The Roundtable for Learning Leaders community experienced a powerful session in late November, during which Optum’s Enterprise Training team shared how their unique approach to inclusion and diversity was creating transformation within their organization. We wanted to follow up with Mary Beth “MB” Dondelinger, VP, Optum Enterprise Training, and her team to see how things are going in 2022.

The work that you and your team shared at the end of November last year felt important and necessary, providing space for real and open conversations that touched on so many topics related to inclusion and diversity. We’d like to begin by asking, how are things going in 2022? How does this work continue to grow and evolve?

Thank you for that – and for the forum to share the approach.  We appreciate Fredrickson!  We’ve jumped into the new year with both feet…we have a full list of topics suggested by the team for our monthly discussions (e.g., Immigrant Experience, Aging, Pandemic Impacts, etc.).  We work at staying relevant – we can and will easily flex topics based on what’s going on in the world. The team has expanded the after-hours group sessions on topics where individuals found they had a need to continue and best of all, we are doggedly pursuing ways to further incorporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) into our learner experience. 

We strive to create materials that represent everyone in the world – we’re getting pretty good at it! We have integrated these goals into our MBOs, measuring our team’s interest and participation, and tracking our progress with regard to Identity Inclusion and learner accessibility.  Several Optum Operations businesses have reached out to learn about our approach and are in the process of adopting it with our help, especially during the initial, somewhat uncomfortable stages.

This was a big initiative—the kind that can be difficult to not only get off the ground but sustain within the organization. We’ve heard about how you and your team moved forward decisively to make this happen, however, we’d like to ask what advice you might give to other learning leaders to sustain efforts like this?

Great question.  I have given this a lot of thought since the Roundtable.  A very important part of ensuring that teams not only start, but continue the program is having the right people.  Like a lot of things, gaining the investment of key players is imperative.  For this program, I’d suggest a few things: demonstrate investment by team leadership, offer well-executed events, and provide ongoing opportunities to keep the conversation “in the water.”

  • Demonstrated investment by team leadership – model the program to the entire team.  Break the ice – show your team your commitment to this. Show them that by opening with a meaty, difficult topic, right out of the gate.  Demonstrate to team that you mean business.  This isn’t just something to check the box on Inclusion & Diversity training…this is real, it is here to stay.
  • Execution – ensure that the administration of the monthly all team sessions and small group conversations (or whatever model you choose) is well executed, consistent, and on time.  Do not cancel or reschedule.  Communicate ahead of time, identify your small group captains and provide them with what they need to get conversations going and make people feel safe discussing these personal topics.  Own the entire process and ensure it is well-run – but do NOT make this a “top-down” program.  Find 2-3 employee champions who have a genuine passion to champion this ongoing.  You start it, you demonstrate your investment…but then let it become an employee-driven, employee-owned process.  Behind the scenes, ensure it’s going in the direction you desire. 
  • Ongoing opportunities to plug in within and beyond our team – this isn’t a “set it and forget it” initiative. It’s in the water – not because we host a monthly meeting – but because of the ways our team engages OUTSIDE of those meetings to perform with a DE&I lens. There are ways for the team to engage, lead, and bring meaning contributions to ensure program sustainability.

Initially, keep the group to just your team.  We kept our first few months within our team.  A team of 350 people isn’t exactly small and intimate, but discussions like this really create that feeling of closeness, honesty and affection for each other.  Build that up, grow trust in the structure.  We realize this is a big group – we created small group discussions to supplement and give everyone the chance to discuss in a more personalized setting (8-10 people). 

When the time feels right, invite an expert in now and then.  We brought in experts on topics such as Mental Health, Indigenous People, Intersectionality and Men’s Health over the past year.  We do not alter our format…we simply invite the experts to the table to listen, share and advise.  It’s been very well received.  Of course, we do take time to do background research on all of our topics, and when we invite experts, we validate their credibility, etc.  Bringing in experts, who will often donate their time for free, drives credibility and varying perspectives, which contributes to knowledge and learning across the team.

We talked about surprising or intangible benefits during the session that stemmed from creating something like this in the workplace. Now that a couple more months have gone by, are there any other big takeaways here you’d care to share?

The most impactful thing I’ve witnessed is growth in the confidence of the team members most heavily involved.  Each one of them has stepped out of their comfort zones – they’ve taken risks, they’ve extended themselves.  That’s not just the people who participated in the Roundtable – I’m seeing it across the team.  People are speaking up, telling leadership what they need, both in terms of what we can do better and also in support of their own career goals. People are bringing their “best selves” to work. That individual confidence grows from knowing that they have our support, that the team will be honest in our feedback, and that we are invested in them. 

When you think about it, knowing someone is there for you – has your back…that often allows people to go further, take a risk, push themselves.  I trust my team completely – – I hope and believe that they know that they can trust me and our entire leadership team.  A few topic-specific employee survey metrics really demonstrate the impact: 

  • “Where I work, leaders create an environment where employees feel safe raising difficult issues”  89% (up 5 points in 6 months)
  • “I can be myself at work” 92% (up 4 points in 6 months)

Has this work, or will this work, integrate into more formal DE&I training at Optum? How does it fit in with what else the Optum Enterprise Training team is doing, and what role do you think it plays in a broader training strategy?

DE&I at UnitedHealth Group and Optum is real.  It’s visible and available.  There are investments in overall learning systems for teams and for individuals.  There are communities, resources and tools to make it real.  Our approach complements the overall enterprise approach – we make it more personalized and we discuss difficult topics.  I think that knowing that the company is dedicated to change made us feel like we could push boundaries. 

At the beginning, I’d say we pushed a bit harder and moved more quickly – but UHG is a 300,000+ employee enterprise.  Naturally, that will take longer.  We were a little bit nervous at the beginning, but to be honest, we just dove in and decided that if there were repercussions, so be it.  And there have not been any repercussions…just the opposite.  Maybe part of it is that a lot of Trainers are “people-people” and change ambassadors – as a whole, our profession takes pride in connecting with others and making a difference. DE&I focus plays a huge role in a broader training strategy for this very reason.

You seem to have found a recipe for success for tackling tough topics within the workplace—something that can be scary to many organizations. What advice would you give to organizations on the fence about something like this? Why should they take the leap?

I can’t tell you how amazing the impact has been.  The team has found its soul.  Team members are closer.  People are more trusting and transparent.  Confidence shines out of people.  Our employee experience survey results have been amazing.  But more than that, it’s a feeling…an atmosphere.  A sense of family – a knowledge that people care about you beyond just the job.  This type of conversation transcends into personal lives and within the communities where we live.  

It is my hope and belief that we are aligned to the broader societal movements of authenticity/bringing your whole self, and the inherent benefits that provides, such as reflecting the diversity of those your organization serves; increased understanding leads to more collaboration, innovation and better outcomes, etc.  Take the leap – for your teams.  Be the difference for them – it’s turned into more than we could have ever hoped. 

We’ve seen the following shifts since the May 2021 survey:

  • Employee Experience – up 5.4%
  • Employee Commitment – up 8.4%
  • Manager Effectiveness – up 7.8%
  • Comfort Expressing Concerns – up 14.2%

Thank you to MB Dondelinger and her Enterprise Training Team at Optum for their time presenting at the Roundtable for Learning Leaders, and for their thoughtful responses to these follow up questions!

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