5 Questions Partners Should Ask to Uncover Unintended Bias

As difficult as it is to find and hire qualified employees these days, you certainly don't want to lose them. If, like most Microsoft partners, your workforce is more diverse than it was a decade ago, taking an objective look at your company culture would be well advised. Through the eyes of your new employees, the cultural and business practices that have developed over time may feel more like barriers than opportunities.

To recognize and address cultural and organizational bias in your organization, you need to ask hard questions and be open to uncomfortable answers. Some questions to get you started on the journey include:

  1. Are all voices heard and respected? A number of studies have highlighted the reticence of women and minorities to speak up in meetings when they are outnumbered. Assign an objective observer to a variety of meetings in your organization to see if all employees' voices are heard and respected. Coach all employees on how to be respectful in meetings.
  2. Are company events inclusive? While going to the local bar for a beer on Thursday was great when the team was three or four, it doesn't scale well. As your staff grows and becomes more diverse, team building activities are more important than ever. Fostering personal relationships, especially with employees from different backgrounds, will help build an environment of respect and inclusion. Choose activities and venues that are appropriate for everyone on your staff. 
  3. Are public-facing opportunities shared? Over time, most partner organizations come to rely on one or two people to present at webinars, seminars and speaker opportunities. They are knowledgeable, dependable and experienced. When speaking opportunities always go to the same people, it may be seen as a barrier to advancement by newcomers in the organization. Cast a wider net to identify a new generation of presenters. Give them opportunities to shine and build their speaking skills.
  4. Do you have a mentoring program? Make sure your employees know they are not alone from day one. Formal mentoring programs validate the company's commitment to employee advancement. Consider mentoring teams who can focus on different aspects of an employee's professional development.
  5. Have you asked women and minority employees for honest feedback on organizational practices? The most valuable exercise you can undertake is to ask for honest feedback. As easy as that sounds, the level of trust with employees has to be high for them to provide unfiltered answers. Ask for feedback through channels that are safe for employees. Start with an anonymous survey and move to one-on-one conversations. The highest levels of leadership should be actively engaged and involved.

As in all of tech, the work environment for Microsoft partners is going through diversity transformation (in addition to our well-worn digital transformation). Partners need to take a hard look internally to make sure their organizations are welcoming and inclusive for the next generation. Employees who feel valued and empowered bring more value to customers, delivering long-term dividends to their employer.

How are you supporting a more diverse workforce? Send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on February 14, 2018 at 7:04 PM0 comments


6 Ways Partners Can Build an Inclusive Culture

Based on the interest level at the Microsoft Inspire conference this year, attracting and retaining a more diverse workforce is a high priority for the leaders of partner organizations.

While it would be easy to think that recruiting is the first step in diversity initiatives, those partners who have been around for a while may need to start with an internal review. The cultural changes required to create an inclusive atmosphere in an organization with few women and minorities may be more difficult than expected.

A 2015 McKinsey study uncovered a wide gap between the perception of challenges faced in the workplace. For example, while 93 percent of women agreed with the statement, "Even with equal skills and qualifications, women have much more difficulty reaching top-management positions," only 58 percent of men agreed. While this study focused on men's and women's perceptions, it's not a big leap to think the same is happening for people of color. 

To build a more inclusive culture, take specific steps to understand your current situation and establish better processes.

  1. Ask the women and minorities in your organization for honest feedback. There may be subtle (and not so subtle) practices embedded in the culture you have no idea exist. Having an honest conversation with current employees can be an eye-opening experience. It's critical the conversations are confidential -- before, during and after. Trust is built over time.

  2. Raise awareness. Many of the situations and experiences that women and minorities find challenging in an organization are not meant to be divisive. Traditions like going out to a local watering hole on Friday are intended to promote camaraderie, but may no longer work for a more diverse team. Terminology, like labeling employees as technical versus non-technical, can carry a negative connotation. Leadership in the organization should take an objective look at the current culture to look for norms and practices that may have unintended outcomes.

  3. Foster practices that give everyone a voice. Research points to differences in the way women and men speak up in meetings. Establish practices that help everyone in the organization contribute. In meetings, promote respect for each speaker, controlling interruptions and people speaking over one another.

  4. Set achievable goals and report on progress. The tech industry has been dominated by white men for decades. Few partner organizations have women or minorities represented on their leadership teams. While you can't change the demographics of your company overnight, you can make a commitment to try. Set goals to increase representation of women and minorities at all levels within the organization. Report on recruiting and promotion results regularly to demonstrate leadership's commitment to progress.

