Episode 101: What is Conscious Inclusion with Juan Cortes
Kelly: So welcome back to Thrive, your agency resource. There has been a lot of energy around inclusion in the workplace, how to become more conscious of our biases as agency leaders and what to actually do about them. So today, I'm joined by one of my friends, Juan Cortes to talk about just that. Juan is the co-founder of Matter of Culture, which is an inclusive culture and employee engagement consultancy. He's also represented on consciousness leaders, which is my new venture in the world. And I am really, really excited to have him here today. So Juan, thank you so much. I am just really grateful to have this conversation with you of all people.
Juan: Thank you. I'm super excited to do the same.
Kelly: So your background, which I didn't actually know until we started talking more. Your background is actually in the marketing and advertising world. And it's been really focused on creating employee resource groups, or ERGs for agencies and world class brands for like, 25 years. Not to age you, but can you talk a little bit about that work? Because I imagine that there are a lot of people who, if they're not part of those larger brands, or part of those larger agencies, they don't actually know potentially what those ERGs are all about. So, we'd love to hear a little bit more about that.
Juan: Sure. So, the first thing that I'll say is, thank you for having me here, Kelly. I am much like you. I actually was really quite surprised about how long it's actually been that I've been in this space.
Kelly: Because you look so young. When I said 25 years, I was like, oh my God.
Juan: Well, there's a plus after that 25.
Kelly: I negated the plus.
Juan: What I realized recently, actually was that as far back as the early 90s, when I was merely a tyke working in New York, for MTV Networks, which is MTV, music, television, Nickelodeon, and a few others. I was actually part of what at the time was called the Diversity Council, which was really at the time, there was no conversation about inclusion or belonging or equity. It was really all about this kind of new buzzword called diversity. And our efforts really revolved around how we educate ourselves about the experiences of other people who are unlike us. And that was a really rewarding experience that really launched me into a career of not only learning and development, which is where I've spent a lot of my time, but also in terms of employee engagement, and specifically around creating a sense of inclusion and belonging. More recently, I was the VP of Learning and Engagement for Wunderman Thompson, which is a fairly large agency with 20,000 plus employees across the world. And because they put a series of mergers when we formed, as Wunderman Thompson has this large conglomerate, one thing that became really clear was that there was very little engagement, or that engagement levels were actually going down pretty significantly. And one way that I thought might be a good way of getting people back, engage employees was through creating opportunities for them to have a voice to share their experiences, and to contribute to the business in more significant ways. And I found no better way of doing that than through creating the first employee resource group that was created for the agency.
Kelly: And for the people who don't know necessarily what that definition is. What do you mean by an employee resource group?
Juan: So an employee resource group is typically defined as a group of employees who volunteer their time because more often than not, the efforts of Employee Resource Groups are done outside of your working hours, often within working hours, but particularly in agencies when billable time still rules. That's another conversation. We don't need to go in that direction. But worth mentioning only from the perspective that typically ERGs especially in agencies don't necessarily have billable hours. So don't count those as billable hours, for which reason, then they become volunteer hours in essence.
Kelly: Got it.
Juan: These groups are formed primarily for the purpose of creating a sense of inclusion and creating some educational components for the organization, whether an agency or not. But what I felt was really most compelling about creating an ERG, again, this group of employees was, how do we leverage the employees on the experiences that we have here collectively for the purpose of moving the business forward, moving the employee experience forward, and moving the communities in which we are forward. So that was kind of the three-part or the three-prong approach that I took to forming ERGs. ERGs are typically formed around an affinity. So, an ERG for women, or LGBTQ or people of color, and so on and so forth. So that's a little bit of what ERGs are and a little bit of what my focus was in creating the Wunderman Thompson.
Kelly: Yeah. Amazing. Thank you for sharing that. So, our charge today is to talk about conscious inclusion. There's a lot of talk about consciousness. The collective consciousness, conscious leadership, which I sound like a broken record. I feel like I say that phrase about 17 times a day, and so on, right? Like, we are learning a whole new vocabulary here, because there's a new, I guess, linguistics that is kind of coming to the forefront. So, what do we mean specifically by conscious inclusion? Because people are now familiar with diversity, equity and inclusion, or intentional culture or inclusive culture. But what do we mean by conscious inclusion?
