‘Time To Act’ Podcast: Inclusion During A Pandemic

Tom Troy, CEO and President of California State Automobile Association (Photo: )
Tom Troy, CEO and President of California State Automobile Association (Photo: )

Conversations around diversity and inclusion can be uncomfortable — particularly in the workplace. In this new podcast, host Y-Vonne Hutchinson — CEO and founder of ReadySet, a diversity and inclusion consulting and strategy firm — speaks with business leaders who are driving discussions within their organizations and taking bold action to advance and accelerate change.

Working with CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion — the largest coalition of CEOs who’ve pledged to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace — Hutchinson discusses topics such as allyship, intersectional divides and mental health inclusion with C-suite leaders who are showing their organizations and their industries that now is the time to act on diversity and inclusion. 

Transcript below:

Y-Vonne Hutchinson, Host: How important is it to have diversity and to be inclusive?

Businesses need to understand like, who their employee base is going to be and what those needs are, and really start to adapt to them.

I think the first thing is to stop and listen, and listen for understanding, right? And the responsibility I have as a people leader is to really put myself in my employee’s shoes.

This is “Time To Act.” I’m your host, Y-Vonne Hutchinson. I’m a diversity and inclusion expert. And through my company ReadySet, I work with organizations to help them foster a corporate culture that helps provide a sense of belonging to employees. On this podcast, I’m working with CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, the largest coalition of CEOs who’ve pledged to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Throughout this series, we’ll explore and highlight the recent steps companies are taking to tackle D&I, and I’ll be talking to leaders of industry and diving into why they act as ambassadors for change.

In this episode, my guest is Tom Troy, CEO of CSAA Insurance Group. CSAA is a Triple A insurer that offers customers car, home and personal property insurance options. It was also one of the first companies on the west coast to host the CEO Action “Check your Blind Spots” Unconscious Bias bus tour. And today, our conversation focuses on how they’re actively improving mental health across their workforce. Tom and I spoke as protests and riots broke out around the country over racial injustice and police brutality.

Wow, so much is going on right now, Tom. I am super happy and super grateful to be able to talk to you today on the particularly salient and important topic of diversity and inclusion. And I’m super interested to hear about some of the steps you’re taking at CSAA and how you were thinking about it in light of current events. So, welcome.

Tom Troy, CSAA CEO and President: Y-Vonne, thanks so much for having me. I’m really, really honored to be with you here today. Since the time that we first chatted about having this call, even in that last couple of weeks, things have changed materially. All the work I think that our company and a lot of other great companies out there are doing has become even more important than it was.

Hutchinson: I wanted to take some time and start us off by getting to know you a little bit more, and your journey into CSAA. So, can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you ended up where you are right now?

Troy: I was born in Minnesota; that’s actually my hometown. I saw on the news, which was something that was sort of thought provoking for me, to see things erupting there. I was born into a military family, and when I was younger, we moved around a lot. The pictures I have are in different cities and on military bases. I went to college at the University of Washington, not really knowing that I was headed for the insurance industry, but it happened. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot of people in insurance didn’t actually plan on being an insurance, but they ended up there. Just over a year ago, I came out here to the sunny state of California to join CSAA Insurance Group. This is one of Triple A’s three insurers, and we cover about 23 states and have been in business for over a hundred years.

Hutchinson: With the tense time that we all find ourselves in, CSAA and Tom have taken a vested interest in the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. For Tom, his approach and compassion towards mental health started at an early age. Today, CSAA has implemented new strategies and programs to make mental health a priority.

I’m curious — just thinking about your employees for a little bit — one of your big focuses even before COVID-19 happened has been mental health and, you know, in response to these events, I know you’ve announced that you’re going to be offering virtual, facilitated conversations on the emotional impact of what’s happening. Can you tell me a little bit more about your approach there and, and what inspired it?

