As the Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer and Global Head of Talent at Citi, Erika Irish Brown has undertaken the mission of advancing the landscape of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the organisation.
In an exclusive interview with the global leader, we uncover Erika's personal journey, insights, and strategies, illuminating the evolving DEI landscape and her vision for the finance giant.
Here are the edited excerpts.
What led you from a background in finance to the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)?
When I ventured into the world of banking, I noticed a stark absence of diversity – few women, fewer people of colour, and even fewer Black women like myself, in investment banking. I saw a golden chance to forge a dynamic and intellectually challenging career and help create opportunities that many like me didn't have.
My initial steps were rooted in voluntary efforts, spearheading recruitment drives, and nurturing what we now term ‘inclusion networks’. About 17 years ago, the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion was still in its infancy compared to today's landscape.
However, companies were beginning to create positions explicitly dedicated to this sphere within HR. I seized that opening. My aim was to make a genuine impact and channel my energy into actions beyond 'business as usual'. Motherhood also ignited a desire to enhance the world for the next generation.
I was excited to create a diverse recruiting space for people to have equal opportunities and rewarding careers in financial services. Yet, it wasn't enough to merely bring individuals in; my focus expanded to their success. Recruitment is just the starting line; the race continues with retention, development, and equitable promotion. This realisation ignited my drive to assume the role of Chief Diversity Officer.
Throughout my life, the mantra, "If you don't like it, change it," stuck with me because of my parents' influence.
How do you see the larger DEI landscape today with a lot of organisations doubling down on their diversity efforts? As you mentioned before, it's not just about having diverse individuals but also ensuring their success!
Drawing from my background as an investment banker, I perceive diversity, equity, and inclusion in the same way as any other business. Just as with any goal you want to advance, you need clear objectives, a thought-out strategy, measures of success, and someone to lead the charge. It doesn't unfold on its own.
Organisations that took diversity, equity, and inclusion seriously realised the necessity for a full-time resource, or perhaps an entire team depending on the size and scale of your firm to establish objectives, craft strategy, drive performance in line with those objectives, and continually measure progress.
Resourcing is a crucial factor. You also need senior leadership commitment and access to business leaders who will implement diversity, equity, and inclusion across the business. This is a tough job to start, so you need to be set up for success.
On the flip side, there's been a significant talent landscape shift in the DEI space. Post-pandemic, diversity and inclusion-related job openings declined. Even in the current climate of tech layoffs, DEI teams frequently bear the brunt of these cuts. Your insights on this?
The pandemic and events such as George Floyd's death, anti-Asian sentiments, and shifts in legislation have prompted action. Numerous companies responded by appointing chief diversity officers, some of whom were strategically set up for success following the framework I shared.
In general, there is a lot of great work going on. Companies that are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion will stay on the path despite cycles. At Citi, we have aspirational representation goals that we are working towards. We set a multi-year strategic plan for our 2025 aspirational representational goals and the work we want to accomplish around the globe across diversity, aligned with our business objectives.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion is very much part of the fabric of the firm. Every firm will make different business decisions based on the environment, but there are firms committed to moving the needle on diversity, like Citi.
In the past few years, we've faced some of the most challenging times. How do significant events such as the pandemic, the impending recession, and socio-cultural shifts impact the global DEI movement?
Going back to the analogy of any business strategy, the principle holds: you don't formulate a strategy and then set it adrift. Instead, you craft a multi-year, sustainable strategy and make efforts to stay on course.
Flexibility is essential – you might incorporate additions, adjustments, and yearly reassessments. Yet, a robust, forward-thinking multi-year strategy should contain limited deviations. Given Citi's global reach, our diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy is globally oriented, complemented by local leaders who infuse regional nuances, ensuring relevance in various contexts – be it cultural, economic, or business-related.
Our strategy has not fluctuated that much. Even before George Floyd’s murder, we had aspirational goals for Black representation, for example. So the environment is not a catalyst for the work.
