Making a Difference - People Programs Driving Cultural Change and Diversity

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By Elaine Noonan, Vice President of Finance, Merkle

Empowering women and minorities to thrive and have a voice in today’s business environment is a top-of-mind objective for many organizations today. As a female marketing executive, I tend to take notice when I see organizations that support the needs and aspirations of the working woman. And I’m finding more and more that marketing agency organizations are making the effort. They’re employing specific practices and programs that enable women across all levels of the organization to not only express their career ambitions, but gain opportunities to network, develop thought leadership content, manage their careers, and benefit from formal mentoring relationships. 

A primary element is implementing programs which tackle key issues and provide forums for women to contribute, to mentor and be mentored, and to generally have a voice. Critical to the success of this outreach should be gathering a group of like-minded individuals with the goal of positively impacting the corporate culture and connecting women at all levels and stages of their careers. With this in mind, mentorship committees can be formed to match women with mentors/mentees in different areas of the organization, to build networks, refine skills, and share career experiences. The following illustrates one successful example of this type of program’s positive outcomes. 

The persistent question among working women:

Do I have to choose between advancing my career and expanding my family, or can I do both?

No matter the industry, it is very common for a woman in a management-level position to struggle with finding work-life balance. This is one of the issues that a formal program should address. It may not seem intuitive, but a well-designed mentoring program can help a woman in this situation navigate the challenge. Take the example of a young, high-performing manager who, through such a structured program, was matched to a VP who had decided early in her own career to remain in the workforce while raising her children. In the initial meetings, the manager expressed concern that, while she wanted to have another child, she was also very engaged in her current role at a top marketing agency and was highly motivated to be promoted to senior manager. Together, they created a plan, outlining how the manager could continue on the promotion track without a pronounced interruption, if she were to expand her family. The career advice from her mentor was two-fold. First, she was to build a “fan club” across the organization and develop a succession plan. The fan club concept was designed to demonstrate her rock star contributions and create a need for her talents; to show that she was integral to the success of the business, both within and outside her immediate team. The second part was to have a plan to transition current responsibilities to a “future” replacement. This may seem counterintuitive, but it was important for her to feel confident in sharing knowledge with others who would provide coverage in her absence, whether due to family leave or a promotion. This step essentially made family leave irrelevant, as any disruption to business would be avoided. The manager now had a plan of attack and immediately began to execute. Fast forward twelve months, her promotion to senior manager was supported by management … and she was notified while on maternity leave! 

A best practice to extend such mentorship programs is promoting “Mentoring Circles,” composed of one mentor and several mentees who work as a group. Each circle is based on some common mentoring interests such as training, leadership, or support. The expected benefits include broader access, exposure to multiple viewpoints, and less reliance on individual chemistry, as the group dynamic will drive the synergies. 

Beyond Mentorship

Another key element with huge impact for both the woman and the company is to encourage women at all levels to contribute thought leadership content that expresses their passions and beliefs, such as blogs and feature articles.

Recently, a junior analyst from China, who was working for a US marketing agency organization, shared her thoughts: “It is critical to empower women to voice their perspectives and not be afraid to contribute. Through these channels, women across all levels of the organization are fueling a culture of diversity, appealing more broadly to employees by sharing impactful ideas, which drive viewership and engagement across the organization.”

She recently added in a blog, “The feeling of connection peaked when my colleagues and I had dinner together after a long day at a conference. We are from three different countries originally (Tunisia, India, and China), working at three different offices in the US, and were gathering on the European continent. What I cherish most is that people I meet from work share their real stories and give me genuine advice related to my career. It’s those moments that make me grateful. I not only have "a good job" – it enriches my life by connecting me with so many interesting and genuine people.” These types of contributions can be encouraged across the organization, whether through the formal mentoring programs or simply from the top down through company management.

It is critical for a company’s top leaders from the CEO level down to continually promote a culture of diversity and recognize the importance of providing a workplace where gender parity is a core tenet. With this focus being top of mind from the c-level, other formal programs can be implemented to better support women, men, families, even military personnel, such as changes to HR time-off polices. 

In short, enhanced people programs and leave policies are becoming an important part of the fabric of the agency, driving cultural change and diversity.  These types of concerted efforts by companies provide much more robust support for their diverse staff and help employees find a more realistic balance between their work and personal lives, which ultimately benefits not only the employee but also the company through improved productivity, lower turnover rates, and higher work satisfaction ratings.