One Adviser’s Campaign for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: How GW&K and its Employees Built a Program that Works
May 13, 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.”
The Progress So Far
A major part of GW&K’s D&I initiative — and one of the most highly regarded among staff — is a mentorship program. The Mentoring Task Force started this program to “support the personal and professional growth of GW&K employees by facilitating mentoring relationships that provide opportunities for reflection, self-examination and teach practical leadership skills.”
Mentees gain the benefit of learning from a senior staff member who shares similar areas of interest and compatibility to help foster their own professional growth. For their part, mentors are helping to shape the next generation of financial professionals and the future of the company. GW&K created guides for both mentors and mentees and supported mentors to participate in leadership coaching to ensure that they are providing the best possible experience for their mentees.
The first six-month iteration of the program saw 22 pairs of mentors and mentees — about 25 percent of the staff — involved. The second session will kick off next month, meaning that in the first two years of the program, GW&K expects that nearly half of its staff will have participated.
The Education and Training Task Force, in collaboration with the affinity groups, launched a monthly speaker series. To date, speakers have led discussions on the LGBTQ+ community, gender and sexuality, religion, women’s leadership, and microaggressions — a series that has been highly attended and well-received.
COVID-19, of course, made volunteering tricky over the past year. But the GW&K Volunteering Task Force teamed up with a local nonprofit, the Greater Boston Food Bank, for a virtual fundraising drive. More than 60 percent of GW&K employees participated. Through their donations and a longtime GW&K corporate matching program, the team was able to raise almost $45,000 for the food bank, to provide nearly 130,000 meals to local families in need. The feedback on this opportunity was swift and clear: GW&K staff are already looking forward to volunteering more and are excited to add in-person events once it’s safe to do so.
For GW&K, and many other firms, hiring is likely to be the area where progress moves somewhat slower due to an extremely low turnover rate — so, accordingly, the demographics of its staff change slowly. However, the Hiring Task Force, led by its head of Human Resources, is working on policies and procedures changes that Collins describes as “doing the groundwork now for things that may not come to fruition until later,” but which are still a critical piece of their work.
Specifically, the firm is working on building relationships with recruiters and other organizations dedicated to representing underrepresented minorities, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the National Society of Hispanic MBAs and other local organizations and schools, to identify potential candidates. Building these relationships is critical, because as Fernandes notes, “Our industry is largely white and male, and if you don’t make a targeted effort to hire a diverse staff, you won’t.” While the firm is not mandating diverse hires or setting a quota, it does suggest looking at the makeup of the broader population as you begin to set goals for internal diversity at all levels.
GW&K Partner and General Counsel Lewis Collins says clients are increasingly showing an interest in how the firm is promoting diversity and inclusion and reaching out to ask about the firm’s work in this area.
Evaluation and Next Steps
When launching new initiatives like GW&K’s D&I work, it’s important to routinely check in on effectiveness and progress. To that end, the team completed a survey this month to collect feedback on their efforts so far.
Recognizing that some statistics will be slower to change, such as the diversity of staff, the team identified other data points that indicate progress along the way. For example, GW&K looked at the number of participants in mentorship, volunteer, and education activities and subjective feedback on those events. So far, the feedback has been positive, though they noted that constructive feedback or disagreement is also helpful to identify any parts of their work that may miss the mark. GW&K and the firm’s CEO, Harold G. Kotler, are also a recent signatory to the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion initiative (www.ceoaction.com), in support of advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.
Collins shared that GW&K’s clients are increasingly showing an interest in how the firm is promoting D&I and reaching out to ask about the firm’s work in this area. The team has created a public webpage to summarize their commitment to D&I objectives and goals that staff are encouraged to share with clients and potential new hires. According to Collins, this also ensures that “we always have a consistent message and are saying the truth — not embellishing the facts to please others.”
Additionally, the firm is taking a look at its external partners and vendors to identify their efforts to promote D&I as well, and encouraging them to create their own plans if they aren’t already working on one.
Tips from GW&K
For other firms that are interested in developing their own D&I initiatives, Fernandes and Collins offer some advice.
- Start with a survey to find out what your staff see and experience on a daily basis. From those results, find a starting core group of people for whom the culture is extremely important to build the initiative’s foundation.
- Be wary of off-the-shelf solutions, which may not exactly fit your culture or specific areas of need. Collins notes, “For every firm, this work will take its own form — there is no one size fits all solution.”
- Even though initiatives should fit your firm, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. “Draw on other firms for ideas that have worked for them. The IAA Exchange, where IAA members can speak to each other about topics like D&I and have access to some excellent materials produced by the IAA and its members, are extraordinarily valuable resources,” said Collins.
- Know that it’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s okay to not know what you’re doing all of the time so long as you operate with a pure heart and conviction in your purpose. “Embrace mistakes — nobody does this perfectly. If there are no mistakes, someone’s not being honest,” said Fernandes.
- To set yourself up to be truly representative and equitable, Fernandes says that companies should “consider who’s not at the table” — and make changes accordingly.
And finally, though Collins and Fernandes said they didn’t encounter much, be prepared for pushback from some staff. Some employees do not think the workplace is the right space for education on social issues.
As Fernandes said, “In order to have a successful D&I initiative, you have to prepare the culture.” It’s important to set some ground rules to help mitigate this pushback and create a culture of change. For example, Collins noted, “Different people have different levels of tolerance for the range of speakers we bring in, but we ask them to go into it with an open mind regardless.”
Fernandes agreed, saying, “It’s natural that in any group there are always going to be different approaches to growth – and there will be people who don’t want to grow. But, we made it clear that you can have your own opinions, but disrespect won’t be tolerated. Respect is a boundary. If they come with curiosity, there is a place for everybody. But there’s no space for disrespect.”
Collins and Fernandes recommend that every firm take a look at what it can be doing internally to promote D&I. Because as Collins notes, “Diversity makes us a stronger firm.”