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Meet Jennifer Laidlaw - Executive in Residence at Toronto Metropolitan University

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

By: Allison Colin-Thome, Drift Employer Brand Coordinator

Jennifer Laidlaw is an Executive in Residence at Toronto Metropolitan University and a Country Head at 30% Club Canada. In addition she will be a panelist at the forthcoming Drift event Conversations with Impact: Intersectionality at Work. I had the chance to sit down with Jennifer and discuss her background, and her thoughts around the current state of diversity and inclusion work in the corporate space.

Can you share with me a little bit about your professional career journey to date?

What's interesting is that I have been in leadership roles for almost my entire career. I love leadership - I’ve been a leader and manager in a nonprofit, I’ve managed group homes, I was in the Ontario Public Service for 11 years and led fairly large teams there in a variety of roles. I was also the Director of Operations for the Archives of Ontario, and worked at the Ontario Securities Commission before I went to the bank, so I've worked in a lot of different settings. I've almost always been a leader and I've almost always worked for the CEO, or their equivalent (Deputy Minister). And it's always been about significant change and transformation. I've developed a reputation as somewhat of a CEO whisperer, because I've had the opportunity as well as the ability to listen deeply to the goals, the values, and what was really driving the CEO and what they most wanted to accomplish. It was different in every organization, but it really was about helping them create game changing legacies and have the impact they want to have on the organization, on their career, or on the people in the organization. It was about creating space for them by listening to understand what they wanted to do, and how they wanted to do it.

That’s a very insightful comment, ‘listening to understand’. I think that's the key to maybe all successful conversations. What in your opinion, is listening to understand?

I think it is one of the biggest game changers around what I call clarity, and that is in almost every role we play in almost every relationship that we have. We are typically always listening with an agenda simply because we've got something on our minds. I find that that's really true of senior leaders and in particular the CEO. There's never a person in the CEOs day to day world that doesn't have an agenda. So I found really quickly that that was my superpower, being able to get really curious about what it was, where they were coming from, what that experience was about, or that intention. It was never about me getting the information that I needed but about them getting clarity by being asked questions that provoked insight.

For ourselves, there's always some agenda and I find curiosity is one of the best tools to listen to understand. We are all living our own separate realities, so in order to understand another person's reality, you need to listen without your reality imposed on their experience.

If we could dive deeper now into specific areas of your background, what are some of the major projects and initiatives that you are responsible for or that you have been responsible for in the past?

All of the work that I've done is so different, but what I've been mostly responsible for is disruption and change and never status quo. In the last seven or so years, what I've been mostly doing is creating the conditions for senior leaders in corporate Canada, to really see the value of inclusion and diversity in their organizations and to step forward to be change-makers and role models of that change. That has required a lot of bringing people along, giving them the opportunity to develop their own sense of value in their organization, and connecting people together. A lot of my attention has been in creating connections, relationships, bringing people together, introducing them to different voices and amplifying those voices. Especially the voices that tend not to be heard in these sorts of predominant conversations because they are typically the voices that are most necessary for us to move forward and develop. That's the whole concept behind inclusion and diversity, making sure that we're not only including talent in a way where they can live a fulfilling life and have a satisfying career, but also so that we can benefit from the talent that they bring in the company.

What would you say has been the most enjoyable aspect of this work, but also conversely, what would you say has been the most challenging aspect of the work?

I have to say, I really enjoy this work. I love to connect with people. I love to amplify voices. I love to see people unlock potential they didn't recognize. All of this has been a lot of fun and incredibly rewarding. The only thing that comes as challenging is that you have this sense of wanting to do more and more. It's never enough and there's always more to do. I think that's the most challenging piece of it, continuing to find ways to engage leaders in authentic conversations about the value of inclusion and belonging. But also continuing to push those conversations more deeply into organizations in a way that is both seen in outcomes experienced by the talent and also evidenced by the consumer.

In regards to issues of diversity and inclusion and intersectionality specifically, do you think that there has been a change in recent years in regards to how receptive the corporate world is to these conversations?

Well, massively different from the perspective of knowing that there is a need to have these tough conversations.

I think that was one of the best outcomes from the conversations that happened around Anti-Black systemic racism. The trick is now for those conversations to continue in a meaningful way. It also includes some real investment on the part of companies to continue to learn, and to not only learn from their own employees.

There needs to be a middle ground of first getting clarity on their own as to what are the best practices and learning from experts around different communities to ensure that they are getting a good foundation. Then checking that out with their employees rather than leaning on their employees to tell them exactly what to do because that's not their job.

Do you think that there is still any resistance or hesitation from individuals to raise or even engage in these conversations?

I do think that there are individuals that have been in leadership roles with a particular style of work that they do not want to change. I've been calling it entitled comfort. They like the way that they operate and the fact that it doesn't work for someone else doesn't really affect them in any way.

This is also what we're seeing post COVID - this need to get people back into the workplace without necessarily a clear indication of the why behind it. There's a lot of people who are in particular industries and in particular types of organizations doing specific work, where they like the way that everything runs, so they don't really want to change it.

What are some of the advantages to ensuring corporate strategies are inclusive and created with diversity and intersectionality at the forefront?

Well, it just comes down to whether you want a successful company with great products or services. If you do, you're going to have the best shot at that if your talent reflects the diversity of the population that you're in. If that same talent has the ability to tap into their own wisdom, to their well being, to their resilience and to feel like they belong, that's where you're going to get the most value.

How exactly can we make these conversations less intimidating, and more accessible to engage in and whose responsibility do you think that ultimately is?

What I've seen work really well is when those with privilege, with power, with influence, use that to engage others with privilege and power and influence in a conversation that helps them to see differently. I'm not a huge fan of the word ally. I feel like the concept of allyship needs to be held carefully, because the word ally to me means I'm standing beside you and supporting you to fight for what you deserve. That's not effective.

It must be me using my privilege to fight for what you deserve.

What would that look like in a practical application? When it comes to having these conversations and making them less intimidating for people, how can someone with more privilege help to do that for people with less privilege in the workplace?

It means using your voice. It could be in a meeting where someone says something, and it clearly didn't come out in a way that we should be supportive of. Not waiting for that person to say that's not okay with me, but anyone that that was not directed at needs to step in and say ‘hold on a second’. In conversations if someone interrupts a woman, asking the woman to say ‘Dude, why did you just interrupt me?’ isn't ideal. What's ideal is another guy saying, ‘Dude, why did you interrupt her’?

I think that translates into all kinds of arenas as well. It could be that a leader gets asked to do a lot of speaking and they instead think ‘who of my team doesn't get invited because they're not a member of a predominant group, but they have incredible knowledge and skills and expertise to share’?

Many companies are now requiring employees back to the office, which will reignite conversations about equity, inclusion and respect for intersectionality in the workplace. What in your opinion are some of the most important things organizations can do right now to ensure employees are reentering a safe and equitable environment?

The most important thing leaders can do when they're thinking about going back to the office is to get clarity around what's beneficial about being in the office versus being remote. Once they have that clarity, then having that conversation or having those conversations along the way with the employees to ensure that there is true buy-in and understanding as to what that value is, and why it's important.

Resistance comes when there is no reason or rationale. It's about ensuring that the decisions are made through a process that allows for the disruption of bias.

And making sure that people feel as though they're not left out. I think what is most concerning, is that there are environments where certain groups are in the office and certain groups are not. We see that with mothers. When mothers either need to be in the office because they can't be at home with their kids, or the reverse, and so they're not getting face-time or potentially not getting the right projects.

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