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Perspectives on Diversity: Q&A with Sara B. Francis

 

As many offered support to the Black Lives Matter movement by speaking up for a more equitable society last year, there has been an increased focus on the lack of diversity within companies, especially in leadership roles.

We caught up with Joystick’s CEO, Sara B. Francis, who recently participated in a panel of industry peers hosted by Google on the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion, to get her thoughts and personal journey on the topic.

What does DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) mean to you, and why is it important?

There are a lot of layers when thinking about DEI as it relates to personal journeys and how you approach it as an employer.

It especially hits home for me because of my parents’ experiences and how I was raised. My mom found out she was pregnant with me at the same time she graduated from law school and passed the bar exam at 6 months pregnant. She got her first job while working in the law library at a firm she ended up practicing law — discrimination law no less. My father, not surprisingly, a white man, chose a career path in the non-profit world. He helped create programs for minority youth specifically around juvenile justice and to advocate for kids who might not normally have access to that support. Helping people get their start and further their career regardless of background or circumstance is near and dear to my heart.

Personally as a woman who stepped into the role of CEO of an agency at 7 months pregnant with my son during an acquisition by a group of mostly male executives outside of the US that didn’t know me, I definitely tested a lot of waters all at once.

For me DEI and specifically the topic of women in what is mostly thought of as a male industry is very personal. That said even though I may be an underrepresented gender, I have been very fortunate to have a lot of advantages in my life that gave me more opportunities than many. I had two very present, very thoughtful and open parents who encouraged me to no end. I had the advantage of great schooling and a network that helped me into my first job.

My mission is to listen and to empower my team to be a part of the conversations around DEI and to understand that the challenges are different for everyone.

How best should our leaders respond to employee feedback on how diversity/inclusion initiatives really impact them?

DEI means something different to different people and that means you have to start by listening. You have to be open to many different points of view — even negative points of view. These feelings are incredibly important and personal to people. The feedback you get might not be what you want to hear, but it’s important that everyone be (and feel) heard. Once you understand the feelings you can then start to identify ways to work toward change.

What steps can we take or have you taken in your organization to address the lack of gender diversity in leadership?

At Joystick, we have taken different steps throughout the years and through different phases of our business. We have always ensured that the women in our organization are never at a disadvantage for having kids. When I had my first son, I took a 6 month sabbatical and was supported through having someone come on to fill in for me and through a very collaborative and “Sara-led” experience. With my second son, my experience was very different. I had just taken over the business and I wanted to be part of all the decisions, but still wanted to be part of the life of this new person in my family. One of my first memories of being a mom and a leader in our newly acquired business was to sit in a 4 hour board meeting, with a six week old kid strapped to my chest.

More recently we took the step of creating a leadership team that consists of members of the agency across levels, gender and ethnicity. We meet regularly and have an open agenda so that anyone can surface items or issues to discuss. This hopefully provides a forum for more voices to be heard than just the executive team. We still have a way to go and I will be the first to admit that I don’t know what I don’t know. I have also worked to build a rapport with the team throughout the years to always have an open door policy and create safe spaces for honest conversation. That said, we still have a long way to go and when things get busy I rely on the team to surface issues that may be in my blindspots.

What is your biggest piece of advice for companies/teams getting started with diversity and inclusion?

It’s hard to know where to start and there really is no one right way to do it, but the important thing is to get started. Don’t be afraid to ask questions but make sure you’re really being honest and transparent with your intentions. If you are just trying to tick a box, your team will be able to see right through it. That said, if you really want change, then you won’t know exactly how to tread in uncharted waters unless you admit what you don’t know and ask for help. I also think it’s important to share successes and learn from each other. We benefit as an industry and as a country the more that we do.

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