Meet Tracey Walker, national culture, diversity and inclusion leader
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION |
In January 2021, our Managing Partner and CEO Joe Adams named Tracey Walker as our national leader of culture, diversity and inclusion (CDI), effective May 1, 2021, replacing Rich Caturano, former chairman of the AICPA and founder of RSM’s CDI program. We recently sat down with Tracey to learn more about her and her plans for CDI at RSM. Check out the Q&A below for highlights from that conversation.
I began my career in public accounting, moved into policy and government affairs for several years, and then returned to accounting to work with RSM in 2005. I started in Chicago, working for a regional firm, where I ultimately became director of client relations. I worked with the firm’s 27 partners in their respective industries, designing strategies to expand relationships and the firm’s footprint with key clients. This included a number of prominent financial institutions, and a significant focus on the largest clients who held vast and diversified interests; owners of sports, wholesale and franchise businesses, for instance.
My career changed when I was asked by the managing partner to assist one of our more well-known clients with a political issue involving a diverse group of Southside businesses, and I helped those companies form a coalition to pass legislation which favored our client. So, my career as an Illinois state lobbyist was borne. I was then recruited by a multi-national firm to work on Capitol Hill and a number of policy issues there. I relocated to Washington, D.C., and after five years as a federal lobbyist, and working on policy issues in multiple states, I came back to public accounting and joined RSM.
How did you get into working in the diversity and inclusion space? What about diversity and inclusion spoke to you?
Leveraging my government background, I was leading federal sector financial services clients at RSM when I was invited by Rich Caturano, a pioneer for raising the diversity and inclusion consciousness of the accounting profession, to help design and launch RSM’s diversity effort. The invitation spoke to me because of my mother. She was a television executive, and throughout my youth, she was always very conscious of how people of color were represented.
Our family history was inspiring and our Chicago home was always filled with diverse perspectives. Family friends were business leaders, lawmakers, athletes, people from news and entertainment – she had a diverse circle of friends. All of their conversations gravitated to how to achieve better unity and progress in the city which, at that time, was very divided politically – not unlike today. So, from an early age I became aware of differences and appreciated the unique assets and perspective that each of us brings. Also, in my early education, I was often the only person of color – or one of a few – in my environment. So, l quickly learned how to find commonality and build relationships.
As an adult, my graduate work on organizational behavior and change management helped me understand the methods and practices organizations can deploy to go from good to even greater behaviors that result in an inclusive culture. Teams where people feel that they belong outperform their peers, and these fundamentals are actually good for business. When I was invited to support RSM’s inclusion efforts by Rich, I was honored. Serving with him to build CDI has been an enlightening professional and personal experience. The progress is inspiring. It’s truly been a pleasure.
RSM has been focused on inclusion for a while. Why is that so important to the firm, its people and the community?
As far as the profession is concerned, the Center for Audit Quality (CAQ) and the AICPA have asked all firms to increase representation and to take bold steps to attract and retain accounting graduates from underrepresented groups. The top five to seven firms in particular (including RSM) are focused on doubling their representation, which means recruiting has become increasingly competitive, and retention is even more essential to each firm’s, and ultimately our profession’s, success.
From the global and client perspectives, the world is changing demographically and there is an expectation that firms will have mature diversity, equity and inclusion programming, reflecting their clients and our marketplace.
I serve on the RSM Global task force to help RSM become a more culturally effective business. It is a priority across the organization worldwide. How we relate to each other, how we coach, mentor, provide feedback and how we work to ensure our entire team succeeds must be approached with intention, and creating inclusive workplaces where people feel welcomed and appreciated equitably – in other words, places where people want to work – is our differentiator.
For the coming year, one CDI focus area is on continuing to help leaders understand the importance of diversity and inclusion, its relevance to them and how they contribute to the firm’s success in this area. Feedback from our people and other data show that RSM is a powerful, positive, people-focused organization. And while we’ve made great progress on inclusion, we realize there is much work that remains. We are up for the challenge.
While your new position as RSM’s leader for culture, diversity and inclusion is effective May 1, 2021, you’ve been a part of the firm’s CDI team for a few years. Tell us a bit about that. What has been your role to date and how do you see that changing, given your new role?
