Can a straight, white man lead D&I? 👀
And more with Tamer Zikry (Intertrust Group).
I just wanted to drop a quick note before you continue reading: You might have noticed I’ve been posting less frequently over the past few weeks. Due to some major life changes (all positive, don’t worry), I won’t be able to write as regularly from now on. So going forward, you’ll probably hear from me every two to four weeks instead of every week.
The After Party is still a huge passion project for me and an important way to continue learning about all things DEI. I hope it is for you as well and I’m so grateful that you continue to join me on the ride.
Always your ally,
– Sophie 💜
For Tamer Zikry, Global Head of Talent, Diversity & Inclusion at Intertrust Group, inclusion is about being able to bring your full self to work. As a gay man from the Middle East, Tamer reflects on his personal journey and how he got into the diversity & inclusion (D&I) space:
Being from the Middle East and homosexual, it was not a steady, simple, easy thing. I used to work for large, global multinationals in the region and I was not able to bring my full self to work. It was something that I actually had to actively hide and try to avoid getting exposed. It did have an impact and was a big part of why I looked for opportunities to leave the region and work abroad. Now, I’ve been based in Europe for years and I think that is where my passion for D&I came from.
At Intertrust Group, a trust and corporate management company with around 4,000 employees, Tamer is responsible for building initiatives that attract – and retain – the best people for Intertrust Group. Before Intertrust Group, Tamer worked in HR at AkzoNobel.
The Case for D&I
D&I was not originally part of Tamer’s agenda when he joined Intertrust Group. But, as he started to set up Employee Resource Groups and other initiatives, it became a natural part of his work. He explains, “The leadership at Intertrust Group recognized the need for more focus and asked me to continue driving D&I in a more formal capacity.”
It’s no secret that D&I is becoming increasingly important to attract talent – especially young people. I don’t know about you, but if I’m looking for a job and I see that the company leadership looks like this…
…I’m 97% less likely to submit a job application.1 (That’s Mercer’s Board of Directors in case you were wondering).
Tamer makes the same observation (unrelated to Mercer):
The way people interact with work today is different. The newer generation looks at work as a time and place where they actually spend a good number of hours, so they want to make sure they’re enjoying it. They’re thinking, “I’m bringing my full self to work. It’s something that I look forward to.”
Diversity & Inclusion has just become one of the things that a company needs to ensure it has a full focus on – first of all, to attract, but also to retain the best people who represent the current reality of the world. That’s one angle to it. The other angle is that diversity means so many different viewpoints are being brought into this one big pot. Everyone’s coming together to create a company that is more than the sum of its individual parts. That’s definitely something we see at Intertrust Group. Our clients are diverse so when we have diverse people, we do better at serving our clients.
As the Global Head of Talent, Diversity & Inclusion, Tamer is in a unique position to not only manage diversity & inclusion, but also talent. Essentially, it’s Tamer’s job to make sure Intertrust Group is hiring the best people for the company.
How does he do this, you ask?
One way is through conducting extensive talent management reviews, where he and the team reflect on the state of talent at Intertrust Group with questions like:
What are the critical roles in Intertrust Group? Who are the incumbents and successors for these roles?
How many women do we have in the current incumbent team? How many women do we have in the succession pipeline?
How many people within the succession pool come from a non-Western background or from a non-Caucasian background?
Tamer says, “It’s really trying to use that lens in every conversation and every review and ask, ‘Do we have enough diversity in this pipeline?’”
Another initiative Tamer personally introduced is a Talent Council, where critical roles must undergo extra scrutiny. Tamer explains:
It won’t just be the hiring manager sitting there and deciding who to hire for this role. In critical roles, we want to see more diversity impact. The Council will come and say, “Which candidates did you consider? Why were these candidates your preferred candidates?” It’s one thing to put people on a list. It’s another to actually question the process and make sure we’re really considering diverse candidates.
Finally, Tamer works on tackling the ultimate culprit in any hiring process: bias. All managers and employees at Intertrust Group are put through mandatory unconscious bias training in an effort to professionalize the process and ensure that hiring decisions are made according to objective criteria of competence and capabilities – leaving little space for bias as a result.
There’s been a lot of hubbub about unconscious bias training, but Tamer doesn't shy away from this:
We’re trying to build a process that’s a little more robust, where there are objective elements. Is it a perfect process? No. Is it consistent with everyone? No. It’s a journey that we’re trying to build. It’s going to take us some time to get completely there, but what we’ve done and what we’re going to continue doing is making sure everyone is aware of their biases.
D&I Initiatives at Intertrust Group
Besides talent management, Tamir also leads a variety of initiatives around diversity & inclusion – from programs that increase women referrals in an effort to achieve gender balance to analyzing engagement surveys to determine employee perception on various topics.
Something that stood out to me when we spoke was the sheer number of events and opportunities employees at Intertrust Group get, exposing them to new perspectives and life experiences. Tamer says:
We decided to use the pandemic as an opportunity. That opportunity means we can run a lot more online events that bring the whole global company together to discuss issues or celebrate the differences we have.
