‘No Step Is Too Small’: Why You Should Start Your Allyship Journey Today

Sponsored by ZS

Mike Jakymiw

Photo courtesy of ZS.

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Fairygodboss
May 20, 2024 at 2:14AM UTC

The path to becoming a real ally, not just a performative ally, isn’t always simple and direct — it’s a journey full of learning opportunities and growth. For example, Mike Jakymiw, a principal at ZS, remembers a moment when he was telling his wife about his involvement in ZS’s women’s leadership program… while she was folding laundry. “She called me out on the irony of the situation, her handling household chores in a traditional gender role while I’m talking about helping bridge the gender gap at work. It’s now a regular reminder to scan for how I can help take action and not just talk,” recalled Jakymiw.

 “As an office leader, I shared this story at a forum so others could learn from my lack of awareness. It’s helped our teams reflect on which aspects of the office are on ‘auto-pilot’ — getting done by specific people or groups — when, in reality, the responsibilities should be shared by all.” 

Thinking critically about being an ally, and helping others do the same, is an important part of Jakymiw’s day-to-day job and one of the three hats he wears at the company: 

  1. A client-facing principal for multiple clients in the Chicago area. 

  1. The office-managing principal for ZS’s Evanston office. 

  1. The global ally co-chair for their Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI). 

As an ally, Jakymiw seeks to engage others as champions for women at the organization and in his daily life. “I have been delighted to see the overwhelming response to our allyship program from our men across ZS” he said. “When our leaders learn there’s more they can do to hold true to that value, they’re all in.”  

This comes as no surprise, because one of ZS’s defining values is treating people right. “We’re used to helping our clients disrupt their business and patterns in order to achieve a better future,” said Jakymiw.  

As part of the company’s core value to treat people right, ZS hosts an innovative program called Empowering Allies and Champions (EACH). EACH explores how men and other ZSers can more effectively operate as allies for women in the workplace. And, through the program, allies are able to see how “seemingly small acts are making a real difference in how supported our women feel,” said Jakymiw. 

We reached out to learn more about Jakymiw’s experience growing as an ally, his guidance on how others can get involved in allyship work and ZS’s innovative allyship program. Here’s what Mike shared with us, in his own words.  

The basics of real allyship

What is an ally? 

An ally is someone who uses their power, privilege, voice and actions to support an underrepresented group. For example, one of our male allies started counting the number of times people were interrupted in meetings, and observed his female colleague getting interrupted three times as often as male team members. In a productive manner, he educated the team about the implications of interrupting others, and they changed their behavior. 

How can allies support their colleagues without being simply performative? 

The most important thing is to show support through your actions, especially when no one is watching. It’s great to talk about how to support women in front of a large group of people. It’s a different thing to help a single person in a tough situation when no one will ever know that you stepped in.  

What do you do in your daily work life (and beyond) to serve as an ally? 

The most regular thing I do is simply participate. As an office leader, taking the time to attend events, listen and engage in discussion is a big first step in building a caring and supportive community.  

My leadership role in our Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) and participation in Forte’s Inclusive Leadership program have really opened my eyes to assumptions and blind spots. In fact, in a recent conversation, our PRIDE group leader said that psychological safety underpins all of our inclusion efforts. Our WLI Global Lead added that this was a big theme during the recent Fairygodboss Galvanize conference.

 Recognizing a knowledge gap on my part, I asked our PRIDE group leader what psychological safety really means for our colleagues, including ZSers who are LGBTQIA+, and women, and how small actions can accumulate over time to make people feel “othered.” I find that at every turn, I can get curious and open the door to conversations like this. Conversations help us understand what’s really happening with our people, both inside and outside ZS.   

What is your best advice for other people who want to be better allies? 

Start today. Many potential allies are nervous that they may not know what to do or trip up along the way. That’s part of the journey. But you can’t start without taking that first step, and no step is too small. 

Encouraging actual allyship at ZS

Tell us more about the ZS gender-focused allyship programs. 

Our WLI Allies group is currently focused on expanding our network of allies, with the EACH program playing a big part. Our allies impact change by supporting the various programs organized by the WLI and being an advocating voice in all settings.  

Could you tell us more about EACH? 

Through our partnership with the Forte Foundation, we implemented this program as a targeted, intimate way for key leaders across ZS to improve their understanding of what it takes to be an ally. Over six weeks, participants go through a four-part cycle, where they evaluate their current beliefs, educate themselves on our women’s experiences (or any ally group’s experience), engage in creating solutions and then use their power and privilege to elevate individuals and communities.    

We’ve heard participants say:  

“It was one of the most eye-opening journeys I've experienced professionally.”  

“This program helped me move from vague notions, to awareness, to intention—and ultimately to action.”  

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An overview of the EACH program. Image courtesy of ZS and sourced from Forte’s Men as Allies Program. 

What can other companies learn from how ZS handles Allyship? 

While our culture has inherently supported allyship, formalizing it has heightened awareness and improved our impact. 

There are a few things that have created a tremendous impact at ZS. The first was inviting men into the leadership teams for WLI — both at the global and local levels. We started doing this in 2018, and it shifted conversations, giving our male leaders a taste of what it feels like to be in a group where they’re outnumbered. There’s a common refrain we hear from our senior leaders who have attended our Global WLI Executive Summit: “This was an eye-opening experience for me. I had to really think about where to sit, what to say and even how to act. I’m starting to understand what it feels like to be in the minority.”  

Another change that surprised many women leaders in WLI was involving men in leadership discussions. This has helped everyone see things from different points of view. We’ve discovered together that there were things the men faced that weren’t that different from what women faced. When we invited men (both as leaders and as participants), we had more conversations about how to change the norms at ZS to be more inclusive of everyone. 

Lastly, I recommend that companies start their allyship journey now. Send at least two senior leaders to D&I training, such as Forte’s Inclusive Leadership training, and then commit to bringing back the knowledge they gain from that organization. This has been a game-changer for us. 

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