Troy: I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic of mental health. That’s something that we want to focus on while we’re so separated from each other, is making sure that we’re paying attention to that. And I go back to a story. My dad was very active in our community and he was a CEO of a regional hospital. And I can remember very vividly going to church, and there was a woman in this small town who sadly, everyone thought, was suffering from mental health issues and talked about that. And she would often make the rounds on Sunday to go to different churches. And she was at our church often, and more than once, on the way home from church, she would be walking to wherever she was going, and my dad and the family car would pull over and offer her a ride to her next spot.

And at the time, as, as a kid, you maybe don’t want to be associated with that, but there was my dad saying it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It’s a hot day. She needs a ride somewhere. We’re going to pick her up, and we’re going to give her a ride to her next destination. And that’s just one small example, but I learned a lot, I guess, about this issue of thinking about others and trying to walk in their shoes from my father. I’m happy for that, I’m glad for that. Hope I’ve done the same for my kids. Starting early is important. We’ve always been committed to the health and wellbeing of our employees, and we’re always working to try to make sure they have resources available to them.

I think the other work that needs to take place is we need to break down the stereotype or the stigma that is associated with mental health. If I come in with a broken arm, I don’t feel any fear of a stereotype around that. If I need to go to a physical therapist after I’m out of my cast and get treatment and get myself healthy again. But in our society, there’s still a stigma around mental health. And so it’s oftentimes this thing that, A) people don’t even want you to know about, and B) would not want to make it sound like they need special attention in order to get better. So we’ve been making this a big focus and we plan to continue to focus in this space. We were already thinking this way before the pandemic, but we realized right away this would be even more important than it was before. And I think that’s only been extended further with the recent civil unrest. We’re looking to build networks with other employers and share insights and find new tools that we can provide to our employees so that we can do a better job in this space.

Hutchinson: I wanted to talk a little bit about some of the specific things that I’ve seen highlighted that you’re doing. So, for example, I know that later this year you all are planning to host conversations around race. I’m also aware that you are holding groups for people who want to engage in meditation and fitness classes to support mental and physical wellbeing. Can you talk a little bit about some of those specific initiatives?

Troy: Right, so you’re, you’re on it. We’ve have a number of different things that we’re doing both near term and intermediate term near term. We’re going to be offering some virtual facilitated conversation forums that we’ll invite all employees to, and if they’d like to participate, it’s opening up a channel of communication between employees and allowing us to even capture some sentiment that’s out there that we want to support in some way. Later, or what I would call intermediate term, but still this year — and this is part of our 2020 inclusion and belonging strategy — we’re going to host explicit conversations about race, perhaps the same kind of a forum environment and facilitated to make sure that we can get the conversation started in the right way. But this is another opportunity for employees to share their point of view and establish a vehicle for communicating to fellow coworkers regarding how they feel.

We have an employee assistance program today that we felt very good about. And we have been promoting that during this difficult time to remind people that there is a place they can go if they feel they have nowhere else to go to get confidential, emotional support. And we make these resources not only available to the employee, but also to the family members. You mentioned meditation. We have a wellness team that we’ve utilized for a number of years in the offices. There’s a way to do that online. Even though we’re social distancing, it’s an opportunity to have a time out from the work routine that you might have fallen into at home; maybe establish some peace of mind.

Hutchinson: CSAA recently won two California HR excellence awards, one for best diversity and inclusion initiative and another for best wellness program. I asked Tom about these and other initiatives at CSAA, how they work within the company and the response for employees.

I know that you have the Invest in Yourself program, Vitality programs. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about those and if there’s any other programmatic initiatives you want to highlight that you’re doing right now?

Troy: Absolutely. We focus on diversity at our organization and we have a lot of programming around that. I don’t feel like I’d be doing my team a service if I didn’t at least put a plug in for the amazing work that they’re doing in this space. We have employee resource groups across the country for Asian Pacific Islanders, Black Employees Association, the near Eastern Appreciation Team, Pride Team, the Women’s Professional Network, the Military Appreciation Team, just to name a few. The offices take a lot of pride in the various ERGs that are active there, and you’ll find that many, many people across the office will participate. And the, and that tells me that, that people are engaged and that they are finding value in that.