For a company-wide Pride event, for example, Tamer brought in a trans woman from Thailand to share her experience, as well as Mr. Gay India to talk about what it’s like being gay in India. For Black History Month, the company had a session with someone from South Africa to talk about apartheid. Another event spotlighted Black Broadway in Washington, showing how black communities have developed new art forms for speaking up against oppression.
During celebrations or “awareness days” like Pride Month, Hispanic History Month, Diwali, or Lunar New Year, my (and I’m sure your) social media feeds are often filled with nice words and platitudes from organizations around the world. Unfortunately, most of these companies don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to actually proving their support of marginalized communities (#performativeDEI).
I appreciate that Tamer uses these events as opportunities to bring the whole organization together to learn, discover new ideas and experiences, and engage with one another.
What we’re doing is going out of our way to say these are all differences that we want to celebrate. We are organizing events, bringing in speakers, highlighting role models, and being explicit – rather than just saying, “Everyone is welcome.” We actually educate everyone about those differences, rather than just talk about them.
The Best Way to Build Inclusion: Grassroots vs. Top-Down
Tamer tells me one of the major challenges he faces in working in D&I is figuring out how to embed it in the core culture of the company:
I’ve never had problems getting executive or senior support. But, what you do in the D&I space is grassroots because if you come and try and do a lot of it top-down, it becomes a little prescriptive. Rather, what I hope for is that our D&I programs happen in a way where people are going out and feeling empowered to establish their own initiatives or raise their voices or help other people feel that they can bring their full selves to work.
It’s about creating a grassroots feeling that goes beyond the D&I area. It’s about creating an overall culture in the company where everyone is empowered to drive what they think is right and what they think is important to them.
The idea of building an inclusive culture from a grassroots level might sound empowering – but a lot of D&I work isn’t glamorous or “sexy.” A lot of it can actually be pretty tedious, like something as simple as finding the right platform to connect employees or choosing which magazines are displayed in the reception area. It’s the little things that count.
Can a Straight, White Man Lead D&I?
When I look for D&I professionals to interview for The After Party, most of them are women. Tamer was the first man I interviewed working in this role. So, I was hesitant to ask him this question:
Can a straight, white man be the Head of D&I?
Tamer answered quickly and firmly:
Yes. I don’t think a straight, white man cannot understand the need for D&I, but I think what happens is that it requires a lot of empathy because you need to understand that our definition of diversity is getting more and more complex every day. Not one single person – regardless of their background – will have an understanding of every single piece of diversity that exists out there.
While we typically see few straight, white men in these roles, Tamer adds that his boss – who is very much pushing for the D&I agenda at Intertrust Group – is a straight, white man.
In all honesty, I’m still grappling with whether or not having a white man lead D&I diminishes the objectives of D&I, but at the same time, who knows what he has experienced and what his core beliefs are? I’m half-white, half-Asian but I look 100% white. No really, look at me:
If people ever saw me on the Board of Directors on some company’s website someday (which you will2), I hope they would give me the benefit of the doubt and not assume I was a random white woman.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you look like; it matters what you bring to the table. As Tamer puts it:
What you really need for a D&I role is the ability to empathize. This is the core requirement, but you also need an ability to influence stakeholders, organize, and rally people around your ideas, because D&I is seldom the core of any company’s business. It’s always on the side. So, how can you make sure that everyone gets the message and everyone comes on board? You also need to be a bit of a marketer in that way.
Become an Activist
If you’re interested in D&I, Tamer’s biggest advice is to find a way to drive it within your organization, regardless of whether you’re in a formal role in D&I or HR:
I think D&I is something to really take an activist approach toward – not in the sense of becoming disruptive, but activism in the sense that you can actually drive it on your own and you can go out and connect to different stakeholders in the company to give you support.
So, my biggest advice is don’t wait to be given a formal role to drive D&I. That’s how I did it in my previous roles. I was never a D&I professional before I started working in D&I.
The Takeaways 📌
If you have just a smidgen of influence in your company’s hiring process, try to actively and continuously examine your talent pool. How diverse is the pipeline? Why are you getting more male applicants for certain roles and more women for others?
For the next International Women’s Day or whatever the celebration is, challenge yourself to offer something different to your team or organization. How can you share new perspectives with your colleagues?
Grassroots work is more effective than top-down approaches, where employees feel empowered to create their own D&I initiatives and co-own the D&I space.
It doesn’t matter what you look like if you want to work in D&I. It matters whether you have key skills like empathy, stakeholder management, and communication, to navigate the complex work D&I requires.
Don’t wait to be given a formal role in D&I. Start driving change yourself. (Excuse the shameless plug, but a friend of mine recently launched a fabulous new online course on Positive Workplace Activism. Check it out!)
Further Reading: Recommendations from Tamer
Corporate Advocacy for LGBT+ Rights: A call to action (Workplace Pride, IBM)
Gender DEI research (Catalyst)
The other 3% is if I’m uber desperate and willing to sell my soul at that moment.
I’m manifesting, please excuse me 🙏