Starting a Diversity Journey: The Wealthspire Story
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While our firm, Wealthspire Advisors, intentionally prioritizes a strong corporate culture to foster sustainable long-term business outcomes, our efforts in the realm of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) have been limited and primarily focused on the recruitment and advancement of women without regard to race or ethnicity.
As we have continued to grow both organically and inorganically, an all-company Zoom call showed a sea of white faces; our lack of racial and ethnic diversity became increasingly evident. Our leadership team and local offices recognized the issue and started to think about how to use our deepening resources to better understand the gap and find solutions to address it.
Then, when the world gasped in collective horror at the murder of George Floyd, many of us were awakened to long-standing and deep racial injustices. The need to improve DEIB became far more real and urgent at every level at Wealthspire. Many employees expressed their concern about the problem and a passion for being part of the solution.
As a result, a more intentional and sustainable vision for change at Wealthspire took form.
The importance of belonging
A sense of belonging is critical. Last year, our CEO, Mike LaMena, found and shared a valuable online training course led by Pat Wadors, a human resources professional and LinkedIn instructor. This course focused on the critical and fundamental role of the need for a sense of belonging – a hard-wired human need that is woven into all everyday experiences. We came to understand that without a feeling of belonging, employees show up with their hands and feet, but without their hearts and minds. While productivity is driven by engagement, engagement is driven by a sense of being truly appreciated in a community as your unique and total self. An organization is great because of its people, and that greatness is only fully harnessed if people feel that they belong. And in a world where you can pursue your work from anywhere, where employees show up only virtually due to pandemic restrictions, a sense of true belonging is even more important.
Separately, our parent firm, NFP, launched a program focused on strengthening allyship throughout the larger organization. The program included a series of training courses available to all Wealthspire employees on topics such as unconscious bias, how to critically examine potentially harmful assumptions and look for new ways to think in the face of established practices.
We envisioned a path forward that would consist of far more than a single diversity program or policy, but instead a holistic approach to cultivating and strengthening a feeling of belonging for every employee and embedding DEIB into all aspects of our work. Although belonging is hard to measure, without an authentic cultural emphasis on belonging, other DEIB metrics have less meaning and will fall short. That’s why we put belonging at the forefront of our DEIB efforts; it became our cultural north star.
What DEIB means at Wealthspire
With belonging as the end goal, the definition of diversity at Wealthspire became quite broad. Our vision was to create not just more ethnic and racial diversity, but diversity, equity and inclusion across multiple dimensions, with representation that reflects our immense multicultural society. It means embracing the lived experiences of people who identify as women, LGBTQ+, veterans, people with disabilities, as well as across the age spectrum. And it goes beyond representation of differences; it is about the inclusion of disparate voices and perspectives. It’s been said that diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance. We know that diversity is the path to developing better ideas and making better decisions in a way that is robust and sustainable, where successful leaders use a bottom-up model and where everyone has a voice at the table.
From the bottom and at the top
As we charted a path forward, we looked to learn from the people and organizations that were already much further along in their DEIB journeys, both from their successes and their challenges. At some firms, the human resources team is charged with leading DEIB efforts. But we wanted a different model. Fully integrated outcomes are best facilitated when both ownership and accountability are shared throughout the organization at all levels. That’s why we reviewed and updated our strategic initiatives to reflect our intention to define and execute DEIB initiatives. Among our key priorities as a firm is the creation of a consistent “Wealthspire Experience,” anchored in the goal of reinforcing shared values to create the feeling of a truly unified firm. One of the ways we do this is by calling out when those values are demonstrated in our everyday interactions with one another.
We encourage employees to give feedback to one another using the common language of our values, including at regular, all-company town hall meetings, where we make time to share stories that recognize our values in action. By intentionally calling out in real and specific terms how our colleagues demonstrate the values toward which we strive, we aim to strengthen and deepen those principles. We intend to draw upon this established framework to help us make DEIB a visible and important part of our corporate culture.
Organizing our efforts
A key step in our journey was to establish a dedicated DEIB committee, made up of employees who volunteered to lead the effort along with our CEO and our president. This group, which represents more than 10% of our employee count, has been empowered by its charter to be a change agent, to influence and make decisions, and to own the creation and development of initiatives.
The committee is organized into three subcommittees that reflect the key areas that will drive progress, create more equitable opportunities within our organization, support our communities and better serve our clients:
Focuses on the critical and foundational education needed to support all other DEIB initiatives. Efforts include researching, sourcing and implementing various training resources that help employees do the hard work of both learning and unlearning, and making commitments to bring about real change.
Looks at all charitable efforts through a DEIB lens. We seek to ensure existing community work aligns with our DEIB goals, as well as to uncover new opportunities to support nonprofit organizations that endeavor to create a more just and equitable society.
Aims to attract and retain a more diverse employee population. Focuses include creating a more diverse talent pipeline, implementing more equitable hiring processes, and building mentorship programs in collaboration with our parent company.
