One Adviser’s Campaign for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion:
How GW&K and its Employees Built a Program that Works
May 12, 2021
“Having diverse perspectives is fundamental to good decision-making — and diversity is essential to a company’s success,” Diamond Hill Capital Management’s General Counsel Carlotta King told attendees at the 2021 IAA Investment Adviser Compliance Conference in March, expressing a sentiment that is rapidly gaining currency in corporate and government policy circles.
But King also noted, in a session called Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Investment Management Industry, that while the financial industry is having conversations about diversity, there’s a lag in long-term commitments on which firms can be held accountable.
The latest research – including a new study by the IAA and the research firm Cerulli Associates – bears out her statement. Some progress is being made. But the financial services industry still has a lot of work to do.
One IAA member that’s already well on its way toward making real, lasting changes is Boston-headquartered GW&K Investment Management. Two years into a formal diversity program, the firm is seeing tangible results.
Nuno Fernandes, partner and equity portfolio manager at GW&K, explained that “Our firm had instinctively already been run as a diverse firm with a lot of the principles of D&I built into our culture, thanks to co-founder and current CEO and CIO Harold Kotler, who has always valued diversity.”
But in 2019, GW&K recognized that it needed to do more and began to think through an official diversity and inclusion (D&I) plan. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, its associated challenges slowed down progress on some initiatives across the firm, including on D&I. But the disparate impacts of the pandemic, and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor shortly after, underscored the fact that this work couldn’t wait and reignited the company’s efforts.
Setting the Stage
The first step of their process was a company-wide anonymous survey to identify what staff saw as priorities for D&I within the firm, to hear about any relevant experiences that employees might have had, to collect ideas for the structure of a D&I initiative, and to offer a call for volunteers to help lay the groundwork for the initiative. The response to the survey was an impressive 97 percent of employees, and the feedback they received helped solidify a direction for their work.
Lewis Collins, partner and general counsel, explained, “In the survey, people said by and large that we’ve created a cohesive and welcoming work environment. But, in the past, there had been isolated incidents of comments that were perceived as sexist or racist or otherwise unacceptable in an equitable organization. Hearing the past feedback allowed us to go back to our employees and say ‘we hear you,’ and clarify that our values require inclusivity at all times within and outside our firm — and that’s not negotiable.”
Based on the results of the survey, GW&K developed a formal policy to promote diversity and inclusion through three primary avenues: (1) education, (2) resources, and (3) recruiting and engagement, and created a D&I Committee, which Fernandes and Collins volunteered to oversee, to lead the work. In addition to the D&I Committee, there are three affinity groups — designated spaces for members to voice their opinions and help the company’s leadership understand the group’s unique perspective: LGBTQ Alliance, People of Color Network, and Women in Finance, as well as four task forces: Hiring, Mentoring, Education and Training, and Volunteering.
The 16-member D&I Committee reviews GW&K’s policies, procedures, employee benefits, professional opportunities, hiring processes, and other matters relating to the firm’s business. In conjunction with the task forces and affinity groups, they also find opportunities to make an impact in their local community by supporting nonprofit organizations working in the diversity and inclusion space.
Any employee of the firm may join the D&I Committee and any or all of the task forces or affinity groups. Currently, there are more than 70 staff participating in one or more of these groups — almost 50 percent of the firm. Staff are encouraged to participate as long as they continue to be passionate about the work. However, the leadership of each affinity group or task force serves a two-year term with a six-month transition period to ensure both continuity of work and diversity in leadership and ideas. According to Fernandes, this approach was also designed to "empower the employees to have an impact on the culture."
Fernandes also explained that employees expressed a desire to “create a structure where people working on their group’s mission could do so independently and avoid bottlenecks.” To that end, each group operates under the principles of “holacracy,” which empowers the members to own and creatively design the mission, objectives, goals, and action items of their group.
GW&K Partner and Equity Portfolio Manager Nuno Fernandes:
“Our industry is largely white and male, and if you don’t make a targeted effort to hire a diverse staff, you won’t."
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TAGS: Diversity & Inclusion, Business Operations, Human Resources