Building a Place Where We All Want to Work
June is Pride Month which is celebrated annually to honor the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. “The Stonewall Riots served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world,” reports History.com. This year — the 50th anniversary — is a particularly good time to pause and reflect on culture. We recently spoke with Shanis Windland, VMware Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, to get her perspective and insights on building companies where we all want to work.
Your previous roles were in finance and human resources (HR). How did you come into this position?
Shanis: I began my career as a certified public accountant. Eventually, I managed large accounting teams before moving to a broader role running all of finance for a gaming startup. In my last role, CFO at Heptio (now part of VMware), finance, HR, recruiting and other teams were in my purview. As employee number four at Heptio, I helped build the company and culture from the very beginning. That’s really my passion, building both companies and cultures.
I’m focused on building equity into the company’s fabric and ensuring all employees can be recognized and succeed.
For me, it’s an opportunity to keep helping VMware evolve and ensure all employees feel empowered in a culture where they can do their best work.
Inclusion and diversity are so often spoken about together. What’s the difference?
Shanis: Not my words, but this quote makes it easy to understand:
Diversity is who gets asked to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance while you’re there.
So, diversity includes all the different dimensions of your company population, while inclusion encompasses:
- Whether or not employees have opportunities to succeed.
- Whether others listen to them and consider their perspectives.
- Whether they get promoted at the same rates as others, making them equals.
It’s important to note that you can’t have a culture of inclusion without equity. We must first ensure fairness and equal opportunity before we can be truly inclusive.
When or how did you first discover inclusion and diversity were important to building company culture?
Shanis: I’ve spent my career working in technology companies, mostly startups. Often, I’ve been the only woman in the room or at the table. As I grew in my career, I realized that wasn’t acceptable to me. I had to start stepping up, speaking out and becoming an ally for others in the same position, including underrepresented minorities. My job as a leader is to bring new and different people to the table and to the room. I came to realize that when I gained experience and influence, my job was to use it to help others.
How does a company go about building or changing its culture?
Shanis: You have to be all-in when it comes to culture and you have to be intentional about what kind of environment you want to create. Your leadership and your employees have to agree on what makes the culture special and you have to promote those ideas.
For example, making sure employees and partners know:
- Your work is recognized.
- Your voice is heard.
- You belong.
- Talent is respected and promoted.
- You’ll be able to work on things that you find interesting and challenging.
- We are humble enough to listen and change.
Being intentional and being firm about what is and isn’t acceptable (and sticking to that) are important pieces of building a great culture.
Why are companies focusing more on diversity and inclusion?
Shanis: It’s about the business case. Employees bring different viewpoints, backgrounds and experiences to a company. They then challenge each other to build better products and a better place to work. When we actually represent the world around us in our workplaces, we’re going to build what the world needs and not just what I need or what you need. It’s a business imperative in competitive marketplaces to be our best and do our best work.
It is also about retaining the best and broadest possible pool of talent. Organizations cannot retain this talent without building a place where all employees can actually see themselves succeeding.
At VMware, we truly believe in the power of human difference. In building a company culture where everyone feels they belong, we know this will help propel VMware into the future.
What is your advice for organizations that want to foster a diverse and inclusive mindset and culture?
Shanis: Executives and managers need to have a personal commitment to make it successful. Employees know when management is truly bought in and when they aren’t, so that authentic commitment is really important. Having humble executives that listen, build trust and truly share their authentic stories goes a long way.
Employees today want to come to work and talk about their weekends, their dogs or cats or their kids and partners. They want to be themselves at work, and they want to know that is okay.
There’s some old-school thought that you don’t share details of your personal life at work. We have to convince those leaders that times have changed.
Employees want to integrate work and play. They want to feel connected, to feel like life inside and outside of work matters. They bring something unique to conversations. When an executive or manager isn’t authentic, the people working for that person aren’t going to believe the company cares—even if you have a diversity and inclusion program. My view is that the best next-generation companies will be both great at business and great at bringing out the best in humans.
Do you think there’s an ideal culture where everyone wants to work?
Shanis: No, there isn’t one ideal culture. In fact, some employees will experience their company differently than other employees. There should be a shared purpose, a shared vision and a set of values that everyone ascribes to. But other than that, each person will bring his or her own unique perspective, which fundamentally helps shape the culture.
For me, these are the basic building blocks of a great culture:
- Value diversity. People from different backgrounds with different experiences bring different perspectives. Their perspectives challenge current approaches, which helps build better companies.
- Practice transparency. Share information where possible (e.g., financial and product roadmaps). Employees not only deserve to know where time and money is spent, they gain context to make better day-to-day work decisions.
- Hire employees with values, skills and growth potential. Shared purpose and vision are more important business characteristics than a homogenous team.
- Listen and value input enough to make change. Talent that gives and receives honest feedback is important. So is being humble enough to embrace change based on input.
- Recognize people who contribute to the future. Companies that focus on providing growth opportunities and promoting from within build stronger cultures.
I also believe that building a great culture means we need employees who are willing to give their input. At some point, they have to decide, “This is a place I want to work.” Second, “This is a place I care enough to influence.” Then, all employees have to be brave about bringing what they believe are best practices and help put them into place.
Everyone benefits when you build the place you want to work.