diverse points of view is built into the experience, and I think that’s what gives it sticking power. I’m not telling you how essential outside perspectives are, I’m allowing you to discover that on your own. As adult learners I feel we get so much more from an experience than a lecture.
My favorite thing to hear after a session is, “I never would have seen that without someone else pointing it out!”, or, “My opinion changed so much after hearing everyone else’s input.”
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
Every workshop I do is unique and that keeps me really excited. I’m thrilled to be able to introduce people that many never think of visiting a gallery or museum to the world of art. I think giving people opportunities to engage with the visual arts in a non-intimidating way can really enhance their enjoyment of life. And the fact that this can lead to a more inclusive workplace is just so fantastic. We’re all stronger together.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I really encourage leaders to think about all the ideas they’re not hearing. Every team can attest to the annoying fact that most meetings and projects are dominated by a few people in their group. The wallflowers, the people that are not sharing their thoughts, just might be the ones with the best solutions.
Often companies that hire for diversity drop the ball when it comes to creating inclusion. That sense of being “the other” can cause many individuals to be afraid to share their “different” thoughts. We really need to find ways to engage those more reluctant speakers if we want to reap the benefits of diversity.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders about how to manage a large team?
I think seeing the team as a group of individuals is key. Learn about your team members, engage with them. Find out what unique perspectives are available to help drive innovative thinking and creative problem-solving. Find ways to have conversations that aren’t about work. This is especially true when dealing with remote teams, as so many companies are now. The physical distance makes it hard to have those impromptu chats where we learn more about one another. Carve out time to check in with your employees and find out how they’re really doing, and what they’re really thinking.
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.)
Increasing diversity in your organization leads to many positive outcomes, including higher profits, more innovation, increased productivity, and higher employee engagement and retention.
Let’s start with the bottom line — Diverse teams have been proven to be more profitable. According to a recent McKinsey Report, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry’s national medians. Likewise, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to see higher financial returns. Additionally, according to recent research from UCLA, 92% of companies with LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination policies credit the policies with having a positive impact on annual sales.
In terms of innovation, we know that a key contributing factor is that of divergent thinking; commonly defined as generating creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Divergent thinkers don’t ask, “What’s for lunch, a sandwich or pizza?” but instead think, “What could I have for lunch out of all the options in the world?” Opening up a world of possibilities is a key benefit of diversity. Those “outside the box” ideas only come from diverse points-of-view and life experiences. This is where inclusion becomes so important — you want to hear those crazy ideas! If you talk about being a “disruptor” or building a better mousetrap, then you must value diversity.
Productivity measures vary across industries, but I think the findings of a report from Cloverpop entitled Hacking Diversity with Inclusive Decision-Making are pretty universal. They found that teams made up of three or more diverse employees were able to make better decisions than individuals 87% of the time. These diverse teams also made decisions twice as fast — a pretty fantastic productivity increase.
Ultimately, we’re talking about the happiness of your employees and how you treat them. Increasing diversity and inclusion shows employees that you care about them as individuals — that they can feel safe bringing their whole selves to work. This increases engagement, helps in recruiting efforts, and lowers turnover. It’s important to mention here that diversity does not just mean ethnicity, race, or gender; but also age, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, and so on. Making your leadership team more diverse is also critical when we talk about employees. Future and existing employees need to see people like themselves across the board in your organization — particularly as managers or executives.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I love this question! I truly believe that giving people an opportunity to share of themselves, and to find acceptance in that sharing, is an amazing force for good. I also firmly believe that engaging with art makes life so much richer. It allows us to connect with humanity across time and without borders.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Well, I have two! “Fortune favors the brave.” by Roman-slave-turned-playwright Terence, which encourages risk-taking. And, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” by Auntie Mame as written by Patrick Dennis. I really think we all have to seek out and recognize things of joy and beauty every day, everywhere we find ourselves. It can be hard to do in these beyond challenging times, but I promise you the beauty is there if you go looking for it.
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?
Oh my gosh — there are so many! I’m really so grateful for every artist that has taken the time to share their world with us — even when it was painful. The feeling of connection art can create is central to my entire life and everything I do.
I’m also very indebted to every producer and director that took a chance on me when I was first starting out in film. I know I made a ton of mistakes and their acceptance and encouragement allowed me to grow and thrive.
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 🙂
Michelle Obama is such a fascinating woman and an inspiration — call me anytime girl!