Listen, speak, act: One CEO's playbook for inclusive cultures

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Listen. Speak. Act.

“When was the first time you knew you were different? What was that experience like?”

Clara Green, head of diversity and inclusion at Regions Bank, asked me this question as part of a series of companywide conversations designed to explore differences and similarities. I had been CEO for nearly six months and Clara had recently joined the bank — so this was new territory for everyone.

I do know what it’s like to feel different. My parents divorced when I was very young, and my brother and I were raised by my mother and grandmother.

Reflecting back as an adult, it’s remarkable to me now — my mother was in her late 20s, working and raising two young boys. In fact, she worked as a teller at Merchants National Bank, a predecessor to Regions. She is the one who encouraged me to consider a job in banking.

Fast-forward to that day on the stage with Clara. As a CEO, I’m accustomed to answering tough questions — and rightfully so — but this question about feeling different was personal and somewhat uncomfortable. Answering it required a different kind of leadership, something Clara and her team describe as operating in the “brave zone,” by leaning into discomfort and moving through it to spur productive change.

Over the past two years, our associates and community leaders have shared their unique and sometimes deeply personal stories. This builds a foundation based on first listening and understanding.

We’ve heard from Regions’ female leaders of different generations, associates who are members of the LGBTQ+ community and colleagues who immigrated to the United States. Recently, we’ve heard from associates through virtual forums share how discrimination, bias and racism have deeply impacted them.

I’ve left these conversations both humbled and proud of the courage and resilience of our team, and more personally invested in supporting all associates, especially those whose life experiences are significantly different than my own.

Listening is critically important. However, it is just the starting point.

We must listen with purpose — to understand, to grow and ultimately, to speak and act on what we’ve heard.

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During one of my market visits early on as CEO, a banker shared her disappointment and frustration with our family leave policy. Her willingness to speak up took courage, and was one of the catalysts for introducing additional paid family leave for parents.

We are also taking measurable steps to recruit and retain more diverse talent, particularly at the senior-manager level. For example, the Regions board is 42% diverse based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.

That is the result of prioritizing the recruitment of diverse directors and making specific policy changes. These actions are an important starting point, but our work is just beginning. Ultimately, we must create more opportunities at the senior leadership level for associates who reflect the diversity of the communities we serve.

This discipline of listening, speaking and acting has both powerful and practical implications. After the series of racial injustices America has seen this year, it was clear that as a company, we needed to speak and to act, not just listen.

Following George Floyd’s murder, I felt the need to speak directly to our associates about race, acknowledging my own uncertainty, discomfort and frustration. And I shared that message outside of the bank, first by publishing a letter on our website.

In the days that followed, Clara and I hosted widespread virtual listening tours meant to give teams an opportunity to share their perspectives, and to identify practical and meaningful actions the company could take to address racial injustice. Their feedback was direct, powerful and sobering.

The comfort level of associates to talk about these charged topics spoke to the solid foundation we have built, but it also revealed how much more we still need to do to advance equity at Regions and in the communities we serve. We came away from those discussions with three key commitments that we are making as an organization.

First, to continue building a culture of diversity and inclusion. Second, to achieve racial equity in talent development and progression. And third, to strengthen community partnerships.

We believe that we can most effectively address racial equity through the lens of economic empowerment, and have pledged $12 million over two years to support organizations focused on narrowing the racial wealth gap.

As with anything in our business, there is inherent risk. While our focus on diversity and inclusion has been broadly supported, there are still those who believe that companies should focus on business priorities and not social issues.

However, staying silent is the greater risk. Companies cannot effectively meet the needs of their customers, communities and associates if they are not willing to engage on issues that affect them.

We will continue to listen, speak and act.

John Turner’s BankThink post is a part of our annual Women in Banking series. Others featured in this series include U.S. Bank’s chief diversity officer, Greg Cunningham; On Deck Capital’s vice president of legal, Christin Spradley; and Grovetta Gardineer, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s senior deputy comptroller for bank supervision policy.

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Diversity and equality Gender discrimination Racial Bias Sexual orientation discrimination Employee communications Employee engagement Women in Banking