Great leaders are often borne of necessity. They see something wrong with the current state of affairs and decide they should make a personal effort to change things for the better. That’s the case with the subject of this installment of our series on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leaders: Hallam Sargeant, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at Avanade.
Sargeant started his career in his native Barbados and came to the United States specifically to study HR after being underwhelmed by the state of the department at his previous employer. “The reason I chose HR to begin with was the organization I worked for back in Barbados,” he says. “I didn’t think we did a really good job of recognizing or maximizing the contributions of our people.”
Once he graduated and entered the field, he was soon exposed to a variety of areas and experiences across a wide spectrum of employees from different backgrounds and lived experiences. This has greatly helped to inform his work and his effectiveness as a leader in this space.
He points to one particularly impactful experience that had a significant effect on him and his career trajectory.
Becoming an Ally
He was facilitating a dialogue with a group of colleagues consisting of mostly men, with only one woman. The conversation was about determining promotions and assigning new roles for existing employees. The discussion turned to a new mother who was on maternity leave at the time and what roles might work best for her upon her return.
The men in the room assumed she would prefer a less demanding role. Sargeant, however, paused the conversation and asked if anyone had actually spoken to the new mother to understand her actual preferences. This question was met with complete silence.
He then posed another question: “How many of you have had someone make the decision to slow down your career when you became a father?” Once again, silence filled the room. For Sargeant, this moment highlighted the need for him to intervene and use his voice as an ally to address biases and unfair assumptions.
Another thing about this experience also resonated with him. As the team left the room, the lone woman who was present approached him and expressed gratitude for using his voice as an ally. “She acknowledged that if she had been the one to speak up, the response may not have been the same because her input might have been dismissed,” he says.
This experience was impactful for him. It illustrated the importance of challenging biases, using one’s voice as an ally, and considering diverse perspectives when making decisions that impact individuals in the workplace. The experience led him to delve deeper into the realm of DEI in the workplace and to consider what it could really look like.
He brought his depth and variety of experiences to bear when he came to Avanade in November 2020 in the midst of the pandemic and the social unrest arising from George Floyd’s murder. For Avanade, he says, “inclusion went from a nice to have to a critical business imperative.”
Strategy and Accountability
Brought in as the company’s first chief diversity officer (CDO), Sargeant first noticed that the DEI work that was being done wasn’t aligned with the company strategy or key performance indicators (KPIs).
Today, he says, metrics are used to establish direction, ensure alignment, and “hold ourselves accountable.” Metrics are reported to the board and included on the company’s environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) scorecard. In addition, each of the company’s executive leaders was tasked with creating personal DEI commitment frameworks, identifying measurable ways they would contribute to the advancement of DEI.
Several Avanade executive team members also serve as sponsors of the company’s employee networks as Executive Committee Champions (ECCs). Their participation and leadership help visibly demonstrate their support, as well as generate conversations and interest.
Employee Committees Offer Opportunities for Engagement and Development
Membership in employee networks has grown significantly under Sargeant’s stewardship. When he first joined Avanade, the company had 4 employee resource groups. Today it has 14 groups with 45 chapters globally and 350 employees leading work being done at the global, regional, or local levels, he says. Over the past year, the employee network membership jumped by 641%—1 in 6 employees are members of an employee network.
That’s likely because of the broad reach and intersectionality these groups have. The company and its leaders have worked hard to “widen the conversations about topics that might have traditionally been considered taboo,” Sargeant says. For instance, “conversations around menopause and the impact that can have on women in workplace, especially when they feel they can’t acknowledge that experience.” Conversations are also occurring around various types of disabilities, including invisible ones.
In October 2022, Avanade held its first global inclusion and diversity awards to honor “the important work that our people deliver on top of their day job,” Sargeant said. Three hundred and thirty nominations came in from across the globe.
It’s clear that Avanade’s DEI culture is real—and employees can feel that, Sargeant says. “We’re really intentional about broadening the conversation to include everyone,” he notes. In addition, “we’ve done a really good job of expanding the conversation beyond what would be traditionally thought of as I&D.”
Sargeant also makes the point that these groups at Avanade provide support for not only DEI but also employee development. A number of more junior-level employees have been given leadership roles in the employee networks. “We believe that they’re giving back to the company by serving in these roles, but we’ve invested in them as well because, as part of their development, they’re getting the opportunity to lead teams,” he says. “We believe that we’ve accelerated their development by putting them in these leadership roles.”
Avanade has successfully opened doors for inclusive opportunities for employees across its organization, recognizing the value they all bring and giving them opportunities for input, learning, and growth—and, of course, ensuring their efforts are aligned with business objectives and accountability.
The company is also making an effort to ensure DEI isn’t focused on “fixing those in underrepresented groups.”
Fixing the Ecosystem
He shares an analogy he initially heard from The Racial Equity Institute.
Traditionally, he says, many companies have approached DEI by trying to fix underrepresented groups like women, racial minorities, or LGBTQ+ individuals. It’s like noticing a few dead fish in standing water and assuming it’s just a problem with those specific fish.
Imagine walking by a body of water and finding one or two dead fish, Sargeant says. It’s concerning, but you may think it’s an isolated incident. But if that same body of water is filled with dead fish, you begin to realize there’s something fundamentally wrong with the water itself.
Sargeant applies this analogy to company culture. If an organization’s culture forces women and other underrepresented groups to assimilate or leave, then there’s a systemic issue within the company. It’s not just about fixing individual challenges faced by specific groups; it’s about addressing the overall ecosystem.
For Sargeant and his team, the focus lies on transforming the company culture, which serves as the “water” in the analogy. They aim to identify and eliminate barriers and obstacles that hinder people from achieving their career aspirations. By doing so, they strive to create an inclusive environment where everyone can thrive.
Sargeant’s story powerfully highlights organizations’ need to shift their approach from merely fixing isolated issues to fundamentally transforming their culture and fostering DEI at every level and across all employees.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.