A few years ago, Lee Tschanz, vice president of North America sales for Rockwell Automation Inc., scheduled a meeting with one of his managers to help him improve "managing up."
Tschanz, a middle-aged white man, was going to offer the manager, a 50-year-old black man, examples from his own career on how to be more authoritative with employees who are senior to him in the firm. But instead, he admitted to the man that he had no idea what it is like to be a black manager at Rockwell Automation. Then he asked the manager if he should be coaching him differently.
"His response was, 'Wow. I'm so glad you said that," Tschanz says.
The manager went on to explain that he grew up in the South where any challenge to white male authority by a black man was risky, and that he'd been taught his whole life to avoid such confrontations. They ended up having a long conversation about the issue, and Tschanz agreed that even though he wasn't sure what the best solution was, he promised to have that manager's back whenever he pushed himself to manage outside his comfort zone.
"After that, he got better at managing up," Tschanz says. "And more importantly, my willingness to have those conversations increased."
Such stories are common at Rockwell Automation thanks to the company's nontraditional approach to diversity and leadership training. In partnership with the training company, White Men as Full Diversity Partners, Rockwell has put more than 450 of its leaders through a three-day, off-site, experiential training lab where they are forced to examine their own assumptions about white male privilege, explore other people's experiences, and define the role they can play in building a culture of inclusiveness in the company.
That's the real business benefit of a strong diversity program, says Jeanine Prime, vice president of research for Catalyst, a not-for-profit research firm focused on women in business. "When leaders see inclusiveness as a critical part of the role, they are able to get the best out of all their people," she says. "It leads to lower turnover and better outcomes for talent development."
It also helps Rockwell differentiate itself in recruiting, particularly among hard-to-find female engineers, says Joan Buccigrossi, Rockwell's director of inclusion and engagement. "There are not a lot of women engineers, and everyone wants them."
Tschanz was one of the first participants in the Rockwell program, and he admits that at first he was skeptical. He began the course thinking he treated everyone equally, but by the second day he realized he had no idea what it was like to be a woman or a person of color in the predominantly white Rockwell environment. "I discovered that it's about more than how you treat people," he says. "It is about understanding that differences exist in culture and they make you more prone to act a certain way."
So inspired, Tschanz put his entire staff through the course, and created an inclusion change team to address diversity issues in his group. That team went on to create the company's annual "Get Connected" event where women from across the company get together to network, hear speakers and participate in workshops.
Tschanz's team also made smaller adjustments, such as expanding social events beyond golf and cocktails, and making people aware of subtly negative behavior, such as asking why a female colleague is upset if she complains in a meeting. "You would never ask that about a man," he notes.
Once leaders became aware of what they were doing, the culture at Rockwell began to change—and not just in the sales department, Prime says . Catalyst did an in-depth study of the Rockwell program and found measurable changes in behavior among white male leaders across the company.
These included a 39 percent reduction in gossip, a 17 percent increase in how much managers agreed that white men have greater advantages than women and racial/ethnic minorities, and a 40 percent increase in thinking critically about different social groups among managers who do not have many cross-racial friendships.
The change was most pronounced among managers who were the least concerned about appearing prejudiced, Prime says. "After the labs, those managers registered the most significant change in taking personal responsibility for being inclusive."
Rockwell's success with this course underscores why it is so important to involve white men in the culture-change process. "White men are a powerful stakeholder group, and they need to get the message that they are responsible for being a part of the solution," Prime says.
That awareness is critical, Tschanz adds. "You can't get on the path to inclusion until you are able to look at your culture through a different set of eyes."
Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.