As U.S. Engineering has reinforced its commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB), we are being intentional about cultivating a culture where we can bring not only the best version of ourselves to work – but our TRUE and FULL selves. Being intentional about DEIB means listening, learning and creating a plan.
With the importance of this work, we have partnered with Sophic Solutions, a change management consulting firm that specializes in helping companies strengthen their understanding of DEIB. Sophic was founded and is led by managing partners Stephenie and Rodney Smith.
U.S. Engineering CEO Tyler Nottberg has known with Stephenie and Rodney for several years: “I have had the privilege of working with Stephenie and Rodney on many different occasions, both in the context of our efforts here at U.S. Engineering and at organizations throughout the community that are committed to DEIB. None of the work is easy, but all of it is critical. Stephenie and Rodney are both tremendous leaders.”
In this interview, we sit down with Stephenie and Rodney to discuss their work and the importance of DEIB.
Stephenie Smith: We’re really excited to be able to partner with the U.S. Engineering team in this work. We always like to come in and build upon the energy and the effort that organizations have been really intentional about, and then strengthen that with more capacity building and more understanding. And our role is to really to walk with the team members of U.S. Engineering help them in this commitment.
Rodney Smith: Our company, Sophic Solutions, is a change management firm that helps organizations navigate change through an equity lens. We recognize there are a lot of people who are somewhat uncertain of those steps to operationalize this change. It’s one thing to talk about and discuss and have a desire for change, but it’s another thing to actually manage that change.
Stephenie: The acronym DEIB stands for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. We think for most folks, they’re used to hearing “DEI,” but as our experience and work has deepened, it became clear that the everyday experience of “belonging” is such an important component to this work. We like to think about belonging as not only the goal but the glue. All of the efforts are important, but that “B” is an important addition.
Rodney: Again, to Stephenie’s point, the overarching goal of the work of diversity, equity, inclusion is for people to have a sense of belonging in our organizations. And so that’s what we mean when we say it is not only the goal, but it is the glue that keeps our organizations together, where people feel a sense of belonging. And you might be thinking, “So what is belonging? And what does it feel like? Who’s responsible for it?” Our argument is that we’re responsible for each other’s belonging.
A lot of times when you ask people, “How do you define belonging, and what does it feel like?” They say things like, “My opinion is valued, people smile at me when I walk in the office on a daily basis, and things like that.”
Stephenie: Or pay equity.
Rodney: Right. It all has to do with seeing the humanity in each other. And so we’re responsible for each other’s belonging. I’m responsible for your belonging, and you’re responsible for my belonging because you and I are a part—we—are a part of this organization. Then we’re setting the environment, if you will.
Stephenie: I’ve always thought that this work is important to do because we have all been part of this human exchange. But I think this particular era that we’re in now—what I like to call the enlightened or awareness era—where we are becoming more aware of how identities, inclusive of racial and ethnic identity, gender and ableism and more. Being inclusive of all these identities becomes really important for us to be adaptive.
That also means understanding the historical component. Understanding the social, emotional components. Even understanding how our commitment and demonstration to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging helps us to be a more productive and innovative workspace. All of those components have always been important, but there have been some major events that have been happening all around us, and we can’t continue to ignore the element and the impact of racism in our spaces, of sexism in our spaces, of ableism in our spaces.
Rodney: Exactly. We set unrealistic expectations when we expect people to be able to compartmentalize their lives like that. We are all dealing with these issues, be it consciously or subconsciously. So I think the best route to take is to address them. It relates not only to our mental health, but our societal health.
We need to address these issues; they occupy our mental space and could contribute to less productivity. If we’re preoccupied with what’s happening in society, how productive can we really be? Because we’re all thinking about it, and some of us more intimately than others because we may share a similar identity to an individual that we’ve seen on television or on news clips having a not-so-good experience. And so it’s weighing on us. It’s a burden on us. And so I think it’s OK for the workplace to be that place where people find some solace, some community, some discussions, some understanding.
Stephenie: And I think that the workplace, as they’ve done in other areas, can really be a standard bearer and be able to incorporate standards of practice into how we do our work. It is not the first time we’ve done it. For example, we have standardized our expectation for safety. So we believe that it is not only appropriate. It’s necessary that the workplace continues to be a standard bearer for how we interact and how we create access and opportunity for all people.