RSM’s CDI program began in 2013 with a focus group envisioning how RSM would set up a successful CDI effort. I was privileged to be a part of that, along with a great team of high-performing and dedicated RSM professionals. Initially, I was in a hybrid external and internal client-facing role leading the RSM federal financial sector, when Rich and I worked to design the construct for inclusion practices, programming and establishing our employee network group (ENG) and Inclusion Council frameworks. Today, we know that if we make progress in six critical areas, we will significantly change outcomes for the better for the firm. Our six-step strategy includes:
Employee network group (ENG) engagement – Engaging our people from all backgrounds through ENGs to not only be the first-choice advisor to the middle market, but to also be the first-choice employer for underrepresented groups.
Diverse recruiting – Focusing on expanding representation and diverse talent acquisition strategies.
Enterprise inclusion policy – Maturing policies and processes to ensure understanding and equity across the enterprise.
Inclusion education – Offering experiences and exposure for our people to increase their CDI awareness and competencies through learning and professional development.
Line of business and business integration – Equipping our leaders and line of business teams to ensure that inclusion is woven into everything that we do; driving a superior, sustainable experience for our people that includes a focus on the retention of underrepresented professionals.
Metrics and measure – Measuring our journey and sharing CDI progress through our annual diversity report. (You can find our first-ever report here.)
My work as a leader is to ensure we are driving strategically toward this mission, both internally and externally, listening to the needs of our underrepresented groups, bringing people into the discussion around the practice of inclusion and helping shape RSM as an inclusive organization. As we have learned (particularly throughout the pandemic with the COVID-19 disparities and increasing racial tensions), our culture, its diversity and inclusion are a value add to all aspects of our business. It’s exciting to see the consciousness rise, along with the intention of our business leaders, not to mention the recognitions we regularly receive for RSM’s commitment to inclusion – from clients and from our people. Now, we work to continue that focus, making it sustainable over the long term.
I’m fortunate to have one of the best teams within RSM and I am grateful for the unique skills and perspectives each brings to the team. One project manager has a deep understanding of inclusion execution and another whose learning and professional development background helps shape our efforts around diverse professional organizations, scholarships and external partnerships. A sharp project management professional focuses on our alumni and market-facing partnerships and another helps our ENGs execute their project plans and missions. One team member focuses on supporting external leadership activities while our support person serves as the glue who holds our national CDI team together.
We also have an engaged group of national and regional leaders, as well as CDI champions across the U.S. and in Canada, and hundreds of others who play a part in CDI across the firm. It is an extraordinary synchronized effort, and when we factor in RSM’s global offices, it can literally be around-the-time-zone-clock on some days. The team is committed, cohesive and talented – and very much appreciated.
I am proud that inclusion is what we stand for as a firm and that we are using it as first-choice advisors to drive success globally – for our clients and for our firm. We have achieved many milestones and awards, large and small, along our journey, for which I’m grateful.
Our racial understanding efforts during difficult times were a bridge to progress. However, three things, in particular, stand out.
The first that comes to mind for me personally is seeing the people I’ve been privileged to mentor succeed and be actively engaged – many have become owners and are in leadership roles in the work around inclusion.
The second thing related specifically to CDI is that we grew from 11 national ENG leaders to a strategic inclusion program that now engages more than 7,000 people across the U.S. and in Canada. While some of our peers in the profession report 20% leader participation, RSM has more than 80% of our owners engaged in CDI and committed to inclusion. This results from original inclusion learning design, applying leading practices and the work and commitment of many. The testimonials from leaders who have begun to think differently, and appreciation from our people who are proud to work for a firm committed to inclusion, encourage continued progress.
Lastly, the invitations I’ve received to serve on external and internal think tanks, commissions, boards, academic panels, peer panels, etc., have allowed extraordinary learning and collaboration and, most importantly, have given RSM a voice in shaping more equitable and inclusive outcomes – for our firm, our profession, our clients and our communities.
The seemingly never-ending obstacle course of 2020 was filled with highs, lows and everything in between — from a landmark ruling for LGBT+ workers, to an international awakening to systemic racism and call for change, hate crimes and violence, a polarizing political environment and a global pandemic that has impacted lives around the globe. As we face a future more unpredictable than ever before, one thing remains certain: the business case for culture, diversity and inclusion is stronger than ever.
Not everyone fully embraces inclusion before, or maybe until, they’ve had an experience or personal exposure to the value of diversity, the benefits of inclusion and the benefits of an equitable culture.
I’m encouraged every day by the courageous conversations I have with people across the firm who have differing views, many seeking clarification and understanding, and some of whom sometimes challenge the firm’s commitment in the spirit of continuous improvement. These conversations result in learning. To achieve innovative solutions, we need high-performing diverse points of view, perspectives and representation to which all are committed – especially our leaders. As our CEO and Managing Partner Joe Adams says, “CDI is here to stay.” And learning is an important step in the process.
