Operation Diversity

Robby Gregg, a leadership development and diversity thought leader, talks frankly about trends in workplace diversity today.

When Robby Gregg was a student at Wake Forest University in the early 1980s, he took a class with Dr. Maya Angelou.

It changed his life.

“I was in her first class at Wake Forest, Race, Politics, and Literature, and I was the 15th of 15 students to enroll,” says Gregg. “I had heard about her all my life and I was so intimidated. So after the first class, I went up to her and said, ‘How can I sit in front of you, knowing that you will be listening to what I say, be looking at my papers?’ It was just beyond me. I was so scared that I wanted to drop the class! She looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Gregg, take my class.’

That moment taught me that in life there are things, even if you are afraid of them, you have to deal with. She wouldn’t let me walk away from that class and succumb to my fears.”

Today, Gregg is vice president of strategic partnerships and alliances at Cook Ross, Inc., a diversity and change management consultancy headquartered in Silver Springs, Maryland. He guides the sales team and is charged with advising Cook Ross’s diversity skill development and initiatives for its clients, based upon his knowledge, experience, and relationships with some of the top global diversity practitioners.

Diversity Woman sat down with Gregg to talk about where diversity in the workplace is headed over the next several years.


Diversity Woman: What are some of the key issues in diversity today?

Robby Gregg: Workplace flexibility is the biggest trend today and will coninue to be in the future. Companies are beginning to realize it’s not about bricks and mortar anymore. For instance, if I need to leave the office to take my mom to the doctor, I may go home afterward and jump online and work. The bottom line is the work gets done—it may not be in the office, but it will get done. One thing that’s different is that this issue once affected primarily women, but now it affects everyone. In the last number of years, men have begun to have much more substantial child-care and elder-care responsibilities as well.


DW: What are some of the current challenges for women in the workplaceóparticularly women of color?

RG: For a long time there was this whole process of women of color in the workplace trying to assimilate, blend in. I think that’s changing now. A few years ago, a friend was elevated to a
senior-level position in an organization. This woman wore dreads. Upon her promotion, someone suggested to her that she wear her hair in a different way, and my friend replied, “Why don’t you concentrate on what’s in my head, not what’s on my head?”

That kind of response is more prevalent now. People aren’t feeling that they have to assimilate anymore. However, some companies do expect a degree of assimilation, and when it comes to pay equity and promotion, it can be an issue.

Still, I think that people are realizing that everyone has a different talent, ability, and skill, and some companies are developing the flexibility and the foresight to tap into what skills and talents people have, instead of trying to get them to fit into a preordained role. Companies are starting to learn how to utilize their talent to make the organization more effective. They are learning that by focusing on people’s strengths, they are becoming more productive—and by creating a richer work environment, it helps your organization as a whole as well as individuals.

This is one of the core focuses for Cook Ross today. We teach companies how to take their employees strengths and create an environment supportive of those strengths, and leverage them. We teach them to let people be who they are, and embrace diversity in all forms—especially diversity of thought. Naturally, we know that companies have to focus on the bottom line—after all we are all in business to make money. Doing well by doing right—that is the best way to make money. It is good for the individual, the company, and the community.


DW:  Just to play devilís advocate for a moment, donít individuals have to fit into a company culture?

RG: Those lines are being blurred. Yes, there are certain things an employee needs to understand about an organization when he or she goes to work there, certain ethical practices, how you treat people, zero tolerance, etc. Those philosophies need to be defined and communicated. By the same token, I also think the company needs to have the willingness and openness for process improvement. Sometimes the employees have the best ideas for innovation. We need to create an environment that encourages people not to do something just because it is the way it has always been done—an environment that allows and encourages people to come up with new ways of doing things.

We also have to be vigilant about double standards. If a man is hard charging, he’s seen as an asset. If a woman is aggressive, the tendency is to view her as pushy and impatient. For people of color, navigating both the written and unwritten rules in a corporation can be particularly treacherous, as less second and third chances tend to be granted. The bottom line is that both individuals and organizations have to be flexible, honest, and willing to find middle ground.


DW: How important is it for men, particularly white men, to embrace diversity in the workplace?

RG: Very important. Men need to be more engaged in terms of equity in the workplace. It’s a simple fact—you can’t have diversity unless you get the white guys involved.

I think the best way to do that is to make personal connections. Until you touch people personally, there is no change. In my experience, people need to get it in the heart. Then you see both change of heart and change of mind. It’s a matter of sharing stories and a willingness to be honest and authentic.

We need to realize that we are more alike than not. We need to get past the branding of labels—white man, black woman, lesbian—and realize we have more in common. I may have had a struggle as a black man that you as a white woman or Latino man can relate to. Find those points of connection.

And I think nowadays there are many universal touchstones where people can relate. For example, men are taking a bigger role in the family, such as with child care and elder care. This makes it easier for them to understand and work with women in workplace.

Engaging white men is also a good strategy for creating more internal ambassadors and advocates for inclusion. We need everyone’s help! In some cases, the buy-in of white men is critical to securing investment of time and money, and accelerating progress toward diversity goals.


DW: People talk a lot about diversityówhat about inclusion?

RG: The move from the diversity to inclusion in the workplace is one of the key trends today. Companies need to move beyond diversity—move beyond the simple representation—to inclusion, where these diverse employees are optimized and welcomed and allowed to contribute. You can have diversity but not inclusion. Diversity is about counting heads; inclusion is about making heads count.


DW: We all know that as the world shrinks, cultural competency has become more and more important. How do you teach cultural competency? And how do you then turn that into a competitive advantage?

RG: Cultural competency is a matter of exposure. Getting folks exposed to different cultures so that there can at least be an awareness and understanding, and we no longer fall back into thinking “since that’s the way I do it, that’s the right way.” That message is conveyed in a lot of different ways—classroom training, cultural experiences, even just through conversation.

Cultural competency will be on the forefront of diversity over the next 10 years as the world shrinks. Chances are you will have an opportunity in your career to do business in a different cultural environment, and we need to prepare people for that. It’s one more competitive edge.

Cultural competency is about being curious about self and others, building trust across differences, and treating everyone with dignity and respect.


DW: Explain your e-mail signature:

ìWhen people show you who they are, believe them.î  ñ Maya Angelou

RG: We all struggle with the gap between what we believe and what we do. Often, there is a lot of talk. It’s not so much what someone says—it’s what they’ve done and what they are doing that you have to look at. This concept is something Dr. Angelou shared with me years ago. DW


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