Juan: So conscious inclusion is really a way of talking about moving beyond what we typically focus on or what many organizations are still focusing on when it comes to efforts related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and that typically revolves around unconscious biases. Most of the calls that I get from clients or potential clients looking for diversity training, when I asked them what they're looking for, they're like, actually, we don't know what we need. But typically, they do point out that one thing that they've heard a lot about is unconscious bias. And the thing about unconscious bias for me is that unconscious bias is really the precursor to information. When we learn about our unconscious biases, that gives us information that then we can use for another purpose. And that purpose is really to create an intentional, more inclusive culture, or this idea of conscious inclusion. So if our biases are unconscious, when we bring them up to the consciousness, what do we do about that? What is the action beyond that? Because otherwise, we end up falling for this idea of, well, now that I know that unconscious biases are normal, and are natural that all humans have them, and so on and so forth, I'm aware of them, I went through that training so I'm good.
Kelly: And it's almost like a pass, right?
Juan: Exactly right. And that pass actually has a name, that's called the licensing effect. And the licensing effect is really all about, now that I know what I know, I'm good and I don't need to do anything else about it. So what I've done is the term that I've been using of conscious inclusion is really the movement, the actual, the action, beyond or moving beyond just a sense of awareness, and inputting that or setting that in motion. So for instance, more often than not, whether agencies or other organizations, we think about the issues of diversity and inclusion, as it relates to how we are attracting talent, and how we're retaining talent, all of which is great. But there are many other opportunities for us to also create this sense of conscious inclusion. And those are some of the things that we've been working through.
Kelly: Right. So you just mentioned a really great point. I think most people would hear conscious inclusion and automatically kind of create a correlation between that and like the hiring process, and HR and all of that, right? Because it's all about candidate selection and all of that, but there are actually larger, ethical and business reasons to consider. So, let's talk a little bit about the idea of, like, the triple bottom line, which I would imagine that most of the people listening or watching this are pretty familiar with.
Juan: Yes. So, what I find is that when we begin to think about inclusion, we have to move beyond HR and we need to move beyond recruiting. Certainly, those things are really important because if we are not even attempting to get people from different backgrounds into the organization, and find ways of creating an environment where they can thrive and where their voices are heard, then we might get all the right numbers potentially, in terms of diversity, but not really get the benefits of that, that we get when we actually include them in the day to day and in the business decisions that we make, etc., etc.
Juan: So moving beyond just recruiting and HR, I find this important because, for instance, for agencies, I find that there's something magical about agencies, a power that as agencies that we have, and that is that we exist for the purpose of selling stuff, of helping our brands sell stuff. If we are not being mindful about the campaign's that we're creating, or the ads that we're creating, and so on, and so forth, we might be leaving some folks behind or not really taking them into consideration. So as an example, I've recently learned that in the world, 25% of the population worldwide has some form of disability. And that disability can be physical, it can be visible, or it can be invisible, or it could be neurodiversity, and so on and so forth. If within our teams, we don't have the opportunity, or we haven't taken the opportunity to create conscious inclusion for people with disabilities, we're leaving 20, 25% of people off the table, we're not including them in the work that we do. And we're missing an opportunity. So, to me, it goes beyond the recruiting and the HR efforts. And it needs to really translate into what sources strategists are looking at when they're looking at information that helps us create the right campaign. How are the creative teams looking at the people that we include in those campaigns, the actual talent that we include in those campaigns, and things along those lines.
Kelly: Yeah. And then how that translates to this triple bottom line effect, right? Like, if you think about that, when you harness the power of all of those different perspectives across the entire lifecycle of that creative process, the work is just better, therefore, the work is more effective, therefore, the clients are happier, therefore, the clients stay, therefore you can attract, like more talent that's of a higher quality, on and on and on this, like the cycle. And at the end of the day, we know profitability is a lagging indicator, but by focusing here, it then leads to sort of this triple bottom line impact. So, it's just good business, right? I joke around sometimes, I'm like, this is not just everybody holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Like, that's cool, too. But it also leads to a more profitable, more sustainable, predictable business.
Juan: A hundred percent. And, truth be told Kelly, that what drives me personally to do this work, is that it's the right thing to do. I like to create a space for all humans to feel included. But the business side of me does it because it is the right thing.
Kelly: And I think those things not being mutually exclusive is kind of like the takeaway. And I see that moving into that paradigm more now at a more accelerated right now than ever before. So that personally gets me excited because I'm in the same boat as you. [Commercial] So you just gave a couple of great examples. But when we had talked earlier, another time, you were also mentioning the impacts of some things that might be really interesting to some of the technology leaders that are listening to this. So, talk a little bit about how conscious inclusion can impact things like artificial intelligence and machine learning, because that's definitely something that we have to consider with us as well.
Juan: Sure. The truth of the matter is that technology, whether machine learning or artificial intelligence or combination of both is permeating our lives, whether we are aware of that or not.
Kelly: That's happening underneath the surface of that.