CDI will mature from an understanding and application phase, into integration of inclusive behaviors in everything we do as a firm. Ultimately, we move to the most mature phase of sustainability: living and reinforcing the behaviors and mindset that results in low turnover, high retention, attracting top talent and enhanced client demand for RSM. Executing on our six priorities [mentioned previously in this Q&A] will help us accomplish significant milestones. As the representation of people of color and women leaders increases, we will be a more culturally dexterous organization, focused on retention of all of our high-performing people. Collaboration with line of business leaders, human resources, communications and other internal and external stakeholders, will help make these outcomes permanent.
And as our leaders become increasingly skilled and comfortable with these conversations, our metrics will continue to improve. A combination of short- and long-term priorities will continue to move us forward.
On a related note, we have also begun offering a management consulting service of diversity and inclusion advisory, as client demand continues to grow. I am thrilled to work with RSM consulting teams and others to embed inclusion deeper into our client service offerings.
RSM has 12 employee network groups (ENGs). Tell us a bit about those groups. How do they work? What do they do? Why are they such an important part of RSM’s CDI strategy?
The sense of belonging which yields so many positive business outcomes and advantages begins with a connection to people. Sometimes those connections are formed naturally. More recently, particularly since the outset of COVID-19 forced so many of us to work remotely, organizational interventions have helped this along.
Our ENGs offer 12 specific opportunities for our people to engage with each other around common interests. Throughout the pandemic, people have relied on their ENGs for a safe space to discuss and learn, to bond and share, and to find support. Feedback from our people shows that many of them stay with RSM because of the culture, the people and the connections they have.
Our employee network groups are essential to helping create a workplace where our 5 C’s – the five characteristics of a first-choice advisor: Caring, Curious, Collaborative, Courageous Critical thinkers – are embraced.
Our leaders have benefited from interacting with our people in new ways through our ENGs. Through these groups, relationships are formed, inclusion can be practiced and learning can occur. And where there’s learning, there is growth.
RSM’s ENGs focus on building a sense of belonging among the firm’s people, and on encouraging allyship. What role do allies play in inclusion, and how can people become allies?
First, for those who might not be familiar with the term, allies are individuals who unite themselves with others to promote individual and common interests where everyone benefits. People’s commitment to an organization (including RSM) depends largely on their relationships with their immediate managers and other allies from across the organization. Authentic, positive relationships with allies drive retention.
Two mistakes people make when considering inclusion are: (1) feeling that they have to be a minority to have a meaningful place in the discussion around change, and (2) feeling that only people in their affinity group can help define outcomes. On the contrary. We often hear from our underrepresented groups that allies have made all the difference in their career success. Wharton studies show that allyship – or the lack thereof – determines how people feel about a firm, and whether they feel welcome and have a sense of belonging. Fifty-eight percent say it’s why they stay with an organization. Everyone at RSM has a role to play in our inclusive culture.
Our ENGs provide a tremendous opportunity for leaders – those with and those without a specific affinity – to learn and to build cultural dexterity while making a positive difference for our people, our firm and ultimately our clients.
Inclusion doesn’t mean asking everyone to fit into historic systems that might divide us but, instead, transforming these systems to be better for everyone. To face unique challenges, organizations (including RSM) need unique thinking – the kind that only comes with truly diverse teams — whether in perspective, experience, age, gender, sexuality and race or otherwise. Firms with above-average diversity report nearly 20% higher revenue due to innovation. Getting inclusion right can mean that an organization is 40% more likely to expand market share and 70% more likely to add new markets. But it’s in embracing the diversity of our people that an organization can go from good to great.
The driving motivators for RSM’s CDI effectiveness aren’t solely focused on performance metrics, but rather the desire to make our people feel represented, understood, respected and valued. We are working to increase diversity at every level at RSM, and to cultivate a culture in which diverse voices are heard.
There is a well-known business fable about geese flying in formation. When all are supported and flying in alignment, the wind lifts the group and they get to their destination faster. They don’t let others fail or fall behind. Some instinctively put in extra time to ensure they all reach their destination and accomplish their shared mission. Similarly, having all of our people feel as if they are treated equitably and that they belong at RSM accelerates our mission.
We can achieve the exponential benefit that inclusion brings. Small inclusive actions matter, and everyone taking action matters. Together, we can achieve a sustainable inclusive culture for everyone.