Taking a data-driven approach to changing culture

“One of the best things to happen for diversity in the workplace was that everybody realized that diverse and inclusive teams are more successful teams,” says Tom Alexander, whose Chicago-based startup consultancy Holistic uses data to help companies improve their workplace cultures.

“And one of the best things that is happening for female entrepreneurs is the research that’s come out proving women entrepreneurs offer a better return on investment than their male counterparts.”

Tom has an extensive background working on teams that are as diverse as Chicago itself. He’s served as the Deputy Communications Director to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, as well as in communications roles at the University of Chicago and the Illinois Governor’s Office.

Tom Alexander, Holistic (John Rosin/Technori)

But it was his recent role as the Chief Operations Officer at 1871, where he worked extensively on diversity and inclusion, that inspired him to start a company around it.

What does Holistic’s process look like?

It starts with collecting data on a client’s business — payroll, performance, demographic, and “company DNA” data. Those data are married with the results of employee surveys. Then Holistic analyzes this database and produces a sort of “credit score” on the workplace environment –– a metric of employee happiness. The company gets an objective overview of its challenges and opportunities, along with proposed solutions, policies, best practices, and other recommendations which are implemented by Holistic together with its client.

The importance of company culture and its connection to diversity has been a big theme on the podcast recently. (Check out our conversations with WeSolv’s Stella Ashaolu, and with Lindsay Knight and Kristi Dula of Chicago Blend, in case you missed them).

But culture starts on an individual level. People must be ready to make changes and do things differently, building an environment around them that can welcome change.

So I brought Tom back to the podcast to find out what he’s learned as a founder. Here are a few lessons from our talk on how we can step up to the challenge of authentically approaching inclusion at work –– and in life.

Be your best self

Scott: The days of bosses pushing people around are over. We’ve got to delegate, and that doesn’t mean ordering people around. It means sharing responsibility, which is different. That’s what I think is so unique about Holistic is, for once, there’s a way to quantify that.

Tom: If you talk to business leaders and ask them what they do, they’re not going to say things like order, tell, direct, instruct. They’re going to say things like, facilitate, encourage, lead –– positive things. Whether they actually do that in practice remains to be seen.

Everybody thinks of themselves as a worldly, thoughtful manager of people. But do you really have the tools and resources to practice that? Are you paying attention to see if you’re being your best self all the time?

Choose thoughtfulness

Scott: If we want to see changes in our culture, in our actual lives, you’ve got to get them where they are, in groups of people who are close together. That’s why we teach kids in schools in rooms of 30. You get them all at once.

A great way to start the conversation and start making an impact is to start changing the way people think of things in their workplace. Am I crazy?

Tom: I think there’s something to that. I say all the time that we’re living in the age of inclusion, but it just started. I mean, it literally just began in the last couple of years. Folks have really started to be cognizant of the ideas of inclusivity, togetherness, being welcoming, collective advancement, and their own individual roles promoting them.

I’m excited about using science and analytics to promote these types of collective behaviors.

But we’re also living in an age of exclusion, and it just started. Each one of us has to make the choice about how we’re going to live.

We’re learning the importance of these things in lots of different settings. Just as we’re borrowing from the workplace in our personal lives, we’re borrowing from our personal lives and the pop-culture world in the workplace.

Monetize with integrity

Scott: You’re not the first person to launch a company that is trying to make a change in culture. There’s lots of companies that I would argue are taking advantage of it, parading around as diversity champions. What I think is very important about what you’re doing is you’re creating a baseline that didn’t really exist.

Tom: Yeah. First off, I don’t think that making money off of creating inclusive environments is necessarily a bad thing.

Scott: I totally agree. If we can do something and make an impact, obviously I want to make money to pay for it. And if I can make money on top of it, that would be great. But there are other people who don’t care about the fix. They just want the money.

Tom: There’s a third thing to consider though, which is that the chances of diversity initiatives being more successful, particularly in the workplace, are directly correlated with the financial component of things. Knowing that diverse teams are more successful is going to get more people into the tent faster, and I think that’s a good thing. Now we obviously want to avoid people who are disingenuous and profiteering off of it. But you also have to be really cognizant of the bottom line.

Remember: no pain, no gain

Scott: At the end of the day, any attention, even if it’s ill-gotten attention, is still attention.

Tom: Yeah. I think that’s true, to an extent, of course. Many of the conversations that are happening nationally and globally right now, which are at their core about inclusion versus exclusion, are in response to things that I would consider to be tremendously divisive. These conversations are helping advance the cause of inclusion and thoughtfulness worldwide, but it’s just … painful. And we have to fight really hard because like I said, it’s the age of inclusion or the age of exclusion. We have to decide.

Measure everything

Scott: Can you talk a little bit about how Holistic is using what you’ve created to be a differentiator?

Tom: The key is that everything can be measured, and everything should be measured. When we think about measurement, we really think about it in terms of three phases.

Number one, how do you measure it? How do you figure out what the statistic or the measurement is? Number two, can you lay the infrastructure to measure it in real time, or on an ongoing basis, or whatever. And then number three, how important is it?

Most people focus on one of those three things and very often it’s the first one: can I measure something? Yeah, cool. And then that’s it.

Our point of view is that there’s value in all three parts and they’re like building blocks. You figure out how to measure something, you put place the infrastructure to measure it on an ongoing basis and then that’s done. But you’re not going to stop measuring it.  That’s going to be a persistent source of information.

From there, the real work begins. How do we decide what’s cause for concern and how do we make change?

Now, let’s get started

Scott: Can you give us an example?

Tom: Leadership teams within organizations are a huge challenge for diversity. Very frequently, we will see an organization that has achieved some level of gender balance, but the leadership team doesn’t reflect that at all. You might be able see it with your eyes a little bit, but sometimes it can be fairly hard to measure. And gender is one of the areas that people feel more comfortable making judgments about, but this could apply to any inclusion standard.

What we do at Holistic is we gather a series of measurements and compare them to other data. In this case, we’d measure the diversity of the leadership team specifically and then we test that relative to the broader staff, to society, to what you see in leadership teams overall. Then we’re able to tell companies how they’re doing. We can effectively give them a percentile score. We can tell them that their chances of having a leadership team that looks like theirs in an environment like Chicago, where four to five out of 10 are women. But if currently, one out of 30 people on their leadership team is female, there’s likely some sort of biases at play that are preventing people from moving through the organization.

You can also work backwards. Why is this going well? What is this company doing that they should double down on, triple down on, keep going? That’s really what we’re able to provide for our clients.

Scott: Tom, I appreciate everything that you’re doing. Not just for Chicago’s founders and entrepreneurs –– I think Holistic is the next step forward for the culture conversation. I look forward to having you back on. Where do people go to follow you?

Tom: Hit us up on holisticindex.com or @holisticindex on Twitter.