High-level diversity and inclusion role key to driving organisational change

Commonwealth Financial Network bolsters its diversity, equity and inclusion strategy with new C-suite recruit.

Commonwealth Financial Network (CFN), a national firm dedicated to providing advisor-focused business solutions, based in Waltham Massachusetts, has appointed its first Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer. Just six weeks into the role, Scarlett Abraham Clarke told DiversityQ about her career so far, what she hoped to achieve and why it was important to have buy-in at senior level.

How did you become a D&I professional?

I joined my previous company, Bright Horizons 14 years ago because of the work they had done on inclusion; not just in what was written, but also in the behaviours on display. Like many D&I professionals, I started doing the work from the side of my desk. What I mean is that I made sure that I had a lens for consistency and one for equity in everything I did.

So I would regularly challenge my managers and employees to have the necessary tough conversations, which often made people feel uncomfortable; equally, it provided spaces for employees to get to know each other beyond the workplace.

I worked alongside so many great leaders and learned so much, and as a result, was promoted to lead the function for D&I for three years, before I left to join Commonwealth.  

Why did you move to Commonwealth Financial Network?

I could see how serious they were about diversity and inclusion. Commonwealth started to focus on DE&I about two years ago, and have many ‘champions’; people who, like me in the early days of my career, were doing things side of the desk and bringing people together. But they’d never had a dedicated function or resource.

They understood early that even in the absence of a core team, resources or initiatives, they needed someone at a VP level to make a meaningful impact. This commitment to D&I was a huge selling point. 

Did the events of 2020, in the wake of George Floyd reinforce their decision?

Certainly, Commonwealth was very vocal and upfront about their feelings around the social and racial unrest. These events just confirmed to them that this was what they needed to be doing.

What will you be focusing on initially?

Like many firms in the financial industry, there’s an opportunity to shape what leadership representation looks like today regarding gender, race, disabilities and sexual orientation.

Now is the time to evolve; therefore, we need to look at how we’re hiring, developing and promoting internal talent to make sure that we’re inclusive.

Commonwealth has been so generous with different communities and wants to make a difference, and be visible as an inclusive employer of choice. We need to foster diverse talent earlier and look at how we can engage high school and college students in the world of finance.

One of the initiatives that I’m focusing on is our internship programme. It has relied on referrals for a long time, but you will likely refer someone similar, or that may even look like you. I’m building and providing different sources, strategic alliances and areas where we want to be looking for new talent.

Once they have been through the programme, we need to keep our interns engaged with Commonwealth and look at how we tap into their networks and communities.

What skill will you be drawing on the most in this new role?

This is a role that requires people to feel safe, to be able to share with me exactly how they’re feeling, how uncomfortable, happy, in disagreement or onboard they are. I also want to know if they don’t understand, and something needs explaining further.

I need to gain trust; to create that safe space that ultimately will give me the credibility to influence them bigger and better. I need to develop relationships quickly to start building the infrastructure that will support my work: creating employee resource groups, and an inclusion council. I need to have the right people at my table to help mobilise the organisation in the direction that we need to go. So, relationship building is going to be vital in building that trust.

Why is equity, diversity, inclusion, so important to you?

It’s very personal for me. I’m originally from the Dominican Republic and, when I came to the States in February of ’89, it was the first time that I knew I was different, or made to feel different and I struggled a bit. However, I took the opportunity to do whatever I could to acclimate. I learned the language in less than four months and helped build my confidence quite a bit.

Growing up, I felt like I was privileged by not feeling that I was excluded because of my race. But I did feel excluded as an adult. And there were a few experiences that were enraging, but they drove me to go into this work and make an impact.

People have a choice to either be angry and stay angry or be angry and on the side of making change. And that’s the side that I’m on. I am an HR business partner by trade. So, a lot of these experiences helped me to have more empathy.

Given your proven track record, what would you say does and doesn’t work when it comes to setting D&I strategies?

It would be easy for me to say, ‘here’s what we’re going to do, and how we’re going to make this happen’. That’s a mistake because context matters. Every organisation is at a different place in their D&I journey. It’s important I take the time – go on my ‘listening tour’- and understand what D&I means to finance and the organisation’s bottom line.

A big mistake would be to try to solve something without enough details. I’m trying to understand how engaged our employees are across Commonwealth, and am putting together our first national annual employee experience survey.

This insight will inform what are we doing from an HR perspective and how it impacts the D&I work. It’s possible that I’ll put something together and six months down the line, we have to shift or be flexible.

Changing behaviours won’t work without the highest buy-in from leadership. If our CEO and founder didn’t truly believe in diversity, equity and inclusion and weren’t investing their time, money and vulnerability, I would not have come to work for Commonwealth.

What competencies do you think D&I professionals should have?

As I mentioned, you must build relationships and accept when something is not working. You need to bring functions and individuals together, helping them find common ground. That can come with strong business acumen. D&I professionals must understand the business they’re supporting because that’s what will serve as one of the best cases for diversity, equity and inclusion.

I’m never going to be able to say that we’re done. I am always learning and looking for different resources to support me in my learning and development.

I’ve been a dedicated DE&I professional for over four years and, in that time, I have had to shared so much about myself. It’s not always been comfortable to do. By sharing my story, I invite others to share theirs and to feel safe. A level of vulnerability to share, to understand is key. And that can be hard to do. But stories build empathy and can help make this work personal for others.

What area of diversity do you think will be under the spotlight in 2021?

I hope the focus will be on inclusion. The biggest challenge is how people feel in terms of their sense of belonging in an organisation. Are they genuinely bringing their whole selves? Or are they sitting in their cars for 10-15 minutes and thinking, ‘what pieces of myself should I leave here? And what pieces should I bring into the office?’ Organisations have an opportunity to create spaces where, even if it’s just for those eight or nine hours a day that people are at work, that they can feel recognised and celebrated.

Finally, do you have any tips to share with D&I professionals just starting their careers?

Data is essential, and numbers are important. You need employee stories to bring those numbers to life. Some will not ever have full empathy for what some other folks might be dealing with, because they haven’t necessarily experienced it. But if you allow others to share their story, it becomes that much more personal. And we know that when something is personal, we will do whatever we need to do to make sure that we can impact it.

You should be willing to bat for what you believe in, for the organisation’s values and mission, and for and how that relates to any social unrest that might exist. Take any stands you need to support employees. 

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