Listening Is 'My Oxygen:' Advice for Advancing DE&I From a Boomerang Employee

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Sabrina Matthews

Photo courtesy of ZS.

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“I find my work is most rewarding when it involves challenge,” says Sabrina Matthews, who serves as the manager of the Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Center of Expertise at ZS. “Sometimes that challenge is about working with a great team to launch something that will make a big and visible impact. Other times, it's more nuanced and personal, like building trust that will make a future impact easier to achieve.”

This love of taking on new and exciting tasks, along with the great company culture at ZS, were key factors in why she returned to ZS after a period away from the company. In her case, Matthews was also in touch with many of her former ZSer colleagues, having formed strong connections during her time at the company.

“With so many ZSers having become friends over the years, I was able to tap those individuals for ideas and input as all our teams were responding to the many crises of 2020 and [sharing] opportunities to further help our organizations, team members and fellow citizens,” Matthews says. “During those discussions with ZS friends, I started hearing about the next level of initiatives ZS was embarking on. I felt I could contribute, and, as soon as I was offered a chance to help, I jumped at the opportunity.” 

Upon returning a little over a year ago, she was able to offer a different lens of experience to her role at ZS. In her current role, Matthews has worked to connect people, decisions and functions of the firm (including external partners) that create cultural and equitable impact for ZSers and ZS stakeholders. In the role, she uses her well-honed ability to make helpful differences while continuously learning and not losing sight of herself. “ZS offered me that opportunity — again,” Matthews remarks. “I’m grateful to be here working with and learning from ZSers more directly.”

We caught up with Matthews to learn more about her innovative work, advice for others interested in leadership and DE&I work and more about why she returned to ZS as a “boomerang hire”. Here’s what she had to say.

What’s your favorite aspect of ZS’s company culture, and how did it contribute to you returning to the company?

The way ZSers solve and think about problems is unique. Sometimes messy but always elevating to me. In many companies that I’ve worked for, there is a formal hierarchy of decision making. You ultimately know who must approve “the plan.” At ZS, the actual change cycle is the approval mechanism — i.e., the consideration of stakeholders impacted, the different points of view that deserve an explanation and input, the perception around a change and the accommodation of those affected. You must engage the network to get “approval.”

When I first joined ZS years ago in another role, it took time to get used to that. It felt like it took too much time and was far too nuanced for my normal approach to execution. However, this approach is so relevant to the types of change that equity and inclusion requires — listening to understand, considering different points of view and aligning to values. 

I am excited about using ZS’s approach and working with our people, stakeholders and partners to contribute in a way that will be impactful and sustainable for ZSers, while also reflecting values that are personally important to me. The amount I need to learn and do will be challenging; however, it’s a team sport, and I feel like I am on a fantastic team with the right resources and mindset.

What is your normal day-to-day life like at work?

Is there such a thing as a “normal day-to-day”? At work, also known as home office, my days can be drastically different — all that variety in one home office — but meetings are the constant. Most meetings fall into a few categories, including project status meetings, brainstorming meetings and listening meetings. The first two are critical for impact, but it’s the latter (the listening meetings) that I find most valuable for me as a human being doing this work.

When I can connect with a person, learn about their point of view, their experiences and try to understand their motivations, it helps validate (or critique) why I am here and what business I need to tend to for ZS and for the people who are a part of the ZS ecosystem. Outside of that, there are emails, spreadsheets, instant messages, project updates, clarifying communications and more. I think of those as my exhale. But, listening is where I get to inhale — oxygen for my purpose.

How did you go about establishing the DEI Center of Expertise team at ZS?

A lot of work was done by some great ZSers who were here before I returned to ZS, representing every level and role, including our DEI Council (led by COO Sandra Forero), our CHRO (Thiagi Suryanarayanan), our HR Engagement team (Carly Anderson and Kevin Gilmore), Avery Smith (the original DEI CoE team member) and so many others. As I benefited from their prior work and support, I worked on creating a vision of what a successful DEI team would do for ZS and what it should do for every ZSer. I did this through two steps:

  1. I drafted a vision and strategy that would illustrate what the experience journey candidates, team members and departing team members expected ZS to provide them based on our current culture and business norms. The intent was for it to be inclusive of all ZSers, but also to make visible the under-represented people normally hidden in aggregate.

  2. Then, I previewed that experience as a draft with a lot of different people, while continuing to adapt it on the fly, taking note of reactions and improving it based on their feedback. Of course, I went about the traditional work of building a team to meet the needs of the organization and its people. ZS leaders have supported and improved on everything our team has presented to them. However, the evolving vision meetings helped me figure out a lot about norms, current state, allies, partners, influencers and, most importantly, the needs of the people who bring their talents to ZS.

Also, in regards to establishing DEI initiatives in general. DEI-related initiatives are normally accepted by virtue of relevance, but, when you begin to implement those initiatives, they can bump into an assumption, belief or accepted norm. And, for a second, there is tension. But, if I can work with someone to explore that tension — really probe it with curiosity, not judgment — we all come away with an expanded perspective. Sometimes it means we must go about the work another way, a slower way, a harder way, but that experience almost always builds trust and can provide wisdom for now or the future.

What are the DEI Center of Expertise team goals in the following coming year?

Being a newly formed group within an organization that has already done DEI work through a variety of means, we are still formulating our space within the organization.

This year, our greatest contribution to DEI progress for ZS is adding an additional structure to the way we invest, plan, execute and measure DEI progress. We want to give our DEI efforts the same rigor as our other business planning — accountability, measurement, prioritization and communication of progress and opportunities. One key goal is to create that plan, which may span several years from now, on what ZS will accomplish, what roles ZSers will play and what evidence they will see as we achieve this.

For other people looking to improve inclusion and diversity efforts in their companies, what advice would you give to them?

Listen to your people. Constantly. Share what you are doing, and listen some more. You may not be able to respond to everything you hear or give a good answer to a good question — that’s the real uncomfortable conversation — but listen anyway. Internal engagement surveys and exit interviews are rich with what people want. 

ERGs (we call them IDGs at ZS and we have some great ones who push for the best) are ripe with expectations and innovation. Prioritize knowing what THEY say and are experiencing. Acknowledge it. Be honest if you cannot do something (yet) or if you don’t feel comfortable or knowledgeable, and use that to have a conversation on what is possible. 

I have seen companies clamor for input from all kinds of experts about how to respond to certain needs and what are the best practices to implement. But, it’s a shame if all this time and effort is invested if the people who brought their time and talents to your company never got what they want or even had a chance to discuss it.

What is your No. 1 piece of advice for other women who are moving into or want to move into leadership?

I have advice but also a disclaimer: I am a single Black woman from Macon, Georgia, who goes by she/her/hers/they/them, a middle child, a Baptist, etc. This advice I have is only proven to work for me. You’ve been warned, but here it goes.

You must visualize the best version of yourself — how that person shows up, listens, cares, commands, communicates, contributes, attracts, collaborates and accommodates — and then give that person permission to be in every space you occupy. If you feel undervalued in a space, perhaps you brought the wrong version of you. If you feel too big for a space, perhaps you brought the wrong version or need better spaces. You have to know that your best is what YOU deserve to have with you at all times. It’s taken me a while to refine that belief and a bit longer to live by it.


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