Citi has a long history of doing this work and doing it globally. We continue to upgrade, raise the bar for ourselves, and review our strategy. And yes, as global trends advance, we have to stay relevant.
The diversity, equity, and inclusion space is not stagnant. Even on the continuum, every region and every landscape is in a different place in terms of new trends. While we constantly refresh and pay attention to global trends, Citi has a longer-term stable strategy at its core.
You highlighted the global and local partnership within Citi for your strategy, where local leaders grasp cultural nuances. Could you provide insight into how this functions at Citi? Can you give us a snapshot of the process that ensures this cohesiveness?
Though I know we are speaking to diversity, equity, and inclusion, I am also the Global Head of Talent and what is really exciting and impactful about this role is the ability to put a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens on our talent management processes.
When we set our global strategy, we align it with our global business strategy and our global HR strategy. Integrating a flexible talent and diversity strategy is crucial.
Visualise it akin to a funnel: originating from business and HR, filtering through talent and diversity, and then further aligning talent and diversity leaders in each region and country, with each product and function within the organisation.
What strategies can organisations employ to effectively bridge the divide between their diversity targets and the tangible actions they implement? How can we ensure that our stated intentions translate into practical reality?
There are three core operating principles that guide our work: transparency, metrics and engagement.
Transparency is our foremost operating principle. In 2019, we became one of the first companies to disclose our unadjusted, or “raw,” pay gaps for both women and US minorities. We have various metrics to measure progress – ranging from pay equity to the composition of our managing director class.
We believe what is measured gets done. We set our aspirational representational goals in 2018 and achieved them at the end of 2021, so we expanded them in 2022 to be more global and encompass more dimensions of diversity.
Engagement – we used to call that pillar accountability but shifted to "engagement" because it encompasses everyone, not just senior leaders. Senior leaders have executive scorecards, talent mobility, and Voice of Employee survey scores for manager effectiveness, while engagement extends to all.
Inclusion networks, also known as employee networks, are another way we engage around diversity, equity, and inclusion. All of these are accountability mechanisms that drive progress for the firm at every level.
Building upon that, how does Citi guarantee the integration of diverse voices into its leadership and decision-making processes? What about external organisations?
The “how” is by continuing to do what we are doing. We do have diverse leadership and diverse voices at the table. We are the first major global investment bank to have a woman as a CEO and 54% of our board of directors is gender diverse. Five of our 17-person CEO’s executive management team are women and six are racially or ethnically diverse. We demonstrate the power of diversity.
We are working towards our aspirations at every level by focusing on what we call “Citi’s new way”. Part of this is having a speak-up culture and being able to have productive debates, which requires different points of view, asking the right questions, engagement, and creating human-centred inclusive leaders. We host programmes to develop diverse leaders and, at the same time, try to ensure processes for our talent pools are not biased and are inclusive.
We also have strategic external diversity partners around the globe, aligned with different dimensions of diversity or specific business areas. These relationships help us demonstrate our long-term commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion – we may be part of conferences, research papers or even have seats on boards – and are a source of development for us and the marketplace.
Could you provide more insights into the initiatives that Citi has implemented in India, specifically regarding maternity policies, LGBTQ+ inclusion, and other diversity efforts?
We have always been proactive when it comes to parental leave and support. We work in a hybrid environment, providing flexibility. Our performance guidelines safeguard a returning parent’s ratings, and we were among the first in the industry to have a 6-month maternity leave policy, even before the law came in.
We support managers and leaders with the Maternity Matters Toolkit to successfully work with and support both expecting and returning mothers.
Providing support and mentorship to women returning to the workplace has been really important to us. We also have best-in-class medical insurance coverage – maternity covers surrogacy, egg freezing, stem cells, et cetera, and are among the first to extend medical insurance benefits to same-sex partners.
How can DEI initiatives be effectively measured and sustained? What recommendations and insights have you found valuable in achieving this goal?