  5. Provide multiple channels of communication. Don't assume your employees will speak up if they have a problem. Especially if your organization is not large enough to have an HR director, employees need to know they have options for reporting or discussing concerns. Proactively offer employees multiple avenues to have safe, confidential conversations.

  6. Find out how other partners are building organizations that foster diversity. The International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners (IAMCP) Women in Technology chapters reflect the changing channel. IAMCP WIT boasts more than 80 chapters worldwide and is growing rapidly. Join the local group and participate in the online and in-person events.

In addition to the practical aspect of simply needing more hands on deck, most partners understand the value of building a diverse workforce. Based on a long history of white men predominating the industry, there are bound to be cultural adjustments that need to be made. By acknowledging the challenges and taking a proactive approach, partners can tap the full potential of every person on the team.   

Posted on November 30, 2017 at 10:58 AM0 comments


Is Your 'About Us' Page Scaring Off Potential Employees?

Most partners today recognize the value of actively recruiting and hiring to diversify their workforce. Competition for top talent is fierce, and partners need to appeal to all potential candidates to fill their recruiting pipelines.

When those potential employees take the first step in their research and visit your Web site, do they feel welcome? This may be a good time to stand in the shoes of those candidates and take an objective look at the messages your Web site conveys.

While the first impression of the home page is important -- and hopefully your Web designer is tuned in to using photographs reflecting diversity -- prospective candidates are going to head to the About Us section of the Web site to dig deeper. They are going to be most interested in the culture of the company reflected in pages like Leadership, Company History, Our Team and Community Involvement.  

Does Your Leadership Page Reflect Diversity?
The leadership page may be the single most revealing page on your Web site. When a potential employee checks out the management team, they are looking at the people who will be their mentors and guide their destiny. Ask yourself a few questions about what message the page sends, like:

  • Do the profiles and photos reflect a commitment to diversity in management?

  • Do profiles focus on personal or team accomplishments?

  • Does the positioning of photos on the page send a message of inclusion or hierarchy?

Some partners are choosing to forgo the leadership pages altogether and take a team approach, switching to profiles of a cross-section or everyone in the business. You can use photos of team-building exercises and everyday work to convey the "real" personality of your business. 

Is Your Company History Page Interesting?
Not all partners include a company history, but it can be a real selling point. People love a good story and will be interested in how the company started and has grown. Telling personal stories about the people who have contributed to building the organization helps potential employees envision how they can play a role.

Is Your Company Active in the Community?
Especially for young people, contributing to the greater good is an important component of their professional aspirations. Highlighting company-sponsored volunteer activities, from mentoring to fundraising, can be very appealing. Photographs are particularly compelling, helping people envision themselves as part of the team.

Partners Take a Fresh Approach
A few examples of partners who have thought through the messages they want to send through their About Us pages include:

  • Black Marble, which looks like a fun environment.
  • The Magenium Solutions leadership page includes direct links to management, suggesting a culture of open communication.
  • PEI takes a refreshing approach in its "Who We Are" pages.
  • Mindshift profiles a number of its employees, providing a personal connection.
  • Cireson includes the whole team, demonstrating its commitment to diversity.

Your Web site analytics are likely to reveal the importance of re-evaluating the messaging on your About Us section. Not only potential employees, but customers also want to gauge whether you are the kind of partner they want to work with. In a competitive environment, details matter. Stand in the shoes of those new recruits and customers and imagine what they are thinking when they visit your site.

How do you convey diversity on your Web site? Send me a note and let's share the knowledge.

Posted by Barb Levisay on November 01, 2017 at 12:02 PM0 comments


Digital Ninety-Nines Lead Partner's Commitment to Diversity

In 1929, Amelia Earhart invited 117 women -- the total population of women licensed as pilots -- to join her in establishing a professional organization that would promote the advancement of aviation through education, scholarships and mutual support. Ninety-nine trailblazers attended the first meeting of the international organization of women pilots, inspiring the official name, "The Ninety-Nines."

In the spirit of the original Ninety-Nines, an ISV partner is recognizing trailblazing women in the technology industry to inspire another generation.

The Digital Ninety-Nines is the brainchild of Jessica Fardin, vice president of global marketing at Episerver. Aimed at highlighting the work of women who are leading digital transformation in their fields, the Digital Ninety-Nines podcast series features leaders sharing how they are driving change and innovation in their fields.