Stephenie: Organizations that focus on DEIB gain greater connectivity internally within the organization. It’s almost like a release, or a permission given; it frees up your mind when you’re not so consumed with trying to make sure that you were being treated fairly. You can then leverage that energy into better productivity, into greater innovation. Especially when you begin to value the various identities and experiences of your colleagues, then you can tap into that. People can bring their whole selves into the workspace. And that really helps to promote innovation.
And then we begin to think about some of the practical matters externally. When we can be a reflection of our communities, that encourages the bid process. It reminds our future partners that not only can we make great decisions by who and how we hire, but we could also have a connectivity to what is happening in the community. All of these elements are extremely important for organizations to be able to be competitive in today’s world.
Rodney: Research tells us that a diverse work force is far more productive than a homogeneous one. When you have a multitude of people with various perspectives and various life experiences, various backgrounds, then they see things from multiple perspectives. You solve problems better when you have a multitude of ideas, a multitude of ways of seeing things.
The danger of homogeny is we have people with very similar backgrounds, very similar ethnicities, very similar worldviews. This isn’t necessarily inherently a problem, but it also means we have similar blind spots. But if we have a diversity of experiences, then you could perhaps help me with my blind spots, and I can help you with your blind spots because we see in a different way.
Stephenie: When we see homogeny, it is almost always absent of malicious intent. Absent of trying to exclude. But that doesn’t change the results. And so being able to walk with organizations such as U.S. Engineering and being able to understand the difference between intent and impact—then being able to really develop effective strategies that help move us from where we are at to where we want to be—that’s the power in this work.
Stephenie: I love a conversation about misconceptions because we believe that you can only acknowledge what you first address. So being able to create a safe space where people can talk about what their challenges are or what they’re grappling with really creates an opportunity where we can then collectively and individually address what those things are.
One misconception we hear a lot within organizations is that somehow by being more intentional about addressing communities that are underrepresented or have been historically marginalized within organizations, that somehow, we lower the expectations or the quality of candidates. And I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that concern. Because we need to recognize that those things are not synonymous. That when you begin to talk about increasing the number of women within your organization, for instance, or the number of people of color. Whether they are black folks or African Americans, Latino, Latina, Latinx individuals, whoever is underrepresented, that somehow the quality of candidacy begins to come into question. So that is something that we like to speak clearly about.
I also think there’s a misconception that somehow this is just about a moral crusade. And this is kind of hard to wrap your head around sometimes because it absolutely is the right thing to do. But this commitment is not about changing people’s political beliefs or trying to convert them into another way of believing. This is why it’s so important for organizations to distinguish this as our “operational standard” and not about changing people’s “heart”. This is how we do our work. That this is not about who you voted for. It’s not about where you live. Those things don’t have to be changed for us to have a standard for equitable outcomes
Rodney: And not only is it the right thing to do, but it makes good business sense, too. You will become a more productive organization by being a more diverse organization, being a more inclusive organization. Being a place where there is equity and a sense of belonging.
Stephenie: Really being able to take a look at our organization; our practices, our policies and our culture with eyes wide open and being curious. We always like to lean in with curiosity. Lean in with curiosity over judgement. When we can begin to get curious and ask ourselves and our colleagues, “Why do we do it this way?” We may find ourselves giving ourselves greater permission to think about it in another way.
Rodney: Yeah, Stephenie often says curiosity is a lubricant for change. That’s what we’re talking about. We have to get curious about how organizations have gotten to where they have gotten. We have to get curious about our society. We often say questions lead to discovery. If we didn’t have questions, we wouldn’t have the discoveries that we now enjoy. As someone said, you know, “I wonder if I can create a mechanism that I can fly?” Right. It was a question. It started with a question and now we have airplanes. We fly planes every day.
Stephenie: I wonder if we can have a workforce that is reflective of the communities that we are serving within, not only in the employee base, but also in our leadership. Imagine if we get curious and begin to ask those questions. What can follow? So this is powerful work, and it takes curiosity followed by courage. And it’s possible.