We talked a little bit, we just touched on it. But the types of work that we’re doing in the wellness space — wellness is not only good for the employees, but it’s also good for the organization. To have people coming to work who are feeling good, who are healthy, who can be in an environment where other people are talking about focusing on health and supporting healthy lifestyles. That’s good for the organization, and I argue that produces better work. And I’ll hit it again, because we’re trying to focus on this within wellness. There is room for improvement when it comes to mental health, because that is such an important part. It’s back to, again, tuning up your body. You don’t think twice about aerobic fitness, and you shouldn’t think twice about mental health fitness, either. We have a Vitality program that helps people with incentives. And there’s a point-scoring system that sort of gamifies the idea of investing in your health. And in this program, you can get points for sleep, for meditation, and there are other wellbeing exercises that you can do that you get points for and helps reinforce that you’re investing on a regular basis.

Hutchinson: So, for those of you who may be listening, just to catch you up a little bit, we’re recording at a very interesting time. Right now, many of our cities are still on lockdown because of COVID-19. And there are significant travel restrictions, restrictions on where we can work. And we’re also seeing civil unrest in response to police violence and police brutality.

You came out with a statement on behalf of CSAA, outlining your position and some actions that you intend to take. And so I want to ask you, what motivated you to put that statement out, and can you tell us a little bit more about it?

Troy: Yeah, thanks Y-Vonne. And let me preface this by extending my sympathies to the Floyd family and, and all that are affected by this. This is a really sad time for us as individuals and as a nation. I’ve seen the same things that you’ve seen in the media, the horrific events that unfolded in Minneapolis, and it just doesn’t seem human to not comment on it in some way, and try to extend sympathies and try to provide support for our team members.

You know, we, when we opened an office in an area, one of our aspirations is to attempt to hire in such a way as to mirror the communities where we work. And so it felt both necessary, and it felt like an obligation to reach out and make it clear that we, as an organization, as a community of team members who are working together, don’t feel good about this, about what’s happened. And we want to make our voice heard where we can. We also want to support each other. And in that vein, this is where we’re going to practice some of the, the muscle that we’d be building in terms of helping our employees out with regard to mental health and listening more intently to how each other are feeling and finding a path forward. So that’s the motivation behind putting the message out there.

In an effort to prompt conversations among employees and transparency from the top down, CSAA has created resources to facilitate a dialogue among their teams and to have employees’ voices heard at all levels.

So, Y-Vonne, you and all of the listeners that might be out there have probably been in a communication session with a leader; the leader pontificates about whatever their message is, and then they open it up for Q&A. Most of the time, there’s sort of this awkward silence in the beginning, and people are waiting to see who makes the first move. Also, sometimes that verbal interaction or that interaction where a person has to physically raise their hand, be called upon, and then verbalize a message in front of their peers, tends to inhibit the real questions that are out there. That process, people might feel embarrassed to ask a question. They might be worried that the person who’s going to answer the question will judge them based on the question that they asked. And so we implemented a new tool that technology has allowed us to use.

It’s a virtual interaction tool. I announced it during the meeting, as this is one of those meetings where, not only did I ask you to bring your mobile phone, but you’re going to get to use it during the meeting. And we send them a link. They log in; it’s anonymous, and we start them off by doing some interactive voting where we say, here’s the question. We put a slide up and say, “How do you feel about this question? Answer A, B or C.” People answer. And in real-time, we show them how the room answered that question. But now here’s the important listening part: When that’s over, they have the opportunity to type in any question they want. It will show up on the screen and other members of the audience can upvote the question. If they, too, want that question to be answered, what this brought out, Y-Vonne, was a set of questions that I don’t think we would have heard before. Some of them are cheeky and asking a personal question about my dog, or there was one about whether or not I like pineapple on pizza. The answer to which is: It’s fine. I like it. But others were really serious, important questions. And they got up-voted significantly that I don’t think would have come out, otherwise. This taught me, even, that there are other more innovative ways of listening. It’s about first, though, creating a safe environment for the engagement to take place. And now we’re beginning to address that, which is great.