"The podcast series highlights female leaders in marketing. Marketing is mostly a woman-dominated field, but in technology it's still male-dominated. There are all these amazing women who are taking a digital lead in their organizations and we wanted to promote what they're doing," said Karen Chastain, director of Strategic Alliances and Partners at Episerver. "Our goal was to really carry the theme through in other ways, like our Ascend conference, which is our annual user conference. We expect to continue to expand it and broaden the visibility."

"And more than just the Digital Ninety-Nines, Episerver is doing a lot around diversity, and not only diversity with the gender, but diversity in general." Chastain continued. "We try and make sure that the women who are in leadership roles in our company are participating in the community and giving back to the community, as well."

Chastain has been included on CRN's Women of the Channel list for the past two years and is active in the IAMCP's Women in Technology community. In her role working with the channel, she hears from partners who are trying to become more involved in diversity programs and hire more women in their own companies. She advises partners to get involved. "You don't have to be a woman to follow organizations like IAMCP WIT or be a part of it. Be aware of what's going on, participate in events, encourage the women who are already in your company to look into what they can do in their community," she said.

"In terms of hiring higher-level women, I think that's just being open to looking at women as an equal and looking at their contributions and their qualifications," added Chastain, "A huge step towards being able to hire someone is to be open, to looking at that, and hiring from within, as well."

According to Chastain, Episerver has a history of providing equal opportunity to women. In keeping with that commitment, Episerver recently announced the addition of Sue Bergamo as CIO/CISO to the executive team.

When the Digital Ninety-Nines initiative was launched on International Women's Day in 2016, James Norwood, executive vice president of strategy and CMO at Episerver, wrote a blog post about the inspiration and the company's commitment to balance. In the post, he committed to the International Women's Day #PledgeforParity to help women and girls achieve their ambitions; to challenge conscious and unconscious biases that might stifle that; to value women's and men's contributions equally while creating an inclusive and flexible culture (at work and everywhere); and to call for gender-balanced leadership.

For partners looking to build diversity in their organization, the initiatives at Episerver are a good example of high-value actions that don't require big budgets. The Digital Ninety-Nines is a creative approach to educate and inspire young women looking for role models in an intimidating industry. The publicly stated commitment of leadership to work toward a more balanced workplace in the company blog could swing the decision of a potential recruits. Positive actions to promote diversity send a message to current employees, as well, opening doors and fueling conversations. Small investments with big payoffs.

What steps are you taking to build diversity in your organization? Send me a note and let's share the knowledge. 

Posted by Barb Levisay on October 05, 2017 at 10:10 AM0 comments


College Recruiting and Training Program Powers Partner Growth

While college students may be prepared for the technical aspects of consultancy, many partners hesitate to recruit employees directly out of school. Concerns about graduates' lack of business savvy and practical experience keep many partners from tapping the college market.

But to expand and diversify the workforce, both at the partner and channel levels, it's critical to bring in fresh talent, not just poach experienced consultants. One partner is supporting impressive growth through a repeatable college recruiting and training program that introduces eight to 10 young people to the consulting world each year.

Over the six years that Amber Rush has been visiting college campuses to recruit for her employer, HMB, a custom dev and consulting partner based in Columbus, Ohio, the company has grown from about 70 employees to more than 230 today. Each year, eight to 10 of those employees join the team from local colleges and prepare for the real world through HMB's Grad Academy program.

"The recruiting process for the Grad Academy, which is the program we hire for out of college, is really pretty simple," said Rush. "I visit college campuses this time of year, initially starting out in the fall. The main ones we hit up are all really in Ohio since all of our work is here in Columbus. We try to stay local since the consultants will be here in Columbus."

Accompanied by HMB consultants who have been through the process themselves, Rush attends career fairs at the colleges. "All of the different companies just set up their booths in the space and then the students walk around and chat with everyone," said Rush. "For the students that I had a good connection with and really liked and could see doing well here, I set up next-day interviews."

Those students who make it past the initial round are invited to HMB for technical interviews, meeting with several HMB consultants. A standard aptitude test is administered and then the decision to make an offer.

Building the diversity of the HMB team is always a goal of the recruiting efforts, and Rush depends on current employees to connect with college students. "Whenever we have women that have graduated from the school we are visiting, I try to take them," said Rush. "I think that definitely helps to draw in the other women."

