The Hartford’s innovative leadership development program helps both participants and managers enhance their leadership skills and create an inclusive environment for all. It's well established that corporate America, including the financial services industry, lacks diversity in management.
People of Color are hired less frequently, experience lower promotion rates and voluntarily leave at higher rates in most financial institutions. And, when organizations do engage in diversity initiatives, they often focus on “fixing People of Color” as if they are the primary problem.
The Hartford has long had a distinct culture that supports employees at all levels. The organization develops innovative programs to create a strong employee experience. Its EMPOWER program is one example of this commitment. The four-month initiative piloted last summer. It’s a unique program to help both program participants – top talent People of Color – and their managers enhance their leadership skills. Each group works on a variety of personal and business experiences to build their skills and awareness of creating an inclusive environment for all. They recently shared with Fairygodboss the experiences of one participant and her manager.
Enterprise Leadership Training with a Difference
The pilot program included over 60 participants. It focused on the experiences of People of Color at The Hartford, inspiring them to reach their full potential. “I was floored by my invitation to the EMPOWER program because participants were handpicked, not selected randomly,” enthuses Kemya Sutton, who maintained her excitement throughout the program. Kemya is a manager in Small Business Operations. She’s been at The Hartford for three years and has 22 years of operations industry experience. She and the other leaders worked on business projects through EMPOWER that will prepare them for their next level of leadership. At the same time, they gained important insights from senior leaders.
But it's the manager journey that distinguishes EMPOWER from other enterprise leadership development programs. Managers learn how to improve their inclusive leadership skills and how to support emerging Leaders of Color in their rise to senior leadership. Kemya’s manager, Alan Nilsson, also took part in EMPOWER. A 25-year employee of The Hartford, Alan manages Kemya and seven other leaders in Small Commercial Operations. His passion for the program shows when he talks about his experience. “I learned so much about myself and Kemya in this program, particularly how she experienced me as a White leader,” he shared. “I learned not only how to support Kemya and other Employees of Color across the organization, but how to be a better manager to all those I lead.”
Participants and Managers Unpack Implicit Bias Together
Incorporating their managers into the program was key, Kemya says. It allowed managers and participants to:
Work through their discomfort
Talk through their biases
Create an action plan to work together on overcoming them
For Kemya and Alan, it was an important way to break down barriers with each other, in particular on the double-bind of race and gender that Women of Color face. “Women of Color, historically and even current day, have had no choice than to be ever-so precise in our speech, our movement, our presence – our very existence – in the workplace,” Kemya reflects. “As a participant of the EMPOWER Program, I was provided a safe space to share and discuss such personal experiences. I found them to be common denominators with my peers in the program. And, through similar dialogue with our directors, we created a learning experience that would allow for heightened transparency.”
Alan also says that the program ultimately changed his leadership style and made him a more supportive leader. He learned how Kemya and other People of Color may perceive his actions and leadership style differently. He now has a better awareness of how he interacts with Kemya, other People of Color and the rest of his team. “Through these admittedly uncomfortable conversations, I had to look deeply into myself and become aware of biases I didn't know I had,” he explains. “I wasn't as aware as I could have been about the struggles Women of Color, like Kemya, face every day navigating corporate America.”
Kemya also feels EMPOWER has transformed her leadership style. “I am intentional to apply what I learned as a participant of EMPOWER as I am leading my team, by having open dialogue about bias,” she declares. “If I'm uncomfortable about my experiences as it relates to biases, it is very likely that someone else may be feeling that way as well.”
Becoming More Confident in Courageous Conversations
Both leaders say EMPOWER helped them feel more self-assured in interactions with one another and others in the organization. Kemya says she saw few People of Color in leadership at The Hartford before coming to the firm. But now she feels the company wants to make real change in that area. And she sees EMPOWER as part of its evolution. “The EMPOWER program was birthed as a result of our CEO and senior leaders recognizing a genuine need to improve upon diversity, truly defining us as a company that really embraces everyone,” she states.
Kemya says she’s always brought her full self to work, but she applauds the program stating, “it allows me to bring even more of my true authentic self to work.” She also feels that she can encourage her team to do the same without reservations about how they present their authentic selves. She adds, “I don't feel the need to be so careful, to tread so lightly” in interactions with others. But Kemya also learned that Alan had the same reservations about his interactions. “When I had to discuss sensitive issues around diversity, I was hesitant,” Alan says. “I feared I'd say the wrong thing,” recognizing that only caused more tension. “But, because of EMPOWER, I feel more confident. Now, even if I don't express things quite right, at least we can discuss how I can get it right in the future.”
Both say they feel less defensive about those conversations. They’re both working with their teams and others at leadership levels to do the same. “We are now able to present our true selves in our discussions,” Kemya says. “However, we both also realize the fact that there is still work to do.”
Continuing the Process
Alan and Kemya expect to continue the process well beyond the training they got through EMPOWER. “The program has ended, but the work continues,” says Kemya. “Understanding that this is not just a check-the-box exercise, I view EMPOWER as an ongoing program that's more intentional about embracing diversity and inclusivity. And she’ll have the chance to continue developing. With a better understanding of her full capabilities, Alan has included her in a project to develop enhanced features on The Hartford’s website. This will directly impact customer experience and give her leadership visibility. Alan believes EMPOWER doesn't just help Kemya and People of Color in the organization. “It also helps me get leadership right and to become better if I help her.” He says, “Not only do I continue to change the way I approach things, I help others change how they approach things. We're all here to be successful, and if Kemya becomes more successful, that makes me more successful and The Hartford more successful.”
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