Hutchinson: One of the many things that struck me in this conversation with Tom was his emphasis on using his position as a leader, not to pontificate, but to be an active listener in difficult conversations.

What advice would you give other leaders right now in terms of leveraging the tools they have at their disposal to make sure that their team members, their employees, those that they have a relationship with, feel included and feel supported?

Troy: Well, it’s probably the case that I could learn more from other leaders than they could learn from me. But, if I was to offer one piece of advice, to me, this feels like a time to focus more on listening. And maybe that’s hard for leaders, because again, they got to where they are by being the voice, instead of the listener. Some of these messages, they’re very complex and they’re deep-rooted. You’ve got to spend the time to, to work through it, to make sure that you’re really getting the full complement of pain, of history. The complexity of the message itself goes back generations. And so, for someone to come in and read a paragraph, or watch a five-minute clip of the news and pretend that they understand it and they have the answers, this doesn’t feel right. I think that is a lot of what’s boiling over right now. It’s possible that the people sending the message are making it clear to us that we haven’t spent time listening. And we need now to double back and do that.

Hutchinson: Looking in the future from this moment, I’m curious, what do you want your legacy at CSAA to look like? How do you think about it?

Troy: We’ve talked about listening a lot in this call, but if the organization was better at listening and it had become second nature, not something that had to be thought about, I would consider that a major achievement, a life achievement, really. And so, I hope that I’m able to contribute to that first by setting a good example and being a good listener, an active listener, not just a quiet listener, but an active, good listener. And I hope that, and not only setting the example, I can help to support my team in enhancing their listening skills as well. And that that can cascade throughout the organization.

Hutchinson: Well, thank you so much. This has been such a wonderful and wide-ranging conversation that has happened at a really important time. Wish you all the best. So, thank you. Thank you very much for joining us.

Troy: Thanks for hosting this, Y-Vonne. And I look forward to seeing you again in person sometime soon.

Hutchinson: I’m so happy that I got a chance to sit down with Tom today. In many ways, the conversation about mental health, at least for me, feels right on time. As a country, we’re at a particularly powerful moment, powerful and precarious and honestly feels like we could go in any direction. As a country, I think we’re feeling more vulnerable than we ever have before. It’s a time for reflection. So, I think the conversation about mental health is one that is particularly salient in this moment. How do we better take care of ourselves? How do we take care of each other?

So, what did you learn today from Tom Troy and CSAA Insurance Group? And similar to CSAA, how should companies stand up for their employees from marginalized communities? Let us know in the comment section. We want to hear from you. We also want to know what you think of the show, so leave us a review. Subscribe to “Time to Act” for free and hear our conversations with people who are leading the charge to improve diversity and inclusion in their companies and across industries. I’m Y-Vonne Hutchinson, and until next time, let’s keep the conversation going.

To hear or read more episodes of “Time To Act,” click here:

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From PwC: 

“Time To Act: A Podcast About Diversity And Inclusion,” presented by PwC and CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion™, features CEOs and C-suite leaders from multinational brands and regional businesses discussing why diversity and inclusion are defining factors in a company’s growth and success at scale. It’s more than checking the boxes — together, business leaders are listening, understanding and taking action for real change. 

With more than 1,000 CEOs that have taken the pledge, CEO Action is the largest CEO-led business coalition focused on advancing diversity and inclusion in the U.S. To learn more, visit CEOAction.

Produced by RYOT Studio and At Will Media. For a deeper dive into corporate diversity and inclusion in action, visit HuffPost.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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