Diversity and Inclusion is a Farm Credit Business Imperative.
Creating a diverse and inclusive workplace helps maximize productivity, energy and effectiveness.
There was a time when the word “diversity” was a hot-button for energetic discussions around the company water cooler. Today, creating a workplace that understands diversity is a business imperative to maximize efficiency and productivity.
Over the last two decades, U.S. businesses have dramatically changed the way they define and discuss diversity in the workplace Once seen as primarily a hiring task related to affirmative action, diversity has evolved to include many dimensions beyond gender and race, including age, class, disability, religion and family situation. More recently, many companies have shifted their focus from diversity alone to diversity and inclusion.
In 2006, the Farm Credit System initiated a system-wide work group to help increase diversity awareness, promote understanding of inclusiveness and serve as a diversity resource within FCS. The 12-member group has conducted Association surveys, sponsored a system-wide diversity conference and held workshops on planning and implementing cultural change around diversity and inclusion. “We have taken some solid steps in our awareness and understanding,” said Sandi Schmiesing, VP of Human Resources at AgriBank and a member of the FCS work group. “Because we are a decentralized system, it’s up to the Districts and Associations to decide what’s right for them. It’s a local initiative, and the FCS work group offers them support.”
AgriBank and its Associations are actively addressing the issue. Some organizations are just getting started, while others have been formally working diversity and inclusion into their business culture for years.
Within the AgriBank District, AgStar Financial Services and FCS of America are leading the way, says Jim Jones, Manager of Wholesale Loan Collateral Monitoring at AgriBank. “FCS of America is the model of inclusion. There, you get a real sense that the employees are very engaged. They put cross-functional work groups together on large projects that may not even have senior leadership involved. You walk into that organization and you feel an energy there that you don’t feel in a lot of places,” said Jones.
AgStar is well on its way to creating a sustainable diversity and inclusion program as they move from the self assessment phase to the implementation of an action plan.
FCS of America: A Culture Of Diversity & Inclusion
FCS of America started its initiative on diversity and inclusion in 2003. Recognizing the need to respond to a changing world, it formed a work group, hired an outside consultant to help develop training programs, started enhancing the culture, and within two years had rolled out the program and training to all FCS team members.
Today, diversity and inclusion are part of the culture at FCS of America, says Ann Finkner, SVP & Chief Administrative Officer. “We put a lot of emphasis on culture. Diversity and inclusion is part of your culture, it’s not just an activity.” Finkner noted that diversity and inclusion is an on-going journey and there is more that can continue to be accomplished.
FCS of America has a Diversity Leadership Team charged with creating initiatives and awareness, and facilitating ongoing training programs around diversity and inclusion. It consists of approximately 15 members from across the company, each serving 3-year terms.
The first step to implementing a program focused on diversity and inclusion is understanding what those words mean and how they are related, says Finkner. “Diversity is the awareness of our differences, our similarities and our unique attributes. Inclusion is about respecting those, and not leaving people outside the circle because they’re different. The more points of view you can bring to a team, the more ideas you’re going to have.”
Finkner believes it’s important for organizations to do a cultural assessment, and not simply make diversity and inclusion an HR project. “It has to be a company project, a company initiative with leadership support,” she said. “That’s the first piece. Then it’s a matter of how to help employees understand the various dimensions of diversity. There has to be training and developmental opportunities that create awareness of where everybody is.”
With the help of an outside consulting firm, FCS of America assessed its culture, then created training programs on diversity and inclusion. It held over 50 all-employee training session across its territory. They included everyone from the board to employees at all offices. One program, called “Building Connections,” helped create awareness of strengths, weaknesses, differences and similarities. “It’s about reflection and self-awareness,” said Finkner. “It’s learning about yourself, where are your biases, where are your prejudices. That’s where it all starts. Once you understand those layers and levels of diversity, then you can start moving to inclusion. We don’t have to be alike, but it’s about respecting what we all bring to the table.”
Today, all new employees at FCS of America are automatically enrolled in a 1-1/2 day training session within their first year of employment. In 2007, FCS added a new dimension to training, implementing a half-day session on working with diverse generations. It includes a game employees play to learn about different things that happened during people’s generations. “It was very eye-opening,” said Finkner. “This wasn’t about pigeonholing people into a generational group, like ‘boomers.’ It was about recognizing the influences each generation has experienced.”
