How courageous conversations advance diversity and inclusion

The benefits of diversity and inclusion are much talked about. We particularly seem to like dropping stats with famous pedigrees. McKinsey says companies with racial diversity are 35% more likely to outperform peers. A Harvard Business Review study finds that that the most diverse companies are also the most innovative. But data alone doesn’t drive change; people do. Which is why one very data-centric company, Nielsen, is so invested in making the data dots connect via the kind of human-centered thought leadership that only comes through conversation.

I recently sat down with Cheryl Grace, Senior Vice President of Strategic Community Alliances and Consumer Engagement, to explore how and why Nielsen invests in what she calls the creation of “courageous conversations.” Watch the video for a quick introduction, then read the full interview that follows.



Chuck Kent:  First of all, would you describe your role at Nielsen?

Cheryl Grace:  I manage a team of thought leaders who actually specialize in multicultural consumers and we spend a lot of our time starting conversations with C- suite executives and everyday consumers about the importance of understanding the impact that multicultural consumers bring to the U.S. economy. It’s important for both consumers and brands to understand this, simply because there’s so much power in how African Americans spend their time and money. We work specifically on educating brands, marketers, advertisers, and consumers, on African American consumers, Latinx consumers, as well as Asian American consumers.

CK:  I know that thought leadership is a big part of your job, both personally and in terms of guiding the organization. How do you define thought leadership in your context?

CG: For us, it is starting those courageous conversations that lend insights into the data that we have, so that marketers and brands can understand how to not just interpret the numbers, but how those numbers actually interpret the actions of consumers – the why behind the numbers.

So, thought leadership for us is taking personal experiences, stories, best case scenarios, best practices, and highlighting how those consumption habits or behaviors were influenced by cultural nuances and how they can be changed, or how consumers can be better connected with, once you understand exactly who they are and why they make the decisions to buy or watch.

Thought leadership is “starting those courageous conversations that lend insights into the data”

CK:  A lot of thought leadership and content marketing tries to be data-centric and informed by insights, but you work for an honest to goodness insights company. How does that impact your approach to thought leadership?

CG: It’s all about a human connection. So, for example, if I were to say that, “African Americans make more shopping trips to grocery stores than any other consumer segment,” and gave you the numbers behind that, but not the why, then it would be a little bit difficult for you to adjust your strategies accordingly.

But what if I say, “One of the reasons that they make more trips to grocery stores is because there aren’t a lot of grocery stores in urban neighborhoods and public transportation is often the way that African American consumers are getting to those grocery stores.” Then you start to understand why there are more frequent trips – because you can’t carry as much with you on a subway, or a bus, or a train.

And so, starting from a retailer’s perspective, you might think, “Maybe I can build more stores in those communities.” From a manufacturing perspective it becomes, “Maybe my package sizing should be a little bit different in those urban communities, because they can get more in a bag if the packages are smaller.” So, you actually are able to start putting strategies together with the insights, because of the stories behind the numbers.

CK:  Your LinkedIn profile mentions that you are “spearheading conversations.” Since you used the phrase “courageous conversations” a minute ago, I’m wondering exactly what kind of conversations you’re having?

CG: Our conversations are all very different and unique, but I think they all have one thing in common: we address the F word, fear.

A lot of conversations about diversity and inclusion don’t address fear. And what you have to keep in mind is that when someone is afraid to ask a question because of how they’ll be perceived by that question, then questions are left on the table unanswered, unspoken, and then assumptions get made. And once assumptions are made you sometimes end up with marketing strategies or commercials that are way off point, off kilter if you will, and it’s all because someone was afraid to either say, “Hey, do you think this would really resonate with this particular demo?” Or, someone was afraid to suggest, “You know what guys? I’m not sure this is really the right direction that we should be taking this ad. Maybe we can rethink it.” When you eliminate that fear and you can have those courageous conversations you’re not left with assumptions – you’re left with honest dialogue that can help move the needle forward.

A lot of conversations about diversity and inclusion don’t address fear.

CK: How do those conversations shape up in a practical sense? What types of conversation settings are you having – groups, presentations, one-on-one consulting, all of the above?

CG: All of the above. We start our conversations with our clients either in their office space or in a larger conference environment, where we have been bought in to specifically talk about diversity. That might mean multiculturalism, or it might be specifically about Asian Americans, African Americans, or the Latinx community.

One of the things that I love to say whenever we’re having these conversations, whether they’re in the office space of our clients to an audience of five or ten, or at a conference with a thousand-plus people, is, “Let’s make sure you understand this is a safe space. There’s no question that you can’t ask me. There’s no question that I am going to assume makes you look ignorant or makes you look uninformed.” Because if you have those fears you’re not going to ask the tough questions. You’ll walk out no better than when you came in.

CK:  In a conversation, a literal human-to-human exchange, you obviously have the opportunity to build trust inter-personally. But what other kinds of thought leadership do you use when you’re not physically with someone, to help you build that kind of trust? Are there other sorts of thought leadership content that’s up to the task?

CG: Digital is everything now. And so, whether it’s audio digital or whether it’s video digital it really works, because it offers people an opportunity to listen on a platform that is convenient to them from a time perspective. We find podcasts are very helpful. Radio interviews are still great of course. And then just videos themselves, like this opportunity, give us a chance to connect with various audiences across the globe.

CK:  So, then, are you actually letting people eavesdrop on a conversation via your other content then?

CG: I don’t know if I would call it ease dropping – or from where I’m from it’s called ear hustling. I don’t know if I would call it ear hustling, but it is an opportunity for anyone not in the room to have access to that same dialogue – because we think it’s important for everyone to know more about diversity and inclusion.

If I’m just talking at you, we’re not having a conversation

CK:  Do you prefer a conversational format like an interview over, say, someone simply delivering a point of view?

CG:  I love conversations, because it’s the dialogue – where you can ask and receive information, and process that information – that allows you to have a courageous conversation. But if I’m just talking at you, we’re not having a conversation, so neither one of us is really being courageous.

For more of Cheryl Grace’s insights, read “4 ways CEOs can make diversity come alive” in CEO World magazine.


About the Author 
Chuck Kent, the Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation,  uses a video-first content creation method to help busy executives more easily create authentic, compelling thought leadership content – and to lead industry conversations. He is a writer, brand strategist, content creator and expert interviewer. Chuck is also a contributor to CEO World, Sustainable Brands, Convince and Convert and Branding Magazine, for which he created the monthly Branding Roundtable.

Lead the Conversation is an executive content creation service that makes it easier for busy top management to develop authentic, compelling thought leadership content, such as videos, bylined articles and blog posts. We also create opportunities for conversation leadership, such as interview series and other forums.
Lead the Conversation provides a practical way to develop authentic thought leadership content for busy executives. We also help the C-Suite create and lead industry conversations, to which they can invite other leaders, turning prospects into relationships.

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