There is a representation as well as a retention component. We measure representation from the ‘Assistant Vice President’ level and above. Representation and recruiting goals help at early career levels but you have to manage attrition too. Recruiting, retaining, and developing all matter and are all measurable. The equity piece is when you look at compensation and promotion. Again, measurable.
Then there is inclusion. My team and I spend a lot of time talking with our inclusion network members and have really strong two-way communication. I travel to understand the culture of what's going on and Citi has an annual Voice of Employee survey with several questions that make up the inclusion index. There is a lot we can measure and tell from the questions that are asked. When we look at that data by region, gender, tenure, and level of seniority, we want to make sure that we have lived the experiences of our people in the workplace.
Sentiment is as important as measurement. Do people understand the 'why'? Are people truly engaged? Why are we doing this? What's the business case? What's the research that says that this improves bottom-line performance? How are we leveraging this in our business?
We have to make sure people remember the ‘why’ and ensure everybody understands they have a role to play, whether it is on their scorecard or not. There are some things you just have to hope will take hold and that the organisation starts to feel and experience them. And then yes, hopefully, that comes up in the other measurements we were talking about.
You've noted the dynamic nature of DEI, and it's clear that this landscape is in a state of constant evolution. In light of this, which emerging areas or topics should we prioritise to effectively dedicate ourselves to and champion the cause of DEI?
Issues of mental health, especially post-pandemic, and the commitment to hiring and thriving neurodiverse leaders at firms that have the right infrastructure and accommodations are much more part of the diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy. Globally, most diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies now have some type of effort around religious inclusion.
There are other strands, too. For example, addressing race and ethnicity in APAC. Though we have been talking about LGBTQ+ for a long time, the focus on trans, for example, trans inclusion and benefits, and what we need to do as inclusive employers have emerged.
In terms of strategy, we see a lot more client engagement around the business aspect of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. In the tech space, you are leveraging AI to enhance diversity and hiring practices and using tools where you are leveraging AI to match skills, data, and resumes, to open roles and competencies. At the same time, you have to ensure there is no bias in that AI.
Another emergence is Investor Interest. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a topic of real discussion as investors really think about how it creates value and is part of a firm's ability to deliver bottom-line results for investors.
Considering the lessons of recent years, what best practices would you offer for the recruitment and empowerment of Diversity Officers? What recommendations do you have for HR and recruiting teams when it comes to identifying DEI talent and equipping them for success?
It is really important to have a diverse candidate slate when you have open roles. For that, you need to cast a wide net and have a diverse group of people evaluate that candidate slate, so you have different perspectives and opinions when making those hiring decisions.
Separate preferences from requirements. A lot of people have association and affinity biases, such as what school someone went to. But that is not a requirement – that's a preference. Making sure you have behavioural interviews and interviewing all candidates in the same manner is really important too.
Think about potential versus past experience and how people grow in roles. High-performing people expect mobility. If you hire somebody who can only do one role versus somebody who is ambitious, smart, and has learning agility, but may not have done that exact role before, you lose the potential for future leaders of the firm.
You need to have the mindset of the best team. When you think about the higher performance of diverse teams, it is because they have different perspectives, create healthy discourse, make better decisions, and are able to innovate and do things differently. Yes, a team needs to be managed well and you have to bring them all together, but innovation means doing something different. Diversity means different things. They are totally related from my standpoint.
Lastly, Gen Z is entering the workspace – they are diverse, globally connected and exposed in ways that generations before were not. The best and brightest want to have meaningful work experiences; they expect diversity and you need to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment for everybody.
As a parting thought, what advice do you have for HR leaders aiming to enhance their DEI strategy for more impactful outcomes?
When using data, it is important for people to understand data, identify opportunities, and then create strategies around those opportunities with shared accountability.
You have to meet businesses where they are, bring them along, create your strategies together, and then drive outcomes.