Additional outreach to students includes working with organizations like Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) college chapters. "Outside of the career fairs, we do presentations and information nights with different groups," said Rush. "We recently did an information night with the [Ohio State University] ACMW, which is the women's chapter of their ACM club. We took a few different consultants and they each did some mini-level tech talks for the group. I think targeting specific groups, especially like the women's chapter of a specific sort of user group, is helpful."

Social media is an important component of the HMB recruiting effort. "College students love social media and they're plugged in to all of the different avenues. So, we're constantly Tweeting and posting to Facebook," said Rush. "We make sure when we're posting that we're using that appropriate hashtags, as well, so it comes up really easily for students. I definitely think that helps us be more visible to the students since they are so plugged in to all of the different social media avenues."

About 40 students will make it to HMB's technical interviews each year, with 15 to 18 offers typically made. About half of the students will accept offers to hit the eight-to-10 target mark for college hires each year. Making some progress with diversity, three of the eight students to go through the Grad Academy in 2016 were women.

HMB's Grad Academy is a three-week intensive training program that prepares students for work in the real world. "It's their first three weeks here at HMB, all taught by our senior consultants. Experts at what they do, living and breathing this every day," explained Rush. "It's a mix of technology and soft skills for the world of consulting to help them feel prepared to go to the client sites and start working on projects. Really a great transition from college to career to help them feel prepared, rather than just kind of throwing them to the wolves on a client site, to really help them focus."

The training is a selling point for recruitment efforts. "They're coming in with eight to 10 other folks at the same time, so they're all on the same playing field. It's nice for them to have that camaraderie of a whole group of grads coming out of school," said Rush. "Students often say, 'I think I learned more in that three weeks of training than I did in four years of school.'"

HMB's program demonstrates that college recruiting isn't only for the big consulting firms, and can deliver huge returns to every size organization. To build diversity in the channel, partners need to look to the next generation of tech employees. With a commitment to training of college recruits, partners can expand their workforce and ensure a strong future of the business with a young, balanced workforce.

How is your organization taking a creative approach to recruiting? Send me a note and let's share the knowledge.

Posted by Barb Levisay on September 20, 2017 at 11:09 AM0 comments


Women in Technology Group Promotes Male Perspective on Diversity

Panel discussions held to address the challenges of women and technology can be pretty predictable. Breaking the mold, one chapter of Women in Technology (WIT) is taking a creative approach to drive conversations that are as inclusive as the partner channel they envision. And as a side benefit, participants are likely to gain as much as they give.

For the past four years, the WIT special interest group of the Chicago chapter of the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners (IAMCP) has held a panel presentation, "The Male Perspective -- Women, IT and Leadership." The brain child of Sharan Hildebrand, vice president of sales at Capax Global LLC, the annual event takes a unique approach to the women-in-tech topic.

"It's a provocative title. It does sometimes spark, I wouldn't go as far as to say controversy, but people will roll their eyes and say, 'Really? Women in IT and you have like an all-male panel,'" said Hildebrand, who also serves as IAMCP's U.S. central region WIT chair. "I stay true to it and I think taking a provocative approach does pique people's interest. There's nothing garden variety about it."

The intention of the panel is to give men in IT the opportunity to share their experiences of working with, working for and leading teams that include women. Hildebrand identifies the three to five participants for each panel through the IAMCP network.

"They are hand-picked typically because we know that they have strong agendas or they're strong supporters of women in leadership and entrepreneurship," said Hildebrand. "So, it's typically a mix. We always have one or two people from Microsoft plus a number of male executives in the IT industry."

To avoid the standard panel discussion format where participants take turns answering the same question, Hildebrand interviews the panelists ahead of time to find the deeper stories that will deliver more impact.

"Some people talk about women that they work for, you know, lessons learned," explained Hildebrand. "Some interviewees have gone back to childhood and talked about how diversity inclusion and female influences have impacted them at a very early age. Some start at college, some start at their first career. I'll ask a bunch of open-ended questions, but I'm looking for something just meaty and delicious that we can turn into a lesson, or maybe even an 'a ha' moment for the audience."

One such story is documented in the thoughtful post, "'Women in Technology' Panel: I Learned More Than I Contributed," by John Simpson, CEO of One North Interactive, who shared his experience participating on one of the WIT panels. In preparation for the panel, Simpson met with a group of women from his company for an open conversation about their challenges and opportunities. As he details in the blog post, he learned much and was "absolutely floored" by some of the comments from the women.     

