Building Sound Financial Futures

Otha “Skip” Spriggs doesn’t believe in making excuses. The world may not be perfect, but he chooses not to focus on the barriers. Instead, he powers forward to meet challenges head-on. It’s a mind-set that he adopted early in life and has fueled his 25-year career in human resources and diversity.

Spriggs has spent most of that time in leadership positions at some of the country’s most recognized companies—UPS, Boston Scientific, Home Depot, Levi Strauss & Co., and Cigna Corporation.

In 2012, he joined TIAA-CREF, one of the country’s top financial services firms, as executive vice president and chief human resources officer. The brainchild of philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, TIAA-CREF was founded in 1918 to provide retirement services to teachers. The company has branched out since then—serving those in academia as well as the medical, cultural, governmental, and research fields—but maintains its mission-driven focus.

One of Spriggs’s chief responsibilities is ensuring that the firm meets the needs of its diverse clients—and that means tapping the wisdom of the company’s diverse workforce. TIAA-CREF’s initiatives are innovative and ongoing.  The firm’s LGBT employee resource group, for example, is piloting a program internally to better serve the LGBT community’s various financial needs—based on marital status, income, and other factors—which the company ultimately plans to roll out to customers.

The Fortune 100 firm is certainly doing something right. TIAA-CREF made it onto Diversity Inc’s list of Top 50 Companies for Diversity, was named one of the Top 10 Companies for Executive Women by the National Association of Female Executives, and was named one of the Best Companies for Latinas by Latina Style.

Diversity Woman spoke to Skip Spriggs about childhood lessons, avoiding internalized groupthink, and the importance of moving beyond diversity to inclusion.

DW:  When you were young, your parents embodied values that would shape how you approach life and work. How so?
SS: My father was a captain in the army during the Vietnam conflict. He did his tour of duty and came home. In those days, as an officer, once you’d done your tour of duty, you really didn’t have to go back. But my father got called to go back a second time. I was in second grade, and he said to me, “Son, I’ve made a commitment to the army and to defend our country.” That was the reason he was going back. And as much as the family and everyone tried to talk him into not going back, he did. And he ultimately lost his life the second time he was there. So at a very young age, I learned the value of commitment. That always stuck with me.

My mother’s story is a little different. Now she was a single parent in a really impoverished part of Baltimore, and there were a lot of reasons not to be successful. My mother was a college graduate—which was atypical in the African American community in Baltimore—but she’d been totally blind since the age of ten. She did not allow her loss of sight to stymie her vision. Her vision was to raise me and to get us out of that environment. So she got a job with the post office. She was the first totally blind employee there in Baltimore, and it was very impactful for me. There’s always a reason why you can’t do something, but if you’re really driven for success, you can overcome almost anything.

DW: How did you land in human resources?
SS: I actually started working part-time at UPS, unloading trucks to help fund my college education. I worked the worst available shift—from three in the morning until eight in the morning, Sunday through Thursday. I took that shift because it had no waiting list. Sometimes if you’re willing to take the job that nobody else wants, and you’re successful at it, you get noticed.
When I graduated from college, UPS was doing a pilot for an HR development program. Very few people were selected for that pilot, but my background unloading the trucks led to a career in human resources. I spent my first 13 years at UPS, working in just about every HR function that they had in their HR development program.

DW:  When did you first start to hear about diversity initiatives?
SS: In the ’90s, when I was working at Levi Strauss. We had heavy manufacturing, we had salespeople, engineer types, and people who were marketing and were very creative. Levi did a very good job of fostering an environment where we could get the best out of all people—regardless of their background—to make hip clothes, recognizing that your consumer of garments crosses the spectrum. Recognizing how your workforce thinks impacts the product you deliver to a diverse consumer base.

DW:  What preconceptions have you personally faced in the workplace during your career?
SS: I would say that my personal challenge has been overcoming preconceived notions around ethnic and geographic biases. I’m African American and I grew up in the South, and there are certain biases that come along with that. Managing through those is something that you just have to be accurately attuned to in the work environment.

DW:  Why is it important for a financial services company like TIAA-CREF to engage people of different backgrounds?
SS: The financial services industry is a very fluid environment. You can’t pick up the Wall Street Journal and not read something about a bad financial decision that has impacted a corporation. You hear oftentimes about mismanagement. A lot of that comes from an organization’s internal focus—kind of drinking your own Kool-Aid. You have to be astute enough to realize that the market is always changing and that having your ear to the customer is a competitive advantage.