Juan: Exactly right. And so if we are not paying close attention, artificial intelligence, the information is still fed by humans. If humans are not aware of their biases, and they are developing this as technologists, then the very systems that are intended to help us move forward are going to be flawed. They're going to be less than perfect. And we've seen many examples of that, over organizations like universities who have used machine learning and artificial intelligence for their selection process with the purpose of actually being more inclusive and it actually backfired because the information that was set into those algorithms was not appropriate or was not inclusive in nature. It was riddled with the biases of the folks who created them.
Kelly: Right. And I bring it up, because I don't want people to think that this is just about the ad campaigns that are so visible in our world. It is also the technology that we sometimes don't even know is powering some of the things that we're digesting. So, obviously, this show is for creative and technology leaders. And I think it's important to bring up that conscious inclusion and unconscious bias and all these things like we have these conversations, and then actually, to your point earlier, do something about it. It's not enough to just have the conversations and say, okay, these are things that we should be aware of. No, actually, what are we going to do? And these are the conversations we need to have in our organizations, or if we don't know how to have those conversations, hiring a team that can help a consultancy, that's one of the next steps.
Juan: Exactly right. Yeah. On that note Kelly, I find that is an important component, that we also cannot just as agency leaders, go out there and pretend that we know what we know, and create campaigns that we think are inclusive, because then we come up with terrible campaigns like Pepsi.
Kelly: Don't even say it.
Juan: Few years back. Exactly. Yeah, I won't go further into that. That is exactly. There is a tone of deafness that comes from not really being part of that experience, or not having consulted people who have been part of that experience, as an underrepresented group. Think about also, for instance, from a technology perspective, if I am designing websites or apps, how am I making them more accessible so that folks who are visually impaired can navigate through them? And there's the legality side. So setting that aside completely, there's just a drive from my perspective. There should be a drive to be more inclusive because being more inclusive doesn't exclude anybody. So there's no downside to any of it. But it does require more energy, and it requires us to be more deliberate.
Kelly: Right. And isn't that what it's all about? Right? Being more intentional and more deliberate and more considerate of others.
Kelly: Yeah, I mean, as we start to kind of wrap up a little bit, I could hear some of the people who are in the audience listening to this or watching this on video, your background is clearly with larger organizations, like that WPP level, most of the people listening to this run smaller agencies or have some kind of leadership positions, smaller agencies. So how do we translate something like the idea of an ERG or the idea of conscious inclusion into smaller agencies?
Juan: So, I think that a smaller agency can still create an ERG. So there are ways to create these affinity groups. And to put that out internally and really understand and figure out who's there who can actually be a part of that. And perhaps the affinity is not so specific to one particular group. It might be broader. And I think that what these groups are working on, even working at Wunderman Thompson while I was there, there was one particular office that was fairly small and they were struggling with how do we create an energy here for this particular office. And what they did is that they created a group that they called something like the diversity group. It was something relatively innocuous, but in essence, what they did is that they created a series, they brought ideas to leadership, and they created a series of relationships. They establish relationships with local community leaders from various organizations. They invited me to come in and once a month, they had an opportunity to have veteran talk to them about their experience. They had gender nonconforming folks come in and talk to them. And most of this was actually done gratis because these were community leaders who were really looking to bring their message forward. So those are some of the things that as smaller agencies, we can still do.
Kelly: I love that idea. I absolutely love that idea. Because then it really goes into if you think about what the part of the equation of conscious leadership is, right? It's like, yes, taking care of your employees, also considering your impact on the community. And that impact can actually be reciprocal. Because what you're saying is that they went to the community leaders or people in the community from different groups, and they were able to bring them in and develop those relationships and actually kind of gain some insight or attract some knowledge. As a reciprocal thing, there could be donation or volunteerism on the part of the agency or the organization back to that group. Like, that's a beautiful exchange. I think that's a wonderful idea. I love that.
Juan: Yeah. And I'm all about reciprocity. So, I'm always looking for relationships where there is an even exchange, or at least an ongoing exchange. And so exactly right. Certainly if you're a larger organization, pony up and help these organizations with money. But if you are smaller, you still can do it on a volunteer basis and think about how we give back? Is it volunteer hours? Is it that we create a campaign? That's actually a lot of what happened when I was working at Wunderman Thompson.
Kelly: Yeah. We did that at my former agency. Most of our clients were nonprofits so we did small fundraising campaigns like the local animal shelter or the local food pantry. And then also volunteered with those organizations as sort of an extension of that contribution. So, there are lots of ways that you can do this. And anyhow, this is such a great conversation. It's one of my favorite things to talk about, and I love talking to you. So, thank you so much Juan for being on the show. I really, really appreciate your time and your wisdom. Thank you.
Juan: It's been my pleasure.