Melinda B. Wolfe: “Diversity is a driver of innovation”

…First, diversity is a driver of innovation, fueling fresh and unique perspectives. By bringing a more diverse team to the table, companies leverage collective intelligence for more effective problem solving. Diversity is not only about race, gender, or sexual orientation; we all bring something different from our experiences and background that can be harnessed for […]

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…First, diversity is a driver of innovation, fueling fresh and unique perspectives. By bringing a more diverse team to the table, companies leverage collective intelligence for more effective problem solving. Diversity is not only about race, gender, or sexual orientation; we all bring something different from our experiences and background that can be harnessed for better outcomes.

As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase a Company’s Bottom Line”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melinda B. Wolfe.

Melinda Wolfe has served as Chief People Officer and led talent initiatives with a passionate focus on diversity, equity and inclusion at companies including GLG, Pearson, Bloomberg, American Express and Goldman Sachs. Across industry, she has joined leadership teams to optimize organizational design, culture and human resource priorities, while driving outcomes for employee engagement, productivity and profitability. Ms. Wolfe began her career in public finance at Merrill Lynch where she managed billions of dollars of project finance and public power transactions for public and private sector clients.

Ms. Wolfe has held the chief HR role at private, private equity-backed and public companies, all with global reach and each at critical inflection points in their size and evolution. She has partnered with CEOs and leadership teams, as a thought leader, coach and operator to achieve organic growth strategies, integrate powerful acquisitions and downsize through divestitures and contraction of challenged businesses. She has worked with company boards and board committees on succession planning, executive talent acquisition, and alignment of competitive compensation programs, focusing on compliance and regular reporting of people practices. As a company leader, she has transformed HR processes and systems and encouraged a sense of belonging and community to deepen culture and increase retention of employees in regions across the globe, particularly Millennials and Gen Z. Additionally, Ms. Wolfe has overseen Social Impact and Corporate Social Responsibility efforts that have been a centerpiece of employee engagement efforts.

In addition to her work in the private sector, Ms. Wolfe holds several leadership positions in the non-profit sector. Currently, she chairs the board of the Zana Africa Foundation and serves as a board member of Auburn Seminary, Echoing Green and the Center for Talent Innovation. She previously served on the NYC Mayor’s Commission on Women and on advisory boards for several academic institutions including the Dalton School, Barnard’s Athena Center, Duke University, Washington University and the School of Public and International Affairs at Columbia, where she also taught as an Adjunct Faculty Member.

Ms. Wolfe is a frequent speaker at conferences on a range of subjects including talent management, and diversity, equity and inclusion. She regularly facilitates teams across sectors on strategy and execution of business plans and coaches emerging leaders on career considerations. She received her undergraduate degree from Washington University and her graduate degree at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She resides in Manhattan with her husband Ken.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

My career has not been linear — it has been a winding course I continue to follow to this day. Growing up in a homogeneous setting, I was always drawn to the rich melting pot of urban environments — cities such as St. Louis, Washington DC, Boston, L.A., and finally, New York City. I wanted to be in the midst of their vibrant energy, surrounded by diverse communities, and part of an effort to make them even more livable. When I finished graduate school, I sought opportunities to fulfill this passion and pursued work in the public sector — but the options turned out to be limited because of the political environment at the time. Ironically, I pivoted and started working for the private sector in a position that addressed the financing needs of cities and states. Following a winding course, however, I found myself landing a role 15 years later — in the same company doing something very different — leading the company’s diversity efforts. Moving from the transactional to the strategic to become deeply connected with the subject matter and to have the ability to make change. Diversity became the focus of the second chapter of my career, anchored by a passion for impact, community, and the power of the workplace to transform peoples’ experiences.

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?

My most interesting stories come from the power of mentoring and the life changing transformations it can lead to. While a mentor can have a major influence on her mentee, I’ve been equally impressed and moved by the power a mentee has to enable me to understand new perspectives. The world of mentoring is mutually satisfying and paying it forward has lifelong effects.

Many people I’ve mentored in the early stages of their careers have advanced and are now looking for advice on leadership and business strategy. Yesterday, I was mentoring an associate — today I am coaching an executive — it’s wonderful to see how a mentoring relationship can bloom and evolve. A relationship like this, sustained over time, is mutually beneficial for the mentor and mentee. For me, it has been another path to recognizing my strengths by sharing my stories and experiences.

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

The work that I do spans corporations, small companies, and non-profit organizations. The focus is on developing company cultures that foster an environment of collaboration, communication, and leadership to drive the business forward. At the center of this work is a value on diversity, equity, and inclusion in all parts of the talent pipeline and across business practices. I thrive on learning what makes a place tick and helping a leadership team rethink its culture.

For example, I’m working with a company that’s redesigning its performance management strategy to enable its leaders to consider performance and potential in completely new ways. I’ve helped them to think about what they need to know about their people — what questions they should be asking to unleash talent, skills, and greater productivity. The talent conversations have been transformative for the company and the leaders, who are discovering a new and rewarding depth in the potential of their employees.

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

I find all of my work exciting for the unique aspects each project offers. Currently, I’m working with two emerging Silicon Valley startups. Both have great aspirations and innovative concepts: One is creating a platform to build community and reinforce culture; the other is using virtual reality (VR) to help illuminate and eliminate unconscious bias.