Finkner offers encouragement for Associations who are just starting to investigate a diversity and inclusion initiative. “Don’t be afraid to move forward with this,” she said. “There are many people engaged with diversity and inclusion programs. Ask questions. What worked? What didn’t work? There are so many things that can be done. It’s just a matter of taking it one step at a time. Understand your culture, create a plan and then work the plan.”
AgStar Adds “Engagement” To The Process
AgStar Financial Services did an organizational assessment in 2008, including a detailed questionnaire sent to employees. It is now in the process of forming a Diversity Council, consisting of 12 to 16 people from across the company. The Council’s first job will be to sort through the survey responses, which includes positive feedback on AgStar culture and suggestions on how to make it more inclusive, then develop an action plan.
The right approach to diversity and inclusion is imperative, says John Hemstock, VP of Human Resources at AgStar. “None of us wanted to pursue diversity and inclusion if it was just going to be the business initiative of the day,” he said. “Whatever we do has to be very authentic, real and lasting. It’s a patient process, you don’t want to rush through it.”
The majority of team members who went through initial training at AgStar said they learned a lot about diversity and, more importantly, inclusion, says Hemstock. “They understood that all of us at certain times have felt excluded, and it’s not simply about ethnicity and race, there are many dimensions to diversity, and there’s so much more we can do individually and collectively to really encourage and engage people, because we’re in an inclusive environment. And I think that gave a lot of positive energy to our initiative, especially among those who might have been a little skeptical about it,” he said.
AgStar has added a third dimension to diversity and inclusion: engagement. “For a decade, our employee surveys focused on satisfaction,” said Hemstock. “They now assess engagement, to say not only ‘do you choose to be here’, but ‘when you’re here are you fully engaged in the right kind of things to help drive your own performance to a higher level’. Throughout all of our materials we’ve made a strong connection between diversity and inclusion, plus that final piece of engagement, which most people really understand as an important business strategy.”
AgStar plans to focus its diversity, inclusion and engagement initiative internally through 2009. The organization celebrates a wide variety of national recognition months and publishes information about them in its company newsletter. “We’re trying to generate discussions around these topics. That’s key to growth within any organization,” said Hemstock.
Hemstock adds that in 2010 AgStar plans to shift focus more externally to the broader community and public relations, and then reach out to its clients in 2011. “In our geography we have a growing population that is Hispanic,” he said. “They have significant housing needs. They make those transactions differently than a traditional rural resident or ag producer. We have hired individuals in our home mortgage division who have Hispanic backgrounds, to better serve and connect with the Hispanic population. There is an under-served population, but we need to have expertise and knowledge in order to help.”
Hemstock encourages companies to think about things they’ve already done in their organizations that are related to diversity and inclusion, even though they didn’t come under that label. For example, he says, AgStar expanded sick leave policies to include parents, siblings and children, and for many years has offered floating holidays so people can celebrate personal, religious and ethnic holidays that are important to them. “It wasn’t under the umbrella of diversity and inclusion, it was just a good business decision,” said Hemstock. AgStar also held a series of generational workshops that preceded their diversity and inclusion efforts. “It makes perfect sense. If you think about a 30- or 40-year span between your youngest and oldest team members, there are tremendous generational differences that could be misinterpreted. And that’s detrimental to the work environment.”
AgriBank Embraces Culture Of Change
In July of 2008, AgriBank established a 9-person Diversity & Inclusion Council. It has hired an outside consultant to hold focus groups with employees, in order to get their views of where the Bank sits within the spectrum of diversity and inclusion, and what they would like to see changed. “It fits in with the Bank’s focus on process improvement and having a culture of change,” said Jones. “We’re trying to come up with a strategic plan, which would define where we are as an organization and what the opportunities are for us to improve, what do we do well, and what’s available out there to help us improve in terms of diversity and inclusion.”
The dynamics of rural America are changing, says Jones. People of many different ethnic backgrounds are moving to communities, working, acquiring assets and becoming borrowers. If Farm Credit stays with its primarily European and Caucasian roots, it will miss many opportunities. “The world is changing around us and Farm Credit is trying to position itself to be able to adapt to that change, and diversity and inclusion is related to that,” said Jones. “If you don’t have an inclusive environment, you’re not going to have a diverse environment. We can go out and hire people with diverse backgrounds, but if our culture is one that thinks everyone has to think the same way or come from a rural background, people aren’t going to stick around. Our focus is to create a culture within AgriBank that embraces inclusion and change and diversity.”
We’d like to hear about what you’re doing. If your association would like to share what you’re doing about Diversity and Inclusion, email Becca Yaklich (Becca.Yaklich@agribank.com).