More Than Food, Fun, and Festivities: An Interview with Michelle Wimes

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BlackHer is all about advancing Black women’s personal, professional, and political power by telling our own stories. This week, we were thrilled to catch up with up with Michelle Wimes, Chief Diversity and Professional Development Officer at Ogletree Deakins, one of the nation’s largest labor and employment law firms. Ms. Wimes has been an attorney for over twenty years and in 2016, she received the National Congress of Black Women, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm “Greater Good” Award for Public Service.  We got her thoughts on what does and does not work in diversity programming, diversity vs. nationalism in Black communities, and more. Enjoy!

MeMichelle, thanks so much for your time today.  I want to jump right in. There is a criticism of diversity programs in America.  For example, a recent article in Harvard Business Review is called, “Why Diversity Programs Fail.”  What would you say to folks who say that Diversity Programs don’t work?

Michelle:  I actually agree that some Diversity Programs don’t work.  Actually, when Ogletree recruited me to come to the firm, I was not interested.  I was worried that the program was too narrowly defined. I’m not into diversity for its own sake or what I call “food, fun, and festivities.” That’s not a strategy.  Doing touchy-feely activities can be enjoyable but in my experience, once the party is over people often forget what they’ve learned and then go back to their “real” work.

I’m interested in diversity as a rigorous recruitment, professional development and retention strategy to move talent forward.  We have to ask ourselves, “What are we doing to give our people the tools they need to increase their value to the organization?”  What are we doing to ensure that people know the path to becoming a Partner and have access to the opportunities – leadership, sponsorship and mentoring – they need to succeed.

This is what I pitched to Ogletree – integrating diversity into professional development – and it was music to their ears.  We now have a national diversity and professional development strategy and programs that our local offices can plug into.

Me: So, what is your secret sauce to diversity and professional development.  Tell me a little bit more about your specific programming.  What have you found that works?

Michelle: At Ogletree, we started by very clearly outlining competencies for our lawyers.  The goal was to be clear and transparent in outlining the expectations, including skills and experiences at each level that are necessary to move ahead.

Next, we took a look at our culture and talked to current lawyers who had and had not been successful and identified the behaviors or cultural norms that you need to be exhibiting.  We put this all into a Learning Guide and will be integrating via a new Learning Management System later this year so that supervisors and employees themselves can sit down and really assess how they are doing against these benchmarks.

Me: I really like that.  You’re not “hiding the ball” so to speak.  You’re giving everyone clear guidance on what it takes to be successful.

Michelle: That’s right.  What I’ve seen, not just in the legal field, but in other industries too is that the path is not clear and this often negatively impacts women and minorities. People are guessing at how to succeed or what’s next. We wanted to eliminate this type of confusion.

Me: What kind of results or outcomes have you seen?  How have these initiatives impacted the bottom line or helped you advance your business goals?

Michelle: We’re still in the process of rolling out these initiatives to the firm and especially making it possible for people to track and assess their progress online.  That said, I think we are going to see less attrition.

We’re enabling people to take greater control of their own careers.  And combined with some of the other changes we’re making to, for example, extend maternity leave and help women to ramp up more slowly while still receive their full salaries after pregnancy has helped with retention.

We’ve also heard from some of our clients who notice that we’ve been doing more work in these areas and that’s been rewarding. They are rewarding us with their business.

Me: What would you say to a young Black woman who is interested in pursuing a career in diversity and professional development?

Michelle: I think it’s a HOT career!  Especially in the era of Trump, where we’ve sadly begun to deify an exclusionary culture. People now think it’s OK to bring these exclusionary practices into the workplace and companies are frankly struggling with how to deal with the overt manifestation of this bias. There is a need for highly qualified diversity professionals who know how to have critical conversations around cultural competency, privilege, and bias.

I would urge young Black women to get certified and check out the Society for Diversity.  They have great online programming which provides an overview of best practices in recruitment and onboarding, leadership and development and how to embed diversity into all of these critical areas of the business.

Me: As a diversity and inclusion professional, what do you make of the resurgence or celebration, if you will, of a sort of black nationalism in our society. From Black Panther to Black Lives Matter, it seems like Black people, including Black women, are coming together on their own to move forward.  Is this good/bad? What do you make of it?

Michelle: I think that Black women and men are experiencing a tension.

Do we continue to do what we’ve always done and “go along to get along?”  Do we continue to try to integrate into the dominant structures where we’ve made some gains?  Or, do we say, OK, we need to come together ourselves to create our own opportunities?

In my civic and philanthropic life, I’m engaged with a group called a Sister Circle.  We come together as Black women, we now have 200 members in our network, to pool our charitable resources.  And then, collectively, we reward a local minority-led nonprofit. That is powerful!

In my mind, one does not negate the other.

Diversity and inclusion are in line with Dr. King. Nationalism and standing in solidarity with other Black women to me is more like Malcolm X.  We need them both.

Me: As I’m listening to you, I’m realizing that white folks have always had a sort of nationalistic approach to networking and organizing.  They may not call it that but they’ve always come together in clubs to promote their own interests. I’m not sure why it should be any different for us.

Michelle: That’s absolutely right.  A colleague of mine decided to bring together all of the Black female in-house lawyers she knew in Los Angeles so they could get to know each other and wouldn’t be so isolated.  Now, they are talking about leveraging each other’s contacts, going into business together and supporting each other financially.

Me: That’s smart.  Michelle, you are clearly a leader in your community and an inspiration to others.  Who do you look up to?  Which Black women inspire you?

Michelle: It’s probably corny but Michelle Obama is the epitome of inspiration to me.  I so admire how she managed and then figured out how to leave a very high-level career to support her husband.  It’s also amazing how she raised two strong, independent and respectful women. To me, she is the epitome of grace, intelligence, and confidence.

If I look historically, I think of Dorothy Heights and Shirley Chisholm and also Sojourner Truth.  It’s amazing to think of how Sojourner Truth advanced women’s liberation and demanded that white woman also recognize her humanity.  “Ain’t I a woman?”  She had an incredible sense of her own value and worth.

Black women have faced a lot in this country but we are also incredibly capable, brilliant, and resilient. That’s what inspires me.

Jocelyn