In the first case, the business is going beyond survey questions to assess engagement — they are measuring how people are using their time in employee resource groups, community service activities, and learning opportunities — all of which contribute to corporate culture. In the second project, I am very excited by the potential for using VR to give people a deeper understanding of unintended bias and the cost of microaggressions in the workplace. The VR technology is a full sensory experience, putting the user in the center of the action and getting people engaged in more effective learning. This is something you simply can’t get by looking at a screen and going through an online teaching module.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

I would say to them it’s critically important to build up the capability of lower level managers who are on the front lines working directly with employees and customers. Employees are looking for their managers to lead. In early stage companies (and larger ones as well), managers with little tenure have a dearth of experience in providing guidance, honest feedback, and direction. Companies need to teach and model great leadership practices. When founders and CEOS are overly focused on productivity and bottom-line results, they can overlook the need to invest in their people.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders about how to manage a large team?

The events of this moment have two profound consequences for managing large teams. One is the importance of establishing a truly equitable workplace in which all people feel that they belong. A diverse workforce can power up a business though it requires wisdom, constant learning, and a willingness to work through differences. We must live in the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and relentlessly demonstrate our commitment through programs, communication, and ACTIONS.

COVID-19 has also taught us lessons that are crucial to successfully managing a workforce. We have seen many ways that people can work productively — at work and at home. Teams have learned how to collaborate without having to be next to each other. Managers can see people working hard — even when they are working remotely. This has and will change the way we work. And, though I continue to believe that face-to-face contact and community building are important, I expect that managers have come to understand that being flexible in their approach can engender greater engagement and productivity.

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.)

Diversity practitioners have been espousing the business case for diversity and inclusion for years and progress has been slow, however, many enlightened leaders have seen the value of a diverse workforce manifest in their bottom line. There are numerous academic and consulting analyses, which demonstrate that companies with more diverse leadership teams report higher revenues and greater profitability. There are many reasons behind this.

First, diversity is a driver of innovation, fueling fresh and unique perspectives. By bringing a more diverse team to the table, companies leverage collective intelligence for more effective problem solving. Diversity is not only about race, gender, or sexual orientation; we all bring something different from our experiences and background that can be harnessed for better outcomes.

Secondly, if a company aims to hire the best talent, diversity and inclusion must be a core value and evident at all levels of the company. When thinking about employers, prospective hires look at the composition of the company, especially the senior team and assess whether the culture is place where they can thrive. If they don’t see people like themselves and a culture of belonging, they will be skeptical of their long-term prospects and less likely to consider an employment opportunity.

Another way diversity contributes to the bottom line is by creating greater customer alignment. It’s a big miss to have products that are not designed by the people who will be using them. Having employees who mirror a company’s customer base will better address consumer needs, most simply leading to better products and greater success.

Lastly and most reflective of the current state of our country, I believe companies have a moral obligation to change the systems of power and decision making that prevent everyone from having an equal shot at success. Over the past year, corporations began to give voice to their responsibility to uphold key values and to foster an environment of belonging for all. Until then, these important principles were overshadowed by a laser focus on the bottom line. In the current environment, we are being called to task on systematic and institutional barriers to progress, creating an unparalleled opportunity to build more diverse and equitable workplaces. The resulting changes could mean greater pay equity, increased representation at the top and in the promotion process for women and men of underrepresented groups. Companies will be stronger, more effective — and more profitable — when they fully recognize the value of diversity, mandating an equitable, inclusive workplace.

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

This is a profoundly important question to me. I’d like to think that the efforts I have made in many companies, along with other committed individuals and teams, have helped to change the culture of companies, influence those in power and allow for greater opportunity and equity for employees. That has been rewarding but change has been too slow, and I hope that we can leverage the momentum of this period to transform our workplaces.

On an individual level, I am firmly committed to serving as a mentor, connector, and influencer for those with fewer opportunities and resources, to create mutually rewarding relationships and “pay it forward”. Because this is important to me, an area of great personal pride is the work I do in the non-profit sector, as a volunteer, an activist, and a board member. I have been very deliberate about how I spend my time — across issues of social and reproductive justice, women’s empowerment, social entrepreneurship, education, and workplace equity — locally, nationally and globally. I have used my “treasure” to financially support organizations that are making a difference, and also my time and skillsets to help them thrive and succeed. The theme of diversity and inclusion runs through all these efforts because all workplaces, from government to non-profit to for-profit, can and must improve their cultures.

My experiences in nonprofit organizations have sharpened my skills and made me a better professional. They have provided new challenges and problem-solving opportunities, all of which have contributed to my leadership abilities across sectors and businesses.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” ― James Baldwin

This quote resonates with me fully and feels profoundly relevant to the moment we are living in.

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?

First, I am grateful to my husband, Ken Inadomi, who’s been supportive throughout my career. He has been a champion of all my activities in both the profit and nonprofit sectors and a thought partner and a true inspiration. In balancing the obligations as a mom, a daughter, and a community member, having his support has been critical to my success.

Secondly, in thinking about my career, I’m ever grateful to Doreen Frasca, a colleague at Merrill Lynch who became my boss and then my champion. Doreen helped me make the transition from investment banking to diversity strategy advocating and sponsoring me at the highest levels of the organization. She continues to be a role model as a woman entrepreneur.

Thirdly, I’ve had a community of women who have helped me in my career, either supporting me as a parent, supporting my leadership, or helping me build my network. Many of these people have been friends or colleagues. Within this circle of virtuous generosity, equally, my mentees have been a critical part of my success.

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 🙂

At the moment, I would relish the opportunity to sit with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a private, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. I am so moved by his brilliance, commitment, and tenacity, and the impact he will continue to have on our country. The work he has done through his advocacy and writing, and the institutions he has set up in Montgomery, Alabama to address the systemic and structural racism has been transformational.

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