Each subcommittee was given authority and funding to move forward with initiatives that fit within their budget. For example, the learning/training committee engaged an external specialist firm to conduct an inclusion assessment and our volunteer/philanthropic team is working through details with a national charitable organization. In addition, a steering committee was formed to address the anticipated issues of budgeting, governance and supporting all the efforts of the subcommittees.
Measure, report, ask
We can’t improve what we can’t measure. That’s why we use our business intelligence dashboard, Microsoft PowerBI, to capture age, length of service and self-reported ethnicity and gender data on all current employees. We have been tracking the data only since 2019, but we can point to some small steps forward in those two years: Today, one-third (33%) of our 61 financial advisors are female, compared to an industry average of only 18%, and people of color now make up 20% of the Wealthspire workforce, an increase of 6.2% since we started tracking.
In addition to tracking the progress we’ve already made, we wanted to identify and measure efforts we can make that will result in a more diverse workforce. That’s why we expanded our metrics platform to include diversity data for new hires, employee retention, pay equity, and promotion data.
By tracking those leading indicators, we can go beyond snapshot measures to generate actionable insight that will allow us to pursue our goal of creating a work environment that is truly more equitable. And while one year doesn’t equate to a sustained, long-term effort, we are off to a good start. From November 2020 to November 2021, for people of color, our hire rate increased by 10.9%, our promotion rate increased by 4.4%, and our termination rate decreased by 23.9%. Beyond our own walls, we’re looking more closely at the diversity of our vendors and business partners. We recently revised the RFPs we use to select portfolio managers, adding questions about the numbers of women and minorities across the firm, as well as representation on the leadership team, the board of directors and in investment manager roles. Good investment decisions are made by diverse groups. And we hope that by demonstrating our interest in their efforts, these questions will shine a light on this important issue, and encourage managers to, in turn, start asking themselves how they can advance DEIB in their own organizations.
In addition, our parent company is putting into place a formal supplier-diversity program to enable us and our sister firms to provide a better client experience, potentially lower costs, and add value to the communities where we work, through access to a wider range of products and services. As part of this program, they will look to help more firms get certified as women- and minority-owned, and leverage mutually beneficial business relationships by making referrals to other areas of the firm.
We can’t do it alone
A key challenge we have identified as we continue to pursue DEIB work is that privilege itself can be an impediment to empathy. Without the lived experience of a society conceived for and by others, it’s impossible to truly feel what it’s like to be someone else. Despite the lofty goal of embracing everyone’s identity and humanity, we need to maintain a good dose of humility to recognize that we don’t – and simply can’t – see without bias. To be successful, we need to seek and heed the input of those with the experience and insight to help us approach DEIB thoughtfully and avoid missteps.
We’re being purposeful about engaging with a range of organizations in the financial industry, including our parent company NFP, the CFP Board, and the Financial Planning Association (FPA), as well as other companies embarking on their own DEIB journeys. We’re actively supporting their work in this area and benefitting from their experience. Even the most well-intentioned companies will likely fail to see real impact from DEIB programs that aren’t designed to address the unique problems their employees face. We were are deliberate and thoughtful about the changes we make to ensure they match our company’s specific needs.
Taking that guidance to heart, we’ve sought to gain deeper awareness about Wealthspire’s specific issues and opportunities. Although self-reflection is important, we knew we needed an objective third-party to help us identify the things we might not be seeing for ourselves. We recently contracted with a DEIB specialist firm, Aleria Research, that focuses on measuring inclusion in the workplace, to help us gain a deep understanding of where we are. Armed with that insight, we’ll be better equipped to establish clear objectives, identify relevant metrics, and build our DEIB programs around those goals. We expect their survey results will expose some issues we can address ourselves – by changing internal processes or communication.
But we also expect that they may recommend bringing in outside resources, such as facilitators with skills we don’t currently have in-house, to conduct specialized education or coaching programs. We are eager to determine what additional training may be needed so we can start to address our shortcomings head on and prioritize a sense of belonging among our staff.
Looking forward with hope and humility
As we’ve been looking at the world – and ourselves – through a DEIB lens, we’ve noticed how small efforts make a big difference. Like a lot of firms, we embraced video conferencing during the pandemic lockdown. We found that seeing the faces of our colleagues, especially those we’d usually interacted with just by phone, allows for conversations that leave us all feeling a little more connected across different locations around the country.
We have an ambitious goal. We envision a work community where equity is the standard, where all our people feel appreciated for their differences and valued in their entirety, where different perspectives are embraced, and where everyone feels a sense of belonging. We know we are still in the very early stages of this journey. Unraveling hundreds of years of racial disparity that has been woven into the fabric of our business and into the larger society is going to take a lot of time and effort. We have many challenges ahead, but we’re committed to the hard work – and to learning a lot along the way. At Wealthspire, we envision a future different from the past, and we are excited about working towards making it a reality.
Laura Barry is a managing director, and Crystal Cox is senior vice president at Wealthspire Advisors.