Also, I don’t believe that you can be an employer of choice if you don’t consider diversity and inclusion seriously. There’s a direct correlation to profit and loss, a direct correlation on the balance sheet, a direct correlation in shareholder value. So companies will have challenges with their shareholders, for example, if there’s not visibility around diversity, especially in leadership.

DW:  How does TIAA-CREF go about building an inclusive work environment?
SS: We’ve got very strong employee resource groups [ERGs], and they help guide our company culture and policy. The reason we continue to earn recognition from the Human Rights Campaign for its Best Places to Work award is that our LGBT group works very hard to make sure that we drive the right programs for equality. And when we get recognized by Latina Style, it’s because of the work that our Latino ERG does in the community. When we’re recognized as a Top 50 Company for Diversity Inc., a lot of that’s driven by the work done by our African American ERG. So it really is a culture that provides a platform for all folks to be comfortable and productive.

DW:  What sorts of initiatives do the employee resource groups take on at TIAA-CREF?
SS: Our executive leadership team has a large female representation—almost half—and that group has worked on the Lean In program, which is dedicated to women’s career advancement. So, if you just talk about the book, the women’s ERG has conducted a number of sessions led by executive leaders with small focus groups talking about how women can balance raising a family, can balance working in an environment where you’ve got to travel a lot, and can work in a male-dominated industry. And we’ve done a lot of mentoring around helping people—especially women—figure out how to navigate through an organization our size. Also, we recognize that there is a greater percentage of women entering the workforce, and we have a Women’s Initiative here that, in part, is being piloted through our women’s ERG. Our ERGs get a lot of traction, because they work on real live business issues.

Another example would be the work that the African American ERG does at historically black colleges and universities. We spend a lot of time recruiting at schools like Savannah State and Morehouse College to make sure that we continue to have a diverse minority pipeline coming in.

DW: How involved is the executive leadership in diversity initiatives?
SS: Every one of our executive committee members has a diversity goal. We have something that’s called a diversity index, which is an output of our culture survey, and that culture survey asks a number of questions of the entire workforce with a diversity focus. The output of that creates an index, and all 14 members have a score for their area around the diversity index.

DW: TIAA-CREF tries to ensure that women and other employees are able to balance their lives. Can you share an example?
SS: Yes, there’s a woman named Melissa who is on my staff. Melissa’s primary residence is in New York, but her daughter is on track to be a pro tennis player, so her daughter lives with her husband in Florida nine months a year. So it’s about giving Melissa the flexibility to travel back and forth to see her family, giving her opportunities to work from home, giving her opportunities to travel for tournaments with her daughter and still being able to have her laptop and get work done. Melissa is actually on track for a leadership position one day with the firm.

DW: You’íre focused not just on diversity, but on inclusion. Why?
SS: More folks are talking about inclusion in conjunction with diversity—not just having different types of individuals or different industries, but having a working environment where people can excel with their similarities and differences in a complex world. You can have diversity without inclusion. Oftentimes, businesses will say, “We need to hire someone with this skill set to solve this particular problem.” So they hire them, and the person starts working and says, “This is what I think you need to do.” And the organization says, “We don’t do it that way here.” That would be a lack of inclusion.

DW: How do you gauge how well TIAA-CREF is progressing and continuing to improve?
SS: One is the enterprise diversity index. How I feel we’re moving the organization from a diversity and inclusion perspective is less important than how our more than 8,500 associates feel. It goes back to drinking your own Kool-Aid. It’s important to listen to the voice of the customer—meaning the external customer—and then listen to the voice of the employee. Both of those metrics help drive our diversity practices and policies.

It’s also important to be open to innovation. TIAA-CREF is not the custodian for everything that’s good around diversity and inclusion. So we spend a lot of time in the market, evaluating best practices. We develop talent here, and we also hire talent from outside the firm, and both help create an environment around diversity and inclusion.

Diversity and inclusion, when practiced in earnest, is fun. It’s not work. It’s how you run the business. And organizations that have figured that out will continue to drive greater return than those that don’t.

Kimberly Olson is DW’s managing editor.

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