Awareness is only one of the outcomes the events are aimed to address. "There are takeaways we want people to have like, 'OK, well that's an interesting idea. Let me try that at my workplace. Or maybe it's a program that I need to be more aware of and let me suggest this to HR. Or maybe I just need to be more mindful,'" said Hildebrand. "If one person even has the idea and shares that idea with somebody else, it's a win in my opinion."

The "The Male Perspective -- Women, IT and Leadership" event has grown over the past four years with over 60 people attending the last session. The percentage of men in the audience has also grown from about 10 to 30 percent, reflecting the value of inclusive dialogue. Promoted through IAMCP to Chicago's greater tech community, the panel has become the premier annual event for the Chicago WIT chapter.

The success of the male perspective panel is likely to launch similar events in the fast-growing network of IAMCP WIT chapters around the globe. After successfully hitting their goal of 50 WIT chapters before July's Microsoft Inspire conference, an additional 16 chapters are in the process of forming.   

While there is no easy solution to the diversity challenges we face in the Microsoft partner community, putting all our heads together to solve those challenges together is the only way out. Programs that promote conversations from all perspectives will help point us in the right direction.

How are you promoting diversity in your business or community? Send me a note and let's share the knowledge.

Posted by Barb Levisay on August 31, 2017 at 8:26 AM0 comments


Channel Partnership Tackles Skills Gap with STEM Scholarship Fund

Finding and hiring skilled workers is a growth-inhibiting challenge for Microsoft partners -- and it's likely to get worse before it gets better. Based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Code.org estimates that by 2020, there will be 1 million more computing jobs than applicants who can fill them.

In an effort to help Microsoft partners bridge that daunting gap, the U.S. arm of the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners (IAMCP-US) has joined forces with Voices for Innovation (VFI) to launch a STEM scholarship fund. The IAMCP Rudy Rodriguez STEM Scholarship will award $2,500 scholarships to IAMCP-US members and their families in support of STEM-related, post-secondary school expenses.

"The original idea grew from work IAMCP-US is doing in conjunction with VFI, specifically around STEM education," said Randy Steinle, IAMCP-US president. "That work has been twofold. One is to support young people attending the many high schools in the country that still don't offer computer science classes. Secondly, we were looking at the issues around workforce training. Looking at re-educating the workforce to help fill some of the gaps."

The scholarship was named to honor IAMCP-US President Emeritus Rudy Rodriguez. "Rudy has always been involved in education and is very passionate about people having access," said Steinle. "It was a natural thing to marry this initiative that we're all pretty passionate about with honoring a person we're all pretty passionate about, and doing some good for the community."

IAMCP has engaged Scholarship America to administer the scholarship program to provide professional and objective management of the funds. Through professional administration, partner organizations will be able to take full advantage of opportunities like corporate matching. And to ensure scholarships are awarded objectively, Scholarship America will determine eligibility and select candidates based on the criteria set by the IAMCP-US scholarship committee.

The scholarship program was announced at this year's Microsoft Inspire conference in Washington, D.C., and target goals have already exceeded expectations.

"Our goal was to raise $7,500 to get this started and we have over $10,000," said Steinle. "In addition, we have significant commitments that will come in once the final paperwork is completed with Scholarship America to open the fund to the public. It's really been exciting."

"VFI has really gotten behind this effort because of the work that they're doing around STEM education, to provide access at all different levels," added Steinle. "From retraining veterans and access to computer science education in high schools, there's a lot of areas where VFI is making an impact."

VFI is a Microsoft-supported community of technology professionals and everyday Americans who help advance technology, IT job growth and businesses of all sizes. According to its Web site, the organization is 90,000 supporters strong and focused on four primary issues: computer science education, data privacy, TV white space and intellectual property. 

The organization provides educational resources, as well as guidance on active advocacy, like tools to help people compose e-mails to government representatives.

The IAMCP Rudy Rodriguez STEM Scholarship is a valuable benefit of membership in the organization and an important step in the right direction for the Microsoft partner channel. More initiatives like the scholarship are sorely needed to fill the growing skills gap that will have an increasing impact on the channel.

Is your organization taking creative steps to attract and train employees? Tell me about it and let's share the knowledge.

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Posted by Barb Levisay on August 10, 2017 at 3:27 PM0 comments