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FinancialForce on workplace diversity - from grassroots to executive buy-in

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 16, 2017
At FinancialForce Community Live, team members behind FinancialForce's diversity initiatives told me about their obstacles and ambitions.

Talking about diversity at tech events is trendy - getting it done is where the plot thickens. The most common diversity event at tech shows? The "women in tech" breakfast/lunch.

Though these events are typically framed around networking, the good ones have a practical session where people gather in small groups, identifying issues and proposing actions.

At FinancialForce Community Live, a "diversity and inclusion breakfast" raised potent questions. With the help of Financial Force's Sandra Lo, Global Communications VP, I managed to get a meeting with two of the organizers, Nancy Vicari, Senior Sales Engineer and Quyen Chang, Senior Director, Global Sales Enablement.

A grassroots diversity push

The story here is about a grassroots diversity push at FinancialForce, and where it will go next. There is a context for diversity at FinancialForce, starting with its role in the Salesforce ecosystem. On a leadership level, Salesforce has been out in front on diversity issues, from CEO Marc Benioff's strong stances to the hiring of Tony Prophet as Chief Equality Officer.

Salesforce's diversity stance connected to Community Live with keynote speaker Tiffany Bova, Salesforce Global Customer Growth and Innovation Evangelist. Bova spoke briefly at the breakfast, sharing tips from her adventures as a female keynote speaker on the tech circuit.

Later, Vicari and Chang told me how FinancialForce's diversity push got started, about a year ago. Vicari:

It really started as a group of people that had questions. It was actually a group of us who said, "Hey, we're all similar people here to each other, right? But this organization looks so different." We wanted to have a place where we could share thoughts and talk to each other.

At first, the talks were amongst four or five employees, but things spread. An informal get together at Dreamforce pushed the talks further. Though FinancialForce is well ahead of the curve with 33 percent female employees, in some departments, like pre-sales, the female-to-male ratio is lower:

I wondered: how can we get people like myself more comfortable about talking, and have a place where we can all come together and grow something positive? That's really where it started. In my mind, there was an elephant in the room. I just figured, "let's do something hard, and address it."

Finding your voice - and your "confidence muscle"

One early action: connecting with a national organization, Women in Technology. But even in the early going, Vicari and colleagues didn't want to limit to gender issues:

As a steering committee, we discussed that if we kept it as Women in Leadership or Women in Technology, we're essentially segregating ourselves from the rest of the organization.

They shifted into "diversity and inclusion" as the organizing concepts. At its core, "diversity" is really about giving those who feel marginalized an organizational voice:

What we realized, as we took the journey, is that the issue is helping everybody feel welcome in a workplace, and feel like they can contribute with their own voice, instead of a filtered voice. It's hard, right?

That's a goal most of us can relate to:

I've spoken to people here that have physical conditions, medical conditions that they don't tell others about. They're afraid that by being who they are, it diminishes their opportunities.

Bova spoke to that during the breakfast. It's about empowering people to find their unique strengths, until they cannot be denied or ignored. Then, as Bova says, you have to exercise that "confidence muscle" every day, even when it's freaking terrifying:

To get to that confidence level, you need to really understand your strengths. Who you are and what you're good at. If you know that - and then you build that confidence muscle on top of that - that's how you can move to where you need to be. And then you will be taken seriously no matter what.

Chang at  Community Live

International Women's Day on March 8, 2017 was a milestone for promoting the program internally. That leads us to Community Live, and the breakfast program. For Chang, the breakfast was a key step:

I think of today's breakfast as just a starting point for us to build these relationships with our partners and our prospects and our customers.

The goal? Push into bigger events and formal programs:

I know that our team has discussed the possibility of doing something at Dreamforce, and next year's Community Live, and thinking about a Diversity and Inclusion track. Similar to what Salesforce has done in the past.

But there is an immediate challenge to organizers - and those they hope to influence. FinancialForce is in heavy growth mode. That means framing this movement in a way that fuels the growth. It also means finding the time to follow through. Chang:

The reality is that all of us are working really hard to get us moving in terms of scaling and growing the company. Our current challenge is that the people who have the passion to get things moving forward just don't have as much time. I think that's an issue with any new organization - how do you prioritize time?

My take

Corporate diversity only works when four factors come together:

  • Grassroots energy that sparks cultural change
  • A recognition that caring about diversity and saying the right things isn't enough - you have to take risks
  • Executive buy-in - no, make that courageous leadership
  • Integration of diversity into the mission and business case

FinancialForce seems to have all of these ingredients, but it's early days, with plenty still to prove. (Relatively) new FinancialForce CEO Tod Nielson was previously the EVP of Platform at Salesforce. From what I heard, Nielson has an open door policy when it comes to diversity initiatives, and a desire to support.

Aside from a bigger event presence, Vicari and Chang weren't ready to spell out diversity goals. They already have some benchmarks they can measure against, as well as ideas on recruitment and a dialogue with HR. Diversity goals are always tough, because the point is less about quotas and more about becoming a culture that treats difference as an asset.

The FinancialForce Diversity and Inclusion steering committee will need to articulate what those goals are nonetheless, including, for example, pathways to executive leadership and mentoring. They promised metrics and big audacious goals the next time we meet.

Yes, the learnings/inspiration from Salesforce will be a help. But FinancialForce will ultimately have to judge - and be judged - by its own diversity efforts. If diversity is seen as a distraction from growth, it will get sidelined. If it's seen as indispensable to that growth - and a cornerstone to recruitment and retention - I like their chances.

Diversity is also about customers and partners. As Vicari put it:

Sometimes we put a label on customers and partners. We forget that they're people. They have the exact same concerns, and they have the exact same trials as we do. If we recognize that, we can humanize our business.

Lo, who was quiet during the interview but who is passionate about this topic, chimed in at the end:

Next year, we will have a full track, because we are going to be committed to it. And: we're going to get the support we need. And: we will be very transparent about those goals, once those are shared.

I would not bet against them.


Image credit - Teamwork togetherness collaboration, business teamwork concept. © jcomp - Photo of Quyen Chang of FinancialForce by Jon Reed.

Disclosure - FinancialForce paid the bulk of my travel expenses to attend FinancialForce Community Live. FinancialForce is a